The Shetland Islands, the northernmost fragments of Scotland, are so far out into the North Sea they are often pictured as an inset on maps of the United Kingdom. Windy, treeless protrusions of earth where the sun hardly sets in the summer and barely rises in the winter, they are the atmospheric setting for Ann Cleeves ’ Shetland Islands mystery series.
In Thin Air, the sixth installment of the series, Detective Jimmy Perez is called to the island of Unst, the the most northern island of the Shetlands, to investigate the murder of Eleanor Longstaff, She was one of a group of mainlanders visiting the islands for a hamefarin’, a traditional Shetland wedding celebration, for one of their friends. Lowrey, who grew up on the island but went to college in England, has just married Caroline. Eleanor and Polly are bridesmaids, attending the hamefarin’ with Eleanor’s husband Ian and Polly’s boyfriend Marcus.
Cleeves uses details of the culture and history of the islands that have grown up from the isolation and geography of the islands as springboards for many of the stories in her series. Jimmy Perez, her most consistent character, claims to derive his Spanish heritage from a sailor shipwrecked way off course from the Spanish Armada of the sixteenth century. Perhaps the most dramatic is her first novel, Raven Black, which culminates on the night of Up Helly Aa, a fire festival held in coldest January that celebrates the islands’ Viking heritage, complete with a parade of a Viking re-enactors and the burning of a replica Viking longship.
(Image courtesy of Shetland.org: http://www.shetland.org/things/events/culture-heritage/up-helly-aa)
Cleeves portrays the islands both traditional and modern, a landscape that draws artists, tourists and other mainlanders. One story features a fiddler who is becoming known worldwide for popularizing the islands’ traditional music. The tension between these two groups, those who perpetuate the old way of life, living in their croft houses and farming neeps (turnips), and those who arrive to create art and exploit the islands’ old ways, often lead to the violent feelings that fuel murder mysteries.
In Thin Air, we learn the legend of Peerie Lizzie, a 10-year-old daughter of the rich family who drowned almost 100 years before the story takes place, supposedly because her nanny wasn’t watching her. In her white dress and Sunday curls, Peerie Lizzie has appeared to people throughout the years, her appearance gaining the reputation of presaging a pregnancy. Ironically the victim, Eleanor, who is recovering from a miscarriage, and her friend Polly, the other bridesmaid, both see a little girl who fits this description the day of the hamefarin’. Eleanor wanders off during the night and her body is found posed on the beach the next day.
Detectives Perez and Willow Reeves explore the complex relationships among the participants in the hamefarin’ – both the wedding guests and the islanders, mostly Lowrey’s family, but also the couple who’ve bought the house where Peerie Lizzie lived and have converted it to a Bed and Breakfast. Perez takes a trip to London to explore Eleanor’s family and life.
Perez shifts points of view, sometimes taking us inside the mind of Jimmy Perez or Willow Reeves, but most often she focuses on Polly, whose insecurity in her relationships with her female friends and her boyfriend possibly distort her reality. And it’s Polly who ends up in danger from the killer as the story races to a close.
Circumstances, culture, environment, personality, folklore, finances – all figure into the intricate mystery current day mystery and mystery of Peerie Lizzie’s death, which Perez and Reeves unravel in time to save Polly at the climactic ending.
Finishing an Ann Cleeves Shetlands Islands mystery always has me checking airfares for the Shetlands so I can experience this fascinating set of islands for myself.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out Ann Cleeves’ website for more information about the Shetland Islands, the author, and her other series!
Formats Available: Book (Regular Type), Downloadable Audiobook
Reviewed by Laura, Main Library