Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Crow Trap - Ann Cleeves


Up until recently, I knew Ann Cleeves only through the television series Shetland and Vera, having noticed that both shows credit Cleeves as originator of the main characters being featured in each. So when I started seeing all the buzz about Cleeves’s new Two Rivers series being generated by the latest addition to the for-the-moment two-book series (The Heron’s Cry), I decided to go back and read The Long Call, the first book in that series, for myself. I enjoyed that one enough to make me want to read something else from Cleeves as soon as I could. But preferring not to wait a year between series books if I don’t have to, I decided to start the nine-book Vera Stanhope series from the beginning instead of immediately catching up on the new Detective Matthew Venn series. 


The Crow Trap (1999) is outstanding for a number of reasons, not the least being that the series lead, Vera Stanhope, doesn’t really show up until page 229 of the 535 page edition I read. (It should be noted that Vera did make an anonymous cameo appearance some pages earlier, but that was only as a rather odd woman who enters a funeral service very late — and very loudly.) And it is only in Part Three of the novel, page 413, that the reader begins to see things from Vera’s point of view. This may be an unusual approach, but it allows Cleeves to describe what is happening through the eyes of three very different women forced to live in isolation together because of their work. By the time Vera begins her investigation, everything is set-up for readers to begin making their own assumptions, and Cleeves has liberally sprinkled hints and red herrings all over the place for them to deal with. 


Too, Vera is not quite what you would expect in the way of a detective worthy of starring in her own long-running series, especially one this popular. The first time she really comes center stage, Vera is described this way:


“She was a large woman — big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted so Rachel thought she must suffer some skin complaint or allergy. Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac, and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead, like a middle-aged tripper caught in a sudden storm on Blackpool prom.”


But don’t make the mistake that her adversaries too often make. Vera may very much be her own woman, but she is brilliant. And those who underestimate her are making a bad mistake.


The Crow Trap is a complicated story of small town life in rural England, a place that is still very class conscious despite so many of its residents having a pretty good idea of where everyone’s skeletons are buried. In an even more remote cottage outside the village, three women are working on an environmental study that has to be completed before a local quarry will be allowed to expand its footprint and impact in the area. Some are for it and some hate to think about how different things will be for the locals if the quarry is allowed to expand. Things begin to get interesting after it appears that one property owner has killed herself, but it is only when a second body turns up later that Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth learn exactly how ugly everything about this case really is.


Bottom Line: The Crow Trap is an excellent introduction to the Vera Stanhope character even for readers who already have the television image of Vera firmly affixed in their minds. Honestly, since I’m one of those myself, I have to say that actress Brenda Blethyn is just about perfect for the television role, and already having her as my image of Vera was not at all distracting as I read The Crow Trap. Cleeves is best known for her Vera Stanhope and Shetland series right now, and it is easy to see why that is. She has set the bar really high for her new Two Rivers series. Now that she is alternating Vera Stanhope novels and Matthew Venn novels, there is a lot to look forward to — and that’s not even to mention her substantial back catalogue. 


Ann Cleeves

14 comments:

  1. I'm probably the only person I know who hasn't watched the television series centered around Vera Stanhope. But then, I haven't read any of Cleeves's novels yet either. Someday. :) Glad you're enjoying her books so much.

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    1. The novels are really good, Lark, and although they are on another level, the shows are also top quality, I think. The scenery alone in those shows is enough to keep me watching.

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  2. It's funny, I thought the TV version of Vera was fairly complicated so I'm amazed that the books are even more so. How interesting.

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    1. It's about as complicated as a 90-minute movie can be, Cath, but that time element is really limiting. For instance, in The Crow Trap there are three separate women at the remote cottage and all play key roles in the story. In the television version there's only one woman working out there on her own, so everything is automatically simplified right from the start.

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  3. I have watched a couple of the TV shows and read three of the books in the series. I liked the TV episodes but it has been so long since I saw them that I remember no details at all. Now that you describe the structure of Crow Trap I remember really liking the structure of that one.

    Someday I will try the Matthew Venn series too.

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    1. The shows are not bad at all, but it is more difficult for me to remember details from video than it is from the page, so I have a problem similar to yours about them...not much detail sticks. But I do enjoy them, and have watched four seasons totaling 16 90-minute episodes now.

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  4. I've been reading Cleeves for years, but haven't been able to watch the TV shows because Both Vera and Jimmy Perez are already so fixed in my mind. :)

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    1. I know what you mean. And no matter how vividly I imagine a character from the book, the video version always manages to override that image, especially in the case of a continuing series like these. I haven't read any of the Jimmy Perez books yet, but I'm sure it will be the same now that I've watched all but one season of the shows.

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  5. I had been reading the books for years before the tv series, but once I watched it, Brenda Blethyn became fixed in my mind as the image of Vera, supplanting the one I had created. She's that good in the role. Now whenever I read a Vera novel, she's who I see. The Crow Trap is a perfect intro to the series. You have a lot of good reading ahead of you!

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    1. I agree. I think that Blethyn is just about perfect as Vera, and she's not really far off that description of Vera that I quoted from The Crow Trap. Of course, I may think that because I saw some of the television adaptations before reading one of the novels. I'm really looking forward to reading Cleeves for a long, long time now.

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  6. Am I about to welcome a new member to the fan club? ;-)

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  7. I knew the TV show existed but I am not usually a fan of television mysteries - no nuance and either the audience is completely in the know or has no ability to have guessed. However, I have been reading (or listening) to the series and Vera has grown on me. I think I am three or four in. I liked the book about Matthew Venn although he is a very tortured hero .

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    1. I think Vera is one of those characters we can all identify with. She looks at the world the way a lot of us wish we had the courage to do...sticking to her guns when she is right, not tolerating mediocrity, and that subtle sense of humor of hers is a real treat.

      The Venn character seems a little bit too neurotic to suit me, at least from the first book, but I'm hoping he develops over time into another character I'll bond with.

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