Review: The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves is the 7th Vera Stanhope Mystery.

Which is more compelling to readers of criminal investigation stories? Is it the modus operandi of the investigators (particularly their leader) or the unraveling of a crime? 

The Moth Catcher constantly shifts between personalities and procedures. When Patrick Randle—a young ecologist moonlighting as a house-sitter for the Carswell family at their Northumberland estate—is found dead by the side of a lonely lane, Detective Inspector Vera is tapped to solve the crime.

Vera is brilliant, flawed, the smartest person in the room, an unglamorous woman wedded to her career, and a boss to be proud of. That said, her co-workers know her foibles, as when crime-scene manager Billy Cartwright says to her after taping off the murder scene:

“You here already, Vera?” Cartwright said. “There’s something ghoulish about the pleasure you take in your work.”

The Moth Catcher starts simply and slowly with a young man dead in a ditch, accidentally discovered when Percy, an older man answering a call of nature, was strolling home from the village pub. But it quickly gathers steam as another body is discovered in Patrick’s bedroom. Ann Cleeves spotlights Vera’s patient, ruminative approach. Vera is an excellent observer: she deliberately slows down the pace of investigation so that she can absorb every detail. Her colleague Joe Ashworth rails a little at her approach, wishing they could just get on with it.

“Where did our victim live then?” Joe was getting impatient, but Vera didn’t mind taking her time over this stage of the investigation. It was getting the feel of the place. Like setting a scene in a story. You learned a lot about people from the place they lived, and the Carswells might have been halfway around the world when this man was killed, but he was staying in their house.

When the second victim is discovered in Patrick’s attic bedroom—“a civil servant of a man,” older, wearing spectacles—Vera starts to feel excited. Why?

Because this was a new case that was different from anything she’d ever worked before. Two bodies, connected but not lying together. And nothing made her feel as alive as murder.

And nothing is more satisfactory than solving murders—as much as Vera might prefer to be with the search team out in the valley or gently interrogating Percy, she curbs her impatience as she observes Patrick’s autopsy. She instinctively draws on the multi-faceted talents of her team to gather clues, as, knowing Holly’s familiarity with garments, she lobs a question to DC Holly: 

“Can we tell the sort of chap he was by what he’s wearing?” 

“I’m not sure. Waxed jacket, Barbour. That wouldn’t be cheap. It’s a good-quality shirt, but something that an older man might wear in the country…On top of that, a jumper. Round-necked. Hand-knitted.”

Since Vera hadn’t noticed that, she pays particular attention to the rest of Holly’s sartorial analysis. Vera’s collegial leadership allows for the varied talents of her staff to pursue tangents that she might have missed. 

The mystery unfolds much like spreading circles on the surface of a pond when its tranquility is disturbed by a pebble. The grand Carswell estate, the simple cottages of the villagers, and, discordantly, the upscale, up-market retirement homes of three older couples on the edge of the village all have a part to play in a complex and absorbing plot. From how moths are caught at night to the state of her Majesty’s women’s prisons, seemingly extraneous topics and occurrences are deftly woven together as Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope meticulously uncovers the why and wherefore of the murders. 

The 7th Vera Stanhope mystery whets one’s appetite for the next in the series—and to go backwards to the earlier volumes. And what a pleasure to discover that there is a British crime drama series based on Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope novels.  The series, Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope, will release its 7th season in 2017. 


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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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