Book Reviews

Book Review: White Nights by Ann Cleeves – You Think You Know Your Neighbor, But You Really Don’t

As a recent convert to all things Ann Cleeves, I am thoroughly enjoying her series of novels set in the northern islands off the coast of Scotland. I’ve never been there, but a small town is a small town all over the world in many ways. The title comes from the phenomenon in the summer of a night that never truly gets dark all that far north. It’s a setting that draws people to it, and it would seem that a summer of white nights a long time ago is hiding something that may finally be discovered.

White Nights picks up with characters from the first novel. Detective Jimmy Perez is cautiously approaching a relationship with Fran Hunter. She’s an artist and has a show coming up with one of the more famous residents of the island, Bella Sinclair. On the evening of the exhibition, Perez confronts a man who is standing in front of one of the paintings, sobbing. He claims amnesia, but as soon as he saw the painting, it stirred something in him. The man then disappears from the exhibition before Perez can question him further or help him. Later on, he’s found dead of an apparent suicide, in full clown makeup.

Jimmy isn’t buying it. If it’s a suicide then he feels somewhat responsible since he chose to support his love interest instead of staying with the emotionally distraught man. He needs it to be a murder, but there’s also a sense that his intuition is telling him something. However, there’s not much he can do without any evidence. Later on, a second body is found – that of Bella’s nephew Roddy, who’s a worldwide sensation with his skills on the fiddle. He was about to embark on a tour, so there’s little question that it is murder. This leads Jimmy to investigate people he knows very well to reveal long-held secrets that people will kill to keep uncovered.

Much like Raven Black, there’s much going on that Jimmy isn’t aware of. Although he grew up on another nearby island, he wasn’t privy to the many secrets from the past that took place on Shetland. In particular, the past of Bella Sinclair. She’s a rather eccentric painter as many artists are, but there’s more to it than that. At one point it’s almost like she had something of an artists’ colony in her big house on the hill, with many people coming and going. Questioning her is difficult, as she’s reluctant to reveal much, and hides behind the phrase “I can’t remember” even when Jimmy is sure that’s a lie.

While he’s investigating, he’s also fretting over his relationship with Fran. Is he moving too fast? Too slow? Has a new visitor to the island become his competition and is he tied into the murders? How does he approach Fran and warn her without sounding like a jealous lover? I enjoyed this bit of distraction from the mystery. Unlike the big city, where murders pile up and there’s pressure to close a case, Jimmy can take his time as there’s not usually all that much crime on Shetland. He’s not being pulled here and there or pressured to close the case.

DCI Roy Taylor is back, too, as he is sent from Inverness once again to help investigate the murder. Jimmy isn’t sure if he likes him or not, but the two men do seem to bond more in White Nights. Jimmy seems to be opening himself up more to the possibilities of friends in his world, whereas at the beginning of Raven Black he seemed content with isolation. This is a nice bit of character development, and also serves to make the series more interesting.

Cleeves creates great characters who have significant depth, even the ones that we won’t see after this book. The inhabit a world that is quite provincial. They will spend nearly their whole lives on this island and are content with it, taking comfort in the secrets it hides. There is a different sense of community where you know everyone; a sense of safety that is often an illusion. You think you know your neighbor, but your neighbor is also capable of things you can’t imagine.

I enjoyed reading White Nights. The mystery really didn’t reveal itself until the ends. There were many red herrings along the way, but I didn’t feel like I should have figured it out earlier. Cleeves didn’t give us all of the information we needed to do that. The reader figures it out along with Jimmy; maybe one or two steps behind him. I an thoroughly enjoying the writing, though and will carry on with the series.

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