A group of old university friends leave the bright lights of London and travel to Shetland to celebrate the marriage of one of their friends to a local. But late on the night of the wedding party, one of them, Eleanor, disappears—apparently into thin air.
Detectives Jimmy Perez and Willow Reeves are dispatched to investigate. Before she went missing, Eleanor claimed to have seen the ghost of a local child who drowned in the 1920s. Jimmy and Willow are convinced that there is more to Eleanor’s disappearance than they first thought. Is there a secret that lies behind the myth? One so shocking that many years later someone would kill to protect it?
I read ‘Raven Black’, the first book in the Shetland series, back in 2016 and found it entertaining in a make me into television immediately way but a little underwritten. I needed a stronger sense of place and a little more characterisation to move me on from what an intriguing puzzle to what a strange place and what interesting people. I’d expected to go back and read the rest of the series but the memory of the book faded and newer, shinier things capture the attention of my magpie mind and the series remained unread. Then I was caught by the sparkle of her 2019 book, ‘The Long Call’, the first in her ‘Two Rivers’ series, set in North Devon and found myself enjoying her calm but vivid storytelling style and her ability to build strong, believable characters. So, I decided to give the Shetland books another try and dived in at the sixth book in the series ‘Thin Air’.
There was a lot about this book that I enjoyed, right up to the ending which I found quite flawed. It seems things have flipped from ‘Raven Black’ where the plot worked but the place and the people needed more depth. In ‘Thin Air’, the place shines and the people are varied and engaging but the plot is hard to credit.
One of the things I enjoyed most about ‘Thin Air’ was its very strong sense of place. The strength came not from purple prose descriptions of the landscape but from how Ann Cleeves showed me the island from multiple points of view: the islanders who live there, English visitors from down south, English incomers setting up a new business and detectives who come from other parts of the islands. These multiple perspectives reinforced the idea that we all create our own versions of the places we live in and visit. The version that was created in this book was strongly influenced by three things: the intertwined pasts and complicated family relationships of the people at the centre of the midsummer wedding celebration that culminates in an early morning murder, the constant reoccurrence of a local legend concerning the ghost of a dead little girl and the relative isolation of the detectives carrying out the investigation, camping in a hotel kitchen rather than working from a police station.
This wasn’t a puzzle-box kind of murder mystery. I wasn’t avidly looking for clues or constantly changing my estimation of who did what to whom and how; nor was it a police procedural in the strictest sense. Procedures were lightly applied and sometimes abandoned altogether with speculation and intuition playing a greater role than the slow but inexorable gathering of the facts. What carried the story along was the people. They were many and diverse and part of the charm was the way in which Ann Cleeves’ took me inside their heads and let me see the island, the events and the personalities from their point of view. I was engaged as much by the thoughts of the ex-lighthouse keeper turned crofter as he mourned the loss of his former profession and sort refuge in routine and whiskey and the fears or the anxieties of the timorous English librarian, always afraid: of saying the wrong thing, of losing her friends, of losing her lover, even of losing her sanity in the face of the inexplicable, as I was in what was going on with Jimmy Perez, the local detective. Even the people that I only saw from the outside seemed real and credible and I wanted to know more about them.
I had no clue who the murderer was or what had motivated the killings and I didn’t really care. I was along for the ride. Then I found out who the murderer was and why they’d killed and I thought, ‘Nope. I don’t believe that. Not for a moment.‘ The facts fitted well enough and the exposition was skilfully done but I simply couldn’t accept what seemed to me to be a major shift in what I knew of someone’s character.
Still, I enjoyed the ride even if I didn’t take any great pleasure in arriving at the destination so I’ll probably be going back to the Shetlands to see what Jimmy Perez gets up to.
I recommend the audiobook version (which I got for free from my local library) so that you get the benefit of Kenny Blyth’s narration. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.