“Superb … This fair-play mystery brims with fully developed suspects and motives that are hidden in plain sight … must reading for fans as well as newcomers.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Fans will enjoy matching wits with Cleeves’ eccentric sleuth right up to the dangerous surprise in her denouement.”
Ann Cleeves is the Queen of Contemporary Crime Fiction. In her latest novel, The Darkest Evening (Minotaur Books), Vera Stanhope, the somewhat unkempt but always brilliant Northumberland Detective Chief Inspector, returns for a ninth outing to investigate a murder that hits close to home.
Driving in a blinding snowstorm, Vera becomes disoriented, veers off course and discovers a car abandoned by the side of an isolated, Northumbrian country road. The car door is wide open, the driver is missing and a toddler is asleep in the backseat. Concerned for the mother and child’s safety, Vera takes the boy and drives on, eventually stumbling across a familiar landmark — her ancestral home, Brockburn. It’s the place where her deceased father, Hector, grew up and part of a legacy long rejected by her branch of the family tree.
MURDER HITS CLOSE TO HOME FOR VERA
It’s been decades since she’d been there, but Vera recognizes the estate through the swirling snowstorm and arrives as her “distant” cousins are entertaining weekend guests. Shortly thereafter, a woman’s body is found buried out back in the snow. Murder is as clear as the icicles hanging off the roof, and Vera calls upon her dedicated team, led by Joe Ashworth and Holly, to help her identify the victim and her murderer.
It’s immediately determined that the woman, Lorna Falstone, is the child’s mother and a former Brockburn tenant. Lorna is an anorexia survivor and has been vigilant in maintaining her privacy in the close-knit community, which stymies the investigation. Apparently, she’s borrowed the car of her seemingly only friend, Constance Browne, who was unaware that her car had gone missing during the storm.
As Vera’s investigation unwraps like a mystery box, questions of motive, opportunity, relationships and paternity take center stage. Vera and her team believe that the identity of the child’s father will lead them to the suspect, but this proves to be a grueling task. Gossip is rampant within this tiny hamlet, and there’s been talk that Lorna may be the illegitimate daughter of Vera’s uncle, making it difficult to untangle the complicated paternity of Lorna and her son.
This is a particularly unusual situation for Vera; not only must she solve the mystery of the murder, but determine whether the child has a claim on her family’s fortune. She handles the conflict with aplomb, pointedly announcing to her cousin Juliet that “I may be your cousin, but I’m a cop first.”
SETTING IS A CRIME’S KEY ELEMENT
Last autumn, I had the good fortune of meeting Cleeves and attending her insightful master class on crime fiction. She stressed that her novels focus on human and natural geography. She meant that her setting — the history of the place and its physical location — is a key element to the crime. The smells, topography and sounds of the landscape create the conflict in the story, hiding the character’s secrets and serving as the basis for family rivalries and tensions.
In The Darkest Night, the grand but rundown country estate of Brockburn is such a place. It is a sprawling, isolated manor house, which Vera has not visited since she was a teen. The condescending manner in which her wealthy, not-so-distant clan members treated her and her father still resonates with her. She is reluctant to ring the bell and ask for help in the blizzard, but she is left no choice.
True to her memory, her matriarch aunt Harriet Stanhope, cousin Juliet and her husband Mark Bolitho, continue to operate the estate as a feudal society. The victim’s family is a tenant farmer upon the land, as are the former barrister/housekeeper and her teacher partner, and other families who soon become suspects due to their relationship with Brockburn and the victim.
Vera remarks that the unfortunate murder “was about families. About what held them together and ripped them apart.” Digging deep into her own family’s secrets, Vera proves that she, too, is not immune to the draw of family connections and that justice may be worth dying for. And in The Darkest Evening, Cleeves proves that, once again, murder mysteries are the kingdom where she reigns supreme.