Thursday, October 17, 2013

Shetland Islands, Scotland and Ann Cleeves' Blue Lightning

In late August, I posted a review praising Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, noting that a sense of place is part of the magic in each of his three books. I can say the same for Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island series featuring the brooding Jimmy Perez as detective, Empath, and seeker. I’ve just finished the fourth book featuring Perez: Blue Lightning (2010), and I recommend it and the complete series to you.

First, I must admit to a certain bias in favor of all things Scottish. The entire country moved to My Bucket List after I saw photographs and film footage of windswept hillsides, rocky ledges, and seas that swell and explode.  Then I discovered the Hebrides through online video. They appeared to be untethered from everything except cold seas and fog, two natural phenomena that prickle the imagination and invite mystery.

Swelling seas mask sound, and fog tricks both the ear and eye, confusing mere mortals, requiring that they grow contemplative. They must study closely the almost imperceptible darker shapes emerging from ground-level clouds. They must arrest in order to identify sounds and their sources, and they must learn to abide as storms force them to gather round the hearth.

Jimmy Perez is a product of such a place, the Shetland Islands, Fair Isle in particular. His Spanish ancestors survived shipwreck to make a home upon the shore that saved them. They became the darker cousins among men and women fairer.

Unlike others in outward appearance, Jimmy developed as a man apart in his professional life. He serves as a police detective and understands that his work alters his relationships. Even law-abiding neighbors have their secrets and are thus nervous in Jimmy’s presence because of what he’s seen, what they suspect he may know, and what they might betray. Furthermore, Jimmy’s work demands that he penetrate the hearts of others to pluck from within the thread of darker motives.

In this fourth book, Jimmy seems closer to a loving family of his own. Fran, an artist whom he met while investigating a murder, has moved from the city to the provincial isles so that her six-year-old daughter can visit her father, Fran’s ex-husband. Something of an outsider herself, Fran and Jimmy become close, but Jimmy, ever introspective and reserved, cannot speak the marriage proposal he intends. Fran saves him from his own reticence and proposes. Soon they will find a home large enough for their family of three, and on their wedding night, Fran hopes to become pregnant with Jimmy’s child, adding a fourth to their blended family of three.

Fran and Jimmy travel to Jimmy’s home, Fair Isle, where he introduces Fran to his parents and where Jimmy’s mother, Mary, hosts a celebration for the her son and his fiancée, but fierce weather and murder alter the mood. Jimmy must go to work, and Fran must find ways to pass her time. Jimmy uncovers evidence that his own father may have been involved in the passions that culminated in murder, he must leave Fran in the knowledge that someone on the island is a killer, and he must strive to comprehend what motivates bird-watchers, puzzle-solvers, and prodigal sons.

Characteristically, Jimmy succeeds in making sense of disparate people, avocations new to him, and age-old motives for murder, but a successful conclusion brings no comfort or joy. In uncovering the truth, Jimmy loses far more than he could possibly gain. Justice itself must surely mourn as Jimmy withdraws, certain only that he cannot continue as a police detective or ever return to Fair Isle. He is now a man apart in appearance, by virtue of his excellence as a detective, and by his familiarity with grief. Circumstances have untied the mooring lines that held him fast to a place. He would forsake both place and work were it not for one serendipitous gift, one that will serve as a harbor in the emotional storm that Jimmy must weather.

Reading Challenge:

Read Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island books featuring Jimmy Perez. They are Raven Black (2006), White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009), and Blue Lightning (2010). As you read, enjoy the characters and setting. In addition, examine how place shapes the characters and events.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a place that has sculpted some part of you. Describe it. Then tell a story that reveals how is affects you.