Ann Cleeves: The Rising Tide

I came late to the Vera Stanhope party, but I am a complete convert.  Whenever she says “Not to worry, pet,” she reminds me so much of my beloved Columbo and his “Just one more thing.”  In this outing, Ann Cleeves does something else she excels at: setting.  This book is set on the remote British island of Lindisfarne, or “Holy Island,” a place not actually an island, but one that becomes an island thanks to rising and falling tides.  That particular detail could not have a more beloved place in the mystery genre, and Ann Cleeves, the ace of setting, does it better than anyone else.

Holy Island is the place where a group of friends, who met in high school, meet every five years to reminisce and catch up with one another. It’s not a typical high school reunion, but a reunion of a group formed long ago by a young teacher called “Only Connect” (a phrase taken from the Forester novel Howard’s End). In 1972 it was a radical idea for a group to get together and explore their feelings.  The friends are now getting older, of course, and a reunion of a group in their later 60’s is not the same as one when they were in their 20’s, though, as the weekend proves, old resentments, alliances and competitiveness hold their own.

The group is small and becomes smaller when one of their number commits suicide – or does he?  Vera is sure it’s murder and of course she’s right.  In typical Cleeves fashion the investigation is thorough and reaches back into the past, as Vera looks into connections made 50 years ago.  There’s a classic assemblage of suspects: the hippy girl who now runs a fancy bakery; the rebel who became a vicar; the couple who were teachers, one now suffering from dementia; the dead man, the firecracker of the group, a reporter disgraced by recent allegations of sexual harassment.

Then there are outliers, those that were a part of the group who no longer attend, like the young teacher who formed the group and the first spouses of two of the members.  Bonds formed at that age are strong ones (I myself meet with my high school classmates every five years, and we slip easily back into comfortable friendship every time), and the “Only Connect” group bonded in 1972 and never looked back.

The joys of these books are many.  Along with the beautiful setting there are the characters – each member of the reunion group is carefully delineated and explored, and so too are Vera’s team.  They get believably frustrated with her but they also respect her.  Her backstory permeates her behavior, especially her difficult relationship with her recently deceased father.

As is also typical, Cleeves’ books are a slow burn, and when they catch fire towards the end it’s very difficult to stop reading.  There’s a surprising and heartbreaking final death and the resolution of the crimes is memorable and well played on the part of the author.  This was another wonderful read.