Sequels make me anxious…but White Nights by Ann Cleeves is a winner!

July 29, 2009 at 1:01 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

white I am happy to report that with the second entry in the Shetland Quartet, Ann Cleeves has put to rest my sequel anxieties. White Nights is as worthy a follow-up to Raven Black as one could hope for. We find ourselves once again in the Shetland Islands, at the height of summer, a time when at this northern latitude, the sun never really sets but lingers, late at night and in the early morning,  just at the line of the horizon.  The locals call it the “simmer dim,”  and the effect is eerie, sometimes producing erratic behavior on the part of natives and visitors alike. And it’s hard to imagine what could be more erratic than the appearance, at the opening of an art exhibition, of a distraught stranger who, without warning, sinks to his knees and bursts into loud and piteous weeping.

Detective Jimmy Perez is among those staring at this singular display in shocked silence. He has come to the opening with Fran Hunter, one of the exhibiting artists. Jimmy first met Fran, a newly single mother, in the course of the investigation that takes place in Raven Black. He is now in love with her. This affair of the heart is described by Cleeves with great restraint and poignancy;  the reader is made to share Perez’s urgent desire for its success.

Things proceed in a straight line from the bizarre disruption of the art show to a murder that is discovered soon afterward. Jimmy’s slow, methodical approach to crime solving seems congruent with his milieu, but it drives Roy Taylor , thee senior investigating officer  from Inverness, slightly crazy.  In fact, for Taylor, Shetland itself  is a negative effect:

“Shetland was unnatural, he thought. The spooky half-light which never disappeared really freaked him out. That’s why he’d slept so poorly the night before. Perhaps it was the extreme of the dark winters and sleepless summers that made the people so odd. He could never live there.

But for those who do live there and have a shared history there, Shetland is a magical place. The action in Raven Black culminates at the annual fire festival called Up Helly Aa. This was completely new to me, and fascinating.

UpHelly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Up Helly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Older traditions than this still survive. Kenny Thomson, a farmer in the tiny village of Biddista, is one of my favorite characters in the novel. In this passage, he anticipates a summer ritual:

“He enjoyed the sense of occasion that came with clipping the sheep; it was one of the days that marked midsummer – everyone walking across the hill together in line, pushing the beasts ahead of them until they reached the dyke, then walking them down towards the croft.  It took him back to his childhood, when there’d been more communal work. He liked the banter and the edge of competition as everyone tried to get the fleeces off whole, not nicking the flesh, but keeping up the pace so they weren’t at it all day. And then in the evening they”d all come into the house for beer and a few drams, maybe some music.

There is something autumnal in this description; one has the sense of yet another time-honored way of life threatened with extinction.


In 2007, as a feature of the Smithsonian Tour Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland, we met Ann Cleeves twice. First, she participated in a panel discussion along with Stuart Pawson and Martin Edwards. (Later, all three joined us for dinner – most convivial, and great fun!)

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Cleeves met us again for lunch in Morpeth, a town in Northumberland. She took this occasion to tell us how the inspiration for the Shetland Quartet came about. If memory serves, it had to do with a bird watching expedition to the islands.


(I had the pleasure of encountering Ann Cleeves yet again, at Bouchercon last October.)

Our group then resumed the journey north, to Edinburgh. As always happens in England, there were many places I wanted to stop, but there wasn’t the time to do so. Bamburgh Castle, Alnwick and its fabulous gardens, the iconic Angel of the North, which we whipped past in the bus.

Angel of the North

Angel of the North

I hope to return one day, to see these things up close and at leisure. I hope also to go to Lindisfarne.  Gateshead and Newcastle Upon Tyne are also of interest to me.  I felt deeply immersed in those regions while reading Jenny Uglow’s  biography of  Thomas Bewick.

Northumberland itself has many beautiful towns and villages. Ann Cleeves lives there and loves it; it’s easy to see why.

The windswept coast of Northumberland

The windswept coast of Northumberland

As often happened, England staged precisely the right weather in order to heighten the drama. That’s Ros, our intrepid  Blue Badge guide, in the blue dress.

Here’s some video footage of the Up Helly Aa fire festival:


I’ve wandered somewhat far afield from the subject of White Nights, so I want to reiterate in closing what a wonderful read this novel is. I suggest you begin with Raven Black, the first volume of the Shetland Quartet. Then read White Nights. Needless to say, I anticipate these two with pleasure:

newred blue


  1. Roger Cornwell said,

    See Ann’s web site at for more info about the Shetland Quartet and Ann’s other books.

  2. Carol said,

    Howard County Library is already accepting reserves for Red Bones. :0)

  3. Martin Edwards said,

    Roberta, I remember our meeting in Harrogate with great pleasure. I agree about White Nights and you will also certainly enjoy Red Bones.

  4. Ann Cleeves article in Times Online « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] All you need to do is write a post about Ann Cleeves and in come all kinds of comments, e-mails, etc. How nice to see that this fine writer has achieved […]

    • Susan M said,

      I am just starting White Nights and part of me is looking forward to it (I do like her Perez character), and part of me is dreading it. Seems to me that in Raven Black she pulled the ending out of the ether. There was no reason ever — in my opinion — to suspect the person who ended up having “done it”. And lots of the story was told in her voice. I felt like I’d been hoodwinked.

      • Roberta Rood said,

        Interesting comments on RAVEN BLACK. I read it such a long time ago, I cannot, alas, recall the particulars of the plot – only the lore & setting of Shetland, which I found so alluring. But you are absolutely right – a novel must have a good story as well as a compelling setting.
        I do hope you enjoy WHITE NIGHTS. I actually think it was even better than its predecessor.

  5. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Train by Patricia Highsmith The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett Turning Point by Peter Turnbull White Nights by Ann Cleeves A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor About […]

  6. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Deborah Crombie Christine Falls – Benjamin Black The Tinderbox – Jo Bannister Raven Black and White Nights – Ann Cleeves What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & […]

  7. A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] suggested the novels of Ann Cleeves, with their vivid setting in the Shetland region of northernmost Scotland. She also suggested Kate […]

  8. At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] also looking forward to Blue Lightning, the final volume in Ann Cleeves’s atmospheric Shetland Quartet. Ann mentioned that she found, in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, a reference to Constance […]

  9. Mesmerized, hypnotized – and utterly unnerved: The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Association of Great Britain. Recently, in a comment one of the posts on this blog , the writer Ann Cleeves stated that “…my favourite Scandinavian writer at the moment is Johan Theorin.”  […]

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