Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, who patrols the wilds of England’s Northumberland; Inspector Matthew Venn from the countryside of North Devon; and Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez of Scotland’s the Shetland Islands each have a personality and quirks that spring from the environments where they live and work.
“Place comes first with me,” says Cleeves, during a Zoom interview from Whitley Bay, a seaside town on Northumberland’s northeast coast. “Vera-land,” she says with a smile.
Cleeves has explored the connection between places and characters through 40 novels, including five series and two standalone novels, a travel book, and dozens of short stories. Her novels have launched two popular television series, with a third in development.
Stories that emphasize those out-of-the-way places and their impact on the characters are part of the British way, she says.
“Within the British tradition of crime fiction, the central characters are often loners, a bit remote, and live in rural areas,” says Cleeves. “American mysteries tend to be set in the mean urban streets. I tend to go for the traditional British mysteries and explore these places. In traditional crime fiction set in a remote village, you look for the darkest corners. These also are the places I know best, as I have never lived in a city for very long,” says Cleeves, 67.
The beauty in bleak places has become a trademark of Cleeves and her dramatic stories.
“We grow out of a place. Where we are from matters, as it influences who we are and what we are. The place is more than a pretty backdrop,” says Cleeves, mentioning that one of her daughters is a human geographer. That is defined as a branch of geography that deals with humans and their relationships to communities, cultures, economies, and interactions with the environment by studying their relations with and across locations.
“And I think that is what I also do. I am very interested in the influence of place and community on individuals. We are very much a product of where we grew up, what we saw outside our windows and on the streets and of the kids we played with,” says Cleeves.
“I love the sort of shifting aspects of these areas. They are all marginal. They are all on the edge. You’re not quite sure where the land starts and where the sea starts. And that is true of my central characters who are searching for an identity,” she says.
Take the remote Shetland Islands where Cleeves set her eight novels about DI Jimmy Perez beginning with Raven Black (2006), which was the first winner of the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award. The Shetland series, which is divided into “The Four Seasons Quartet” and “The Four Elements Quartet,” illustrates an isolated community dependent on the seasons and the weather, and one in which relationships can be claustrophobic.
How remote are the Shetlands? About 13 hours by boat from Scotland and then another three hours to get to Fair Isle, where Cleeves set her novels.
“It’s the same altitude as bits of Alaska, and it’s a long way north,” explains Cleeves, “It belonged to Norway until the 15th century.”
Cleeves’s early life was spent in rural England, first in Herefordshire, then North Devon; her father was a village school teacher. She dropped out of university, taking several temporary jobs, including as a women's refuge leader and the auxiliary coast guard. But while planning to train to become a probation officer, her life took a different course. In a pub, she started talking to a guy who was going to become assistant warden at a bird observatory on Fair Isle.
“I thought it sounded nice and would be a good place to spend a summer,” remembers Cleeves. The bird observatory was “desperate” for an assistant cook. It was a job she thought she could muddle through, even though she says she didn’t know how to cook. “I didn’t even know where Fair Isle was. I hadn’t realized it was part of Shetland.”
But once there, Cleeves fell in love with the island and the people. “Fair Isle is beautiful. It is very small (three miles by a mile-and-a-half) and a good place to walk. The cliffs’ indentations give you different places to explore. You are never bored,” she says.
She also found another love on Fair Isle— a visiting ornithologist named Tim Cleeves, who eventually became her husband. She admits, with a bit of a smile, that she was first attracted by the malt whiskey bottle she spotted in his backpack. Soon after they married, Tim was appointed as warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents. No electricity or running water; access to the mainland was only at low tide. While Tim worked, Cleeves began to write, producing her first series of eight novels, beginning in 1986 and featuring the elderly naturalist, George Palmer-Jones.
Cleeves had finally found her calling.
“I think all writers are parasites and we use whatever comes to us,” she says.
Cleeves continued working on the Palmer Jones series when she, Tim, and their two daughters moved to Northumberland. With her first series going strong, Cleeves began working on her first of six mysteries to feature Inspector Stephen Ramsay, starting with the well-received A Lesson in Dying, published in 1990. Using Northumberland as inspiration, Cleeves showcased its various aspects, setting these novels in Heppleburn, a former pit village, which is a settlement built to house workers who worked in the coal mines. The novels became collectors’ items when they went out of print but are now available as ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks.
VERA STANHOPE ENTERS
As popular as Cleeves’ early novels were, her series about Vera Stanhope—a rumpled, curmudgeonly police detective—set her career in a new direction. Cleeves conceived of Vera while helping her husband, Tim, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, through a psychotic episode triggered by work-related stress. To help him recover once he was home, she and Tim would take long walks in the Northumberland countryside.
“Walking was good for us,” says Cleeves. Along the way, the image of a bedraggled, middle-aged detective who tried to hide her compassion for others began to take form. Vera, who made her first appearance in The Crow Trap (1999), became a favorite of readers and critics.
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