Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the North
Features Writer
7:04 AM 10th July 2020

'You'd Better Get Yourself Off Then, Pet': The Seagull By Ann Cleeves

What do Shetland and Vera have in common - other than providing excellent viewing, often on a Sunday night? Both series spring from the novels of the prolific writer, Ann Cleeves. Hailing, as I do, from the North East, Vera, set on the Northumberland coast, is a must for me. Open space and a good sea breeze can clear away the worst of cobwebs and Cleeves’ eponymous lead uses the often wild location to help her find a path through the myriad details which crowd her mind until ultimately, she solves her case. Her authentically drawn coastal walks ease her mind and the scenery is solace to my soul.

In The Seagull, an ex copper, John Brace, is serving time in Warkworth Prison, brought to account by DI Vera Stanhope for various nefarious activities, not least corruption and involvement in murder. At the start of this novel, Brace asks to speak to Vera and so ignites a new case for her to solve. He has information about the whereabouts of the remains of a missing person which he will reveal in return for Vera looking out for his daughter and grandchildren. It’s a cold case but Vera has nothing else on-going and is pleased to get her teeth into something new. It leads to dead bodies, missing people and unidentified characters lurking in the shadows. Money laundering, prostitution and murder are all linked to one place, The Seagull, a once glamorous nightclub in Whitley Bay, long since burned to the ground in a suspected arson case. There are personal links for Vera, too, since ex-Superintendent Brace was a close friend of Vera’s father, an ex-member of the force, and linked to some shady activity in the past. Although he is long dead, his shadow pervades her life and Vera, living in his old remote farmhouse, chases her memories as she pursues this case in her indomitable fashion.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves
Cleeves takes the reader painstakingly through the investigation. Police work is not all guns and rugby tackling villains as some television programmes would have us think; there is a lot of foot slogging, a lot of talking and reflection, a lot of frustration, until the glorious moment when all becomes clear and justice can be served – in one form or another. Cleeves does not pretend it is all action and adventure.

There is no need to ask which came first: Brenda Blethyn’s wonderful performance of Vera is close to Cleeves’ description. There are shades to Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope: ‘a bloody brilliant detective’ (her words). She’s experienced and although at times she contemplates retirement, she is respected by her team; confident and driven, yet with an unhappy childhood which has given way to a love of booze (beer and whiskey) and in some ways, a lonely existence. She is brusque and uncompromising, but she cares – that’s why ‘people talk to her’. There are touches of gentle sentimentality which she too often brushes aside, scared perhaps to give in to emotion. Leading female characters such as Vera rarely have it all: success, yes, but no happy home life supporting them - think Prime Suspect, Scott and Bailey, Blue Murder, to name but a few.

Vera’s ‘family’ is her team: DS Joe Ashworth, (her favourite), DC Holly Clarke (of whom Vera has high hopes) and reliable old-timer, Charlie. As the narrative unfolds, Cleeves subtly develops the relationship between the four of them. Each brings something different to the party and Cleeves creates credible characters – even the minor players are believable and this helps the reader through some of the slower parts of the investigation. Robbie’s elderly mother clings to the hope her son is still alive and sees no bad in ‘her boy’. Elaine, Judith, Gus, even the elusive ‘Prof’, all provide cameos which are relevant and believable.

This is my first Ann Cleeves novel and it won’t be my last. With an easy writing style, she draws real people, in real places, living real lives – and she does it very well!

The Seagull is published by Pan Macmillan