This is the fifth novel in a series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope of the Northumberland police. Like many of the more successful English crime series, these books depend heavily on a sense of continued character development and evolving relationships, within a clearly defined and described community.
Vera is a somewhat bleak character – lonely and unattractive, as well as very prickly. But she inspires friendship and loyalty in her team and sympathy and admiration in the reader as she stoically stumps about doing her job with integrity and a rather blunt compassion, only occasionally giving in to her own neediness. She lives alone in an isolated country cottage inherited from her father, her only neighbours a couple of unreconstructed hippies, Jack and Joanna, towards whom she has mixed feelings of friendship and irritation:
Jack looked up at her and she saw there were tears running down his cheeks. She swore under her breath … It had been a mistake getting to know these people. Let folk into your life and they started making demands. She hated people making demands.
Then she remembered the times Jack and Joanna had dug the snow from the track so that she could get down the hill to work. The nights she’d gone uninvited into their house to steal bottles of home-brew when she was desperate for a drink. Evenings of good food at their kitchen table and the three of them laughing at some daft joke.
In The Glass Room, Jack begs Vera to look for Joanna, who he says has disappeared and is also off her meds. Vera is less than enthusiastic, especially as Joanna has left a note saying she needs some space. However, she gives in to Jack’s pleading and finds Joanna fairly easily, at a writers’ retreat (the Writers’ House) on the coast. Unfortunately she also walks in on a murder scene and Joanna seems to be the prime suspect.
Working with her offsider, Sergeant Joe Ashworth, Vera marshals her resources to solve the murder – of an unpleasant and influential literary guru – even though she is personally involved. She knows she shouldn’t be on the case while Joanna is a suspect, but she steamrollers her way through the red tape, as is her habit.
As with all the best crime stories, this murder has its roots in the past. The participants in the writers’ retreat all have histories and secrets that they’d rather remain private but that must come out during a murder investigation.
There’s another death and at first there seems to be no motive or reason for the crimes, but as Vera gets to know more about the would-be writers, and the small publishers who sponsor the retreat, motives and reasons start to multiply. The boundaries between life and art begin to blur as she realises the murders echo Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as some of the work of the writers on the scene.
In the end, this is a revenge story and it works extremely well as Vera gradually unravels the cryptic clues that take her on a quick trip – via Wikipedia – through sixteenth-century English literature.
This novel, like the rest of the series, is well-plotted, tight and fast-paced, with all the required elements of a successful and engrossing police procedural, but the real charm of the books lies in the complexities of the main characters – especially Vera, and her relationships – and the particularity of the setting: Newcastle, the rural town of Kimmerston, its surrounding countryside and the Northumberland coast, conveyed by minimalist descriptive writing and vivid fragments:
She stopped for a moment to look down the valley at the view. Another thing her father had gifted her: this house. Sod all else, she thought, maybe she should forgive him because of this. It was October and the light was going. A smell of wood-smoke and ice. Most of the trees were bare and the whooper swans had come back to the lough.
I envy those who haven’t yet discovered this series – you’ve got five to read. I’m looking forward to the next one, and perhaps to Vera finding some contentment.
Ann Cleeves, The Glass Room, Pan Macmillan, 2012, PB, 374pp, $36.78
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