The unsettling undercurrents of Ann Cleeves

The unsettling undercurrents of Ann Cleeves
Rhonda Dredge

When Ann Cleeves was posted to a distant spot in the Shetland Islands with her husband, there was nothing to do while he was working.

“I’m not into birds so I started writing,” she told a group of Vera fans recently.

“My first book killed off a bird watcher.”

So began the remarkable career of an intrepid creator of detectives and author of 35 murder mysteries.

Vera, with her old mac, wellies and waxed bucket hat, is a mainstay for ABC viewers and the most famous of Cleeves’ characters.

Cleeves was out here from England to promote the latest title in the series, The Rising Tide, to a rapt audience of fans at the Nova in Carlton just two days after her arrival in Australia.

“I always start with place,” she told her fans. “I know where it [a book] will be set. It’s rooted and grounded in earth.”

The Rising Tide is set on Lindisfarne, a holy island set off the east coast of Northumberland which is regularly cut off by the tides.

A group of friends is meeting up there on a 50-year school reunion and one is killed. Plot sound familiar?

“Writers are all products of where we live … views from the window,” Ms Cleeves said. “Setting is going to be more than a pretty backdrop to action.”

Ann was born in the Midlands. Her dad was a village teacher, and she was thrown into village life the hard way. There were no flush toilets or heaters.

North-east England is now her adopted home, bordered by the Northern Sea, the southern border and the Pennines.

“It’s a beautifully defined patch. It’s such an empty space. In Northumberland you still have tythe cottages.”

This is Vera country and Ms Cleeves lives in Whitney Bay, a seaside town. Her husband recently died, and her old friends have become important to her, hence the focus on them in her latest title.

She calls The Rising Tide her lockdown novel and it deals closely with the relationship between these old mates over time but it takes the arrival of Vera to really get them talking.

“I think about stories,” Ms Cleeves said. “What I write is trying to understand what you think of the world. In Britain it’s laughable. I thought I might write an angry book.”

She thinks of Vera as a character born out of the war. “When the war ended quite a lot of single women decided to be spinsters. They were incredible single women.”

She said she heard the voice of Brenda Blethyn, the actor who plays Vera, when she wrote dialogue. “I go on set. We’ve become good friends.”

That voice is representative of Cleeves’ prose, the soft insinuating way she has of getting the reader into the story.

She brings a feel for social justice (she worked as a probation officer) to the genre but as one reviewer wrote: “nobody does unsettling undercurrents better than Ann Cleeves.” •

 

Caption: Ann Cleeves talking at the Nova.

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