I look forward to reading each new Vera Stanhope mystery. Vera is a fascinating character: a veteran detective with a complicated past and a sterling record of solving murders committed in the towns and countryside surrounding Newcastle, in northeast England. Vera is unlovely and unloved—except by her team, who find her utterly exasperating and yet also worthy of respect and affection. DS Joe Ashworth reflects after reading one of her emails: “Still giving her orders, even at a distance and in the middle of the night. Vera having Wi-Fi installed at the cottage had been a very mixed blessing.”
Author Ann Cleeves has a way of spinning out her stories from the viewpoints of various characters—police officers, criminals, victims, witnesses, family and community members—that creates a sense of immediacy and empathy. As her characters exist in and react to their physical and social surroundings, we can see the dark hills, smell the low tide, hear the gulls, taste the stale coffee, and feel the tensions between genders, generations, classes, town and country.
Set in the days before Christmas, The Darkest Evening (ninth in the Vera series) is bleak: blinding snowstorm, brutal wind, desolate trails, bones of trees, and upturned roots “like fingers reaching toward the sky.” This time, a murder has been committed on the grounds of a country estate belonging to Vera’s own distant, though long-estranged, relatives. As she pieces together clues, Vera can’t help but remember her father, the black sheep of a well-off family, and reflect on the meaning of family in her own solitary life.
Like John Banville’s Snow, The Darkest Evening is a wintry mystery set at a country estate, with the novel’s characters voicing the similarity to conventional crime novels. Tis the season for cold crime and meta-mystery.