Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves: A review

I am working my way through the Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves and what a pleasure it has been! Cleeves has created a strong, credible, relatable female protagonist in DI Vera Stanhope and her technical proficiency in creating an excellent balance of puzzle, character, and setting keeps our interest alive as she methodically builds her story. Moreover, the unlikely murders in this particular entry are plausible because they are grounded in recognizable small communities. The relationships in those communities create lots of tension and plenty of red herrings. Misdirection and creating red herrings is another area in which Cleeves excels.

This story takes place during a hot summer in the Northumberland coastal area. It begins with Julie Armstrong, a single mother of two teenagers, having a night out on the town with friends. She arrives home very late to find her troubled son, Luke, dead. He has been strangled and laid out in a bathtub filled with water, covered in flowers. She rushes to check on her daughter in the bedroom across the hall, but she is sound asleep and undisturbed. She wakes her and takes her to a neighbor's house and calls the police. Her immediate assumption had been that her son had committed suicide and that it is her fault, but the large, ill-dressed, woman detective in charge of the investigation informs her that in fact her son was murdered and nothing is her fault. Thus, Julie meets Vera.

The investigation proceeds and seems to be making no progress when another murder occurs in the community. This one is a young student teacher, Lily Marsh, whose body is found laid out in a rock pool near an observatory frequented by birders and she, too, has been covered by flowers. And she had been strangled. It seems obvious that the crimes are connected.

The body had been initially discovered by the son of one of a group of local birders. The group of four, plus the boy and his mother, had gone to the observatory to watch seabirds. The young boy got bored and wandered away and happened upon the body.

Vera, because of being raised by a father who was obsessed with birds, is familiar with the craze that can become a fixation and ruling passion with some hobbyists and it gives her insight into the lives of the four essentially solitary men who have created their own kind of family with the birding group. And that leads her eventually to cracking open the mystery behind the killings of these two seemingly unrelated people. There is a connection there and we can trust Vera to find it.

Vera always seems to be underestimated and misunderstood by those with whom she comes in contact in the course of her investigations, but slowly they come to understand that she's not just bumbling along and they begin to respect her. She certainly has the respect of her team, especially her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, but she exasperates them as well. She reminds me in many ways of a female Columbo - remember that old TV show?

This was a thoroughly absorbing mystery and I can't wait to get on to the next one in the series. I adore and identify with Vera Stanhope. She is most definitely a woman of hidden depths.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars      


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