“If you lived on an island six miles long and two and a half miles wide, by the time you were ten you knew every inch of it.” – Red Bones, by Ann Cleeves

October 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

In Red Bones by Ann Cleeves, we are once again back in Shetland, this time on the island of Whalsay. Folk  are deeply connected to one another in this small island kingdom, sometimes by consanguinity, other times by long association over the years. Violence is not a usual feature of life on Whalsay, so two deaths occurring quite close together are jarring and disruptive. The first appears to be a regrettable accident; the second, a tragic suicide. But is either fatality what, at first glance, it seems to be?

The quote in the title of this post refers to Sandy Wilson, born and raised on  Whalsay.  Sandy is a young policeman, serving under veteran Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. (Jimmy himself hails from tiny Fair Isle, Britain’s remotest inhabited island.) As in the first two novels in the Shetland series, Perez is the lead investigator, but Red Bones is really more about Sandy Wilson. The first person to die is a member of his extended family. As the investigation proceeds, the involvement of his family members increases. It’s an interesting family, with its share of tensions and secrets. In addition, Sandy lacks confidence in himself as a police officer. He is a vulnerable person, both professionally and personally, and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve encountered recently in crime fiction.

As in Raven Black and White Nights, the first two novels in this series, Cleeves makes the most of her exotic, remote setting. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the little people called trows. A certain mound of land has been called a “trowie knowe.”  Hattie,an archaeologist working on the island, elucidates: “You know the myths about the trows, the little people. It was supposed to be a hole in the ground, a place where they kept their treasure.” (Orkney Jar is a great site for further exploration of the fascinating lore of the Shetland and Orkney Islands.)

I began my review of White Nights by saying , “Sequels make me anxious.” So they do, ordinarily. Loving  the first book in a series is no guarantee that you’ll be equally smitten by the next one. But I now feel that where the work of this fine author is concerned, I can put those worries aside. Red Bones is replete with fully realized characters and wonderful writing. It is, in short, a winner!


An interview appropriately entitled “Unsettling Undercurrents” appeared in Scene of the Crime this past August.


Ann Cleeves, flanked by Stuart Pawson (left) and Martin Edwards

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ann Cleeves, first in England and then again at Bouchercon in Baltimore.Not long ago she very graciously arranged for her U.S. publisher, St. Martin Minotaur, to send me an advance copy of Blue Lightning, the fourth entry in the Shetland Quartet. My only reservation about reading it is that it must perforce be the final novel in this hugely enjoyable series. Or…must it…?


  1. Carol said,


    I just finished BLUE LIGHTNING and think it is the best of the series. The sense of place is wonderful and the incredible ending had me in tears! Enough said; read it.

  2. Gail Coulson said,


    I just finished reading BLUE LIGHTNING.

  3. Gail said,


    Sorry! Having computer problems. I also just finished

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