Friday, 10 February 2012

A Lesson in Dying, Ann Cleeves

I've been trying of late to track down novels set in Northumberland, and this was one of them. A Lesson in Dying is set in the south of the county, but you don't get a huge sense of place, really - it's recognisably the Northumbrian coast with its ex-mining villages, and there's mention of Morpeth and Blyth to locate it, but there's no sustained description of the area. Partly this is owing to the comparative shortness, which curtails description or leisured portrayal of characters - the word which came into my head was "workmanlike" - it set out its plot and then got on with it briskly. We've become used, of late, to long rambling detective novels with multiple red herrings and complex sub-plots, but here we have just 200-odd pages and not much exploration of the inner workings of people's minds.

I could certainly imagine it set not many miles away, and hear the local accents, but I think that depended more on my own knowledge of the area than its evocation by the author. I missed the kind of development and examination of motive and personality that we get in longer books, including of the lead detective, Inspector Ramsay - he is clearly intended to engage our interest and sympathies, but I never really felt that I got a handle on him, nor was my interest really piqued. You know how with a new protagonist you can be really itching to get the next in the series to see what they'll do next, and to learn more about them? For example, no one could have loved Andy Dalziel in the first of the Reginald Hill books, but you were certainly eager to be appalled by him all over again in the next! I've read one of the books featuring Cleeves' later creation, Vera Stanhope, and she's certainly a much more rounded character, although admittedly I read it after I'd seen the excellent TV series. I've yet to read any of the Shetland series, but I've heard good things said about them. Perhaps it didn't help that Ramsay is a loner - the chat between a detective and his or her sidekick is always illuminating, and we're missing that here.

A brief run down on the plot: Harold Medburn is headmaster of the small local school, but no-one likes him, he's a man who abuses his position of authority in the community. But a small town isn't a likely place for murder and, when Medburn's found dead, Ramsay is happy to fix on the obvious suspect, the dead man's wife. It takes the school caretaker, Jack Robson and his daughter to keep the investigation going, and Ramsay, faced with a lack of support from his own team, finds himself making an almost cynical use of their efforts to prove Kitty Medburn's innocence, even while believing that their faith may be misplaced.

All in all, it's a perfectly competent and readable novel - maybe not one to get excited about, but I'd be perfectly happy to read more about Ramsay.

Originally posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.

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