Many people who read mysteries will pick up a book because its setting is exotic. Reading a mystery for its setting is an easy way to get an introduction to a particular place or culture. The setting is the main reason why my book club selected Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. That and the fact that the book cover has an award on it.
Raven Black takes place in the Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea. I suppose Raven Black is a good way to introduce oneself to the Shetland Islands; I know nothing of them beyond what is in the book so I cannot say. The book has made me think about the importance of setting in murder mysteries.
Raven Black reminded me so much of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks that I really want to ask the author if she is a fan of the show. Both are set in cold, northern towns with a rural character. Both open with the discovery of a dead girl. Both feature a respected local policeman aided by a more sophisticated detective from the nation’s main police force. Both feature a wide range of quirky local characters including a subset of very wealthy people, one of whom is a prime suspect. Both include the discovery of the dead girl’s “journal” which features many dark secrets about the quirky locals. I don’t think Ann Cleeves is borrowing from David Lynch, nor do I mean to suggest that anything untoward is going on with Ms. Cleeves‘ plot. I suspect both Raven Black and Twin Peaks simply play with the same ideas, tropes which are common to mysteries in which the setting is prominent.
How important is the setting to a mystery novel or to a series of novels? (Raven Black is the first of a quartet of novels set in the Shetland Islands.)
Certain detectives are forever tied to their settings: Sam Spade to San Francisco, Philip Marlowe to Los Angelos. I will confess that if Cara Black ever writes a novel featuring Aimee Leduc on vacation in Florence, I won’t be buying it. Keep Aimee in Paris where she belongs. I’ve never been exactly happy to see Inspector Maigret leave town either. Place is a major part of the reason why readers are so loyal to certain detectives.
Does Ms. Cleeves do the Shetland Islands justice? Modern mysteries all promise to go beneath the respectable surface of their settings. They all intend to expose what a place is really like. Raven Black takes place during the winter when the island’s major festival, one celebrating its Viking ancestry, is approaching. The locals rely on the festival for much of their winter income, they participate in it without any sense of irony. However many of them decry the fact that the outside world views their home as a quaint bed and breakfast with a rollicking Viking bonfire. After reading Raven Black, I am interested in visiting the Shetland Islands, but I’m also certain I would never want to move there. There are good people everywhere you go, but there are so many awful people in Raven Black, so much small town prejudice and small mindedness, that I’m with the islanders who leave. This is not the case with Sam Spade’s San Francisco, Philip Marlow’s Los Angelos, Inspector Maigret’s or Aimee Leduc’s Paris. Nor with Twin Peaks for that matter.
But for the record, everyone in my book club both finished and enjoyed Raven Black. We just wouldn’t want to live there.
I’ll admit that in the five years since I first published this book review I have forgotten this book completely. Re-reading this review today, I notice that comparing one book with another in great detail is something I tend to do. In graduate school that was called ‘intertextuality.’ It was one of my favorite ways to look at literature, as a group of works that influence each other or as different ways of dealing with the same set of motifs or ideas. It was lots of fun in graduate school which is probably why I do it so often on this blog.