“I decided I’d have a door burst open and see who came through. In came Vera Stanhope almost fully formed ...”
Like other American fans of British mystery writer Ann Cleeves, I was introduced to her world through the PBS-based mystery series “Vera.” Title character Vera Stanhope, played by the marvelous British actress Brenda Blethyn, is a middle-aged woman whose baggy dresses, rubber boots and hunting vests camouflage an iron will. She lives alone on a windswept Northumberland hill in the ramshackle house of her dead father. She has a taste for whiskey and a temper that can strike like a snake.
And she’s a brilliant crime solver who runs a crackerjack police investigative unit in a fictional Northeast England town — like all great detectives, Vera is utterly loyal to the victims and committed to tracking down their murderers.
Now Cleeves’ American publisher is introducing both Cleeves’ Vera series and another featuring Jimmy Perez, a police detective in the Shetland Islands, with the simultaneous U.S. publication of “The Crow Trap,” the first “Vera” book, and “Cold Earth,” the latest in a series featuring Perez, about a deadly landslide in the Shetlands that almost buries evidence of murder.
Ann Cleeves will discuss her books at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, 2017, at Seattle’s University Book Store. Free (206-634-3400; ubookstore.com). The “Vera” television series is available on PBS and on Acorn TV; “Shetland” episodes can be streamed on Amazon.
Cleeves, author of 30 books, appears at the University Book Store on April 20 — she answered questions via email about her varied life and her long and productive (30 books) literary career:
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Q: Both Vera and Jimmy Perez are loners. Was that because the lone wolf fits so well in the classic mystery scheme, or is it that, despite having a large family (six grandkids), there’s a bit of a loner in you?
A: I’m not sure that I’m a loner — though I’m grateful to squeeze some time and space to write — but I’m certainly more of an observer than a participant. I think that’s true of most authors.
The characters developed rather differently. “The Crow Trap,” the first Vera novel, started out as a psychological stand-alone book. I never intended to have a detective as a central character. But I got stuck with the story about a third of the way in…I decided I’d have a door burst open and see who came through. In came Vera Stanhope almost fully formed…. she looked more like a bag lady than a detective.
… I was born in the mid-’50s, and there were a number of women in our small town who’d come into their own during the Second World War and had taken on responsibilities that might not otherwise have been allowed to them. They’d decided that they preferred independence to marriage. …women who were hospital matrons, Sunday school teachers and librarians. I did want an antidote to the female cops and CSIs we were seeing on our screens. They all seemed to be tall, skinny and blonde — and I’m still not sure how you can be an active police officer wearing high heels!
Q: How about Jimmy Perez of the Shetland Islands?
A: I wanted a central character who belonged in the islands, but also didn’t quite belong. Although Jimmy is a Shetlander, he’s also a bit of an outsider. He comes from Fair Isle — the most remote inhabited Shetland island — and I gave him a Spanish name and heritage. There was an Armada ship wrecked off the isle and sixty survivors climbed ashore, so it’s not impossible that one of them married a local lass.
Q: Fans of the PBS series are fascinated by Vera Stanhope. Why do people love Vera?
A: Partly it’s because Brenda Blethyn is such a fabulous actor! … Brenda is very respectful of the source material and reads all the books. And she manages to balance Vera’s toughness with her warmth and wit…. Also, I think women of a certain age, who aren’t stick-thin or deadly glamorous, like to see someone like them holding a position of authority.
Q: I have read all the Jimmy Perez Shetland books, and by now I feel that I know every nook and cranny of the Shetland Islands . How have islanders reacted to your version of their world?
A: Shetlanders are very gracious and courteous people so I’ve certainly had no direct criticism of the books! It helps that I know the islands well — I first went there 40 years ago after dropping out of university and I worked in the bird observatory in Fair Isle for a couple of seasons. I always ask a Shetlander to read the book before it goes to the publisher and I always launch it in the islands.
I’m very proud that the books have increased Shetland’s tourism, and the TV filming especially brings money into the place. For 30 or 40 years much of the islands’ economy has been based on the oil industry — the main terminal in the U.K. is at Sullom Voe — but the oil is starting to run out so another source of income is welcome.
Q: Ian Rankin has said that he doesn’t know who committed the crime until he’s almost at the end of each Rebus book. Do you plot in advance, or do you adopt a wait-and-see approach to the “whodunit” question?
A: I write very like Ian! We both feel that there wouldn’t be much fun in writing a book if you already know the ending. For the first 20 years of my writing career I made very little money, so it had to be fun. Actually, I think that I write like a reader. I write one scene and then I want to know what happens next, so I have to write the next.
Q: One thing I like about your writing is the attention to detail — I can practically smell those scones Shetlanders are always baking for Jimmy Perez. Do you keep a daily diary, or do you have some other approach to gathering details that make people and places seem “real”?
A: It’s the small details that make a scene or a character come to life. We have to leave sufficient space for the readers to bring their own imagination to a story… But one or two details — the shoe a character’s wearing, or a smell, can help them build that rounded picture… My way of working is to keep the people I’m writing about in my head, somewhere in my subconscious. Then when I go back to the story it’s like writing from memory rather than imagination.
Q: You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs that inform your writing, including your time with the corrections system.
A: My role as a probation officer in the U.K. was different to that of a U.S. parole officer. We were social workers to the court and our brief was to “assist, advise and befriend” offenders as well as to supervise them and ensure they complied with the demands of their orders.
Much of my work was to provide pre-sentence reports for the judge or magistrate …That took me into homes I’d never otherwise visit — I was working in a very deprived area near Liverpool — and to ask the most intrusive questions about a client’s family life and history. Great practice for any writer and certainly for a crime-writer! …As a volunteer, I’ve been into a number of prisons to set up reading and writing groups. Some of this has been heartbreaking…Some of it has been joyous. People who are new to reading for pleasure are so excited by the stories and the ability to find an escape.