Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

I recently posted a review of a book by Quentin Bates in which I lamented the fact that the writer did not choose to immerse us in his setting (Iceland). At the other end of the immersion continuum is Ann Cleeves, who has two ongoing mystery series, the Shetland mysteries and the Vera Stanhope series.

Both rely on distant parts of Great Britain. The Shetland mysteries, as you might have concluded, are set on the remote Shetland Islands, a northern point of Scotland. I recently read a later entry in the Shetland series and then sought out the first one, Raven Black. Cleeve’s writing serves as an instruction in how to create atmosphere.

In this passage from Raven Black, one of the viewpoint characters discovers the body of a murdered woman. I chose this passage less for how it reveals landscape than for what it tells us about this viewpoint character.

“She stopped there to look down at the water again, hoping to recreate the image she’d seen on the way to school. It was the colors which had caught her attention. Often the colors of the island were subtle, olive green, mud brown, sea grey and all softened by the mist. In the full sunlight of early morning, this picture was stark and vibrant. The harsh white of the snow. Three shapes, silhouetted. Ravens. In her painting they would be angular shapes, cubist almost. Birds roughly carved from hard black wood. And then that splash of color. Red, reflecting the scarlet ball of the sun.

“She left the sledge at the edge of the track and crossed the field to see the scene more closely.”

This character, Fran, is a painter. As the scene progresses, she goes closer, still seeing everything in terms of shapes, relationships and colors, and it’s a few minutes before she processes what that “splash of color” is, and what the ravens are doing.

In this scene, Cleeves tells us about the usual colors of the islands, and the mist. We get a little sense of the life; Fran has walked her daughter to school on a narrow track on a sledge, because she lives in a village where everything is walking distance and there are no school buses. As the story continues, Cleeves uses bits of Shetlander language and culture to deepen the sense of a remote community, one that has evolved from a mix of other cultures; Norman, Scottish, Norwegian. She does it mostly through showing, letting people speak bits of Shetland colloquialisms while using context to let us intuit the meaning, by describing the food, the ferry system, and, importantly, the weather. I believed I was in the Shetland islands while I read this book.

This is one way to do setting and Cleeves is a master.

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