Mysteries with a sense of place, UK edition
One of my favorite ways to armchair travel is to read mysteries set in far-flung locales, and one of my favorite places is Britain, otherwise known as the United Kingdom.
Ann Cleeves has a beautifully developed sense of place – in the Vera series, it’s northern England, and in the Shetland series, it’s the Shetland Islands, so far north they are almost as close to Norway as they are to Scotland. I particularly like it when a mystery unfolds in a small, enclosed place – Jimmy Perez, the detective in Cleeves’ Shetland series, knows everybody in the islands, and everybody knows him. That makes it both easier and difficult to solve crimes.
Here are some other crime fiction series set in the UK with a sense of place.
Before she got started with Vera, Ann Cleeves published another series of books, set in Northumberland. The main character is Inspector Stephen Ramsey. Like Vera and Jimmy Perez, he is an outsider.
Ramsey lives and works in what’s called a “pit village,” an old mining town that is transitioning to the 21st century. The mines have played out, but the town still retains the flavor of that world, particularly its close-knit character.
In the first Ramsey book, A Lesson in Dying, the headmaster of the local school is murdered, and Ramsey, on the trail of the killer, begins to unearth village secrets. He is both helped and hampered by some well-intentioned amateur sleuths, the school caretaker and his daughter. Cleeves does a very effective job at building suspense, as the reader begins to wonder when the killer is going to notice that these two vulnerable people are digging into the past. She also beautifully conveys the beautiful, bleak quality of the landscape of Northern England.
Peter May is a Scottish novelist and screenwriter who hit one out of the park with his Lewis trilogy, three novels set on another remote set of Scottish islands, in this case the Outer Hebrides, off Scotland’s Northwest coast (for comparison purposes, the Shetlands are off the northeast tip of Scotland).
The first one is set on the Isle of Lewis, most famous for the discovery of the Lewis chessmen, an enigmatic set of chess figures thought to have been created in the 12th century and carved out of walrus ivory. In The Blackhouse. Detective Sergeant Finlay (Fin) Macleod of the Edinburgh police force is called to the islands to solve a crime. He grew up there, and is not happy to be back. It’s a tough spot, with a high unemployment rate, rampant alcoholism and some primitive rites, such as the mass slaughter of seabirds, that make no sense to him or most of the modern world. But he’s there because a gruesome murder bears eerie similarities to one he investigated in Edinburgh. As the story unfolds, his memories come flooding back. This is a suspenseful story but it’s also a beautiful evocation of a landscape that’s harsh, but with an unearthly beauty.
Another series set in a different corner of England is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series.
Ruth has one of the world’s more interesting jobs – she’s a forensic anthropologist, and she’s called out when a body is discovered and murder is suspected (especially if it’s an ancient body). She lives in an area near Norfolk, on England’s east coast, called Saltmarsh. She loves the natural beauty, and she likes being alone.
In the first book, The Crossing Places, Ruth is called to investigate the discovery of a child’s bones on the beach. The bones turn out to be 2,000 years old, but there’s a more recent child murder that gets in the mix. Ruth is drawn into the hunt for the killer with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, a happily married man with two kids. When the two meet sparks start to fly, setting in motion a personal story that unfolds as the series progresses. This is another superior mystery in a harsh but enchanting landscape.
Peter Robinson is an Englishman who now lives in Canada, but he has drawn heavily on his childhood to create his series featuring Inspector Alan Banks, who lives and works in the fictional English town of Eastvale in the Yorkshire Dales. Banks, who moved from London to the Dales in search of a quieter life, doesn’t get much peace. In the first book in the series, Gallows View, he must investigate a crime wave that could touch his own family.
Robinson gets the crime-solving details right, but one thing I particularly love about these books is Inspector Banks’ love of music. The guy is a walking history of the best of English rock and roll. Robinson has even created playlists to go with some of the books. This series has been made into the BBC series “DCI Banks,” well worth checking out.
Finally, on a different note, I just finished the first book in a fascinating trilogy by Irish writer Adrian McKinty. He created a policeman, Sean Duffy, who solves crimes under very difficult circumstances – he lives and works in Belfast during “The Troubles,” when sectarian violence was tearing Northern Ireland apart.
To make things just a little more challenging, Duffy is an Irish Catholic in a town where the population is overwhelmingly Protestant and anti-Catholic. Duffy solves crimes as the city around him is being blown to bits, and he even manages to retain a healthy sense of humor. I’ve read the first book in the Troubles Trilogy, The Cold, Cold Ground, and I’m pretty sure the other two will be just as good – they all won a bookcase full of writing awards. McKinty grew up in Northern Ireland. Though he lives in Australia now, the past still exerts a powerful hold over this talented writer.