For my first two reads of 2023, I chose mysteries set in the Shetlands, by new-to-me author Ann Cleeves. I got Raven Black as a Kindle deal, and then followed up with White Nights. There are six more books in the series. I think I had heard her name before, but had never come across her books, although they are apparently popular—this series, and also her Vera Stanhope books, were both made into TV shows, possibly still accessible via Netflix or other networks (Shetland aired first in 2012, and the Vera Stanhope TV show, with three seasons, is older than that). She started writing a new series, Two Rivers, in 2019.
The primary appeal of these novels is location. The Shetland archipelago lies between Orkney, the Faroe Islands, and Norway, and is the northernmost part of the United Kingdom; there are 16 inhabited islands. They used to be owned by Norway, and there is a heavy Norse influence on the population’s culture, including fire festivals and music. They are also known for both the Shetland sheep dog and the Shetland pony, and many of the islands are seabird refuges.
Cleeves has done an excellent job of giving her books a dual atmosphere: There is the free, wild aspect of being so close to nature, buffeted by the elements, with ocean on all sides; and then there is the somewhat claustrophobic experience of living on an island with a small, fixed population where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. All of this plays perfectly into the mysteries she creates—murders and missing persons investigated by a local police officer with assistance from a supervisor transplanted from the mainland.
Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, descended from a shipwrecked member of the Spanish Armada, is the laconic native son who is responsible for law and order in his small island community. In complete contrast, the impatient, forceful, and fidgety DI Roy Taylor has been sent from Inverness to coordinate when a murder takes place, bringing most of the forensic people along with him by boat or by air. Although the two initially struggle a bit for dominance, since one has both the authority and the overwhelming personality while the other knows the community intimately, they eventually figure out a way to work side by side to discover why and how murder has invaded the Shetlands.
These are not slick, fast-paced mysteries; they are slow-moving, with lots of intricate low-key exploration of the island personalities, and the solutions to the crimes evolve with each revelation rather than yielding an explosive disclosure. They are, to an extent, police procedurals, although the team is small and most of the focus comes from DI Perez. But if you enjoy arriving at a conclusion simultaneously with your “host detective,” you will like these very well. There are also some romantic elements for various characters, Jimmy among them, and lots of beautiful descriptions of the environs. I found them quietly enjoyable and will at some point continue the series.