Say what you will about the decline of civilization, but I know some of you will agree that the ease of buying English murder mysteries in the U.S. is one material benefit of living in the 21st century. Ann Cleeves doesn’t appear to have been picked up by a U.S. publisher, yet The Crow Trap is pretty readily available on Amazon. In fact, there’s a UK TV series called “Vera,” featuring Brenda Blethyn as the canny, chunky, churlish but appealing Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. Vera’s one of those misanthropes-with-a-kindly streak, an outsider who listens all the more carefully, a woman who refuses conventional femininity, and has a very high solve rate. If she reminds you of Elly Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway, (also heavy, also mouthy), I’d say it’s a zeitgeist matter rather than copycat or homage in either direction. The world just seems ready for fat female crime-solvers, at least in the UK.
Another theme shared by Griffiths‘ and Cleeves‘ novels is the passionate involvement in a vanishing rural landscape. Griffiths‘ novels are set in Norfolk, while Cleeves has written 4 novels set in the Shetland islands as well as the Vera Stanhope books. They’re located in northern England and in The Crow Trap, a wild hillside is being considered for a quarry. Naturally there’s a great deal of money at stake, as well as an array of characters who are emotionally involved in the project for various reasons. Cleeves takes an interesting approach to the structure of what is, fundamentally a procedural. She narrates events from the point of view of each of the three women who are living in a tiny, isolated cottage near the quarry site, carrying an environmental study on the potential impact of the quarry. Each woman has a different angle, different information, different motivations. It’s a clever way to ensure that the readers have all the information they need for the puzzle’s solution to be satisfying. As with Telling Tales, I found The Crow Trap a little slow, a little dry — Cleeves’ style of writing dialogue, for instance, seems choppy and clumsy.
But, you know, sometimes what you want is a solid English murder mystery. That’s why it’s called “escape reading.” And The Crow Trap did the trick for me.