Durham Book Festival 2020: The Big Read

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“I write like a reader”. 

Fiction has always been important to Ann Cleeves; the renowned crime writer who authored both the Vera and Shetlands series – the former inspiring the immensely successful ITV saga of the same name. For her, literature is just another term for accessible fun, an “escape” from present anxieties into the world as it’s seen “through others’ eyes”. It’s hard to think of any other time in which such a diversion would feel as welcome as in the harsh reality of today – and her latest addition to the plethora of prose on Vera Stanhope: Written in Blood, delivers just that. 

It’s hard to think of any other time in which such a diversion would feel as welcome as in the harsh reality of today

Penned specially for the Big Read 2020, this novella is set in the familiar domain of the Durham Book Festival itself. Fans of the author will not be disappointed by this new work – an uncertain tale packed full of elusive eccentrics – carefully filled out by Cleeves’ brisk prose as her classical murder-mystery narrative kicks in. Meanwhile, less familiar readers should be glad to find something very familiar amidst the fanfare of this tale – for much of it Vera is very much “out of her comfort zone”, but the ending generously gives a sense of the closure we crave, where all order seems to have been restored.

As she teases the opening pages for us, Cleeves’s voice is gradual, slowly enveloping us in the community and its intricate webs of lies. As a writer who doesn’t “plot in advance”, the crime yarn itself has never really been the selling point for Cleeves – it’s merely the “corset that holds you up” she explains; the “something” that has to happen. Things are really “about place”, the neighbourhoods we grow up in and the macabre secrets that sustain them. Having had relatively little luck for much of her career, writing had to be enjoyable for Cleeves – an indulgence in her own “nosiness” about the “wide palette of different backgrounds” at her fingertips in the North East. There’s something very refreshing about an author telling the character-driven story she “would love to write” rather than aiming for a gap in the market. Constantly asking that classical reader’s question ‘what if…’ is almost always the most fun.

There’s something very refreshing about an author telling the character-driven story she “would love to write”

Returning to the literature at hand: short stories have always been harder to write for Cleeves; as she puts it, you “can’t get away with any rubbish” – all the words have to “sing” for themselves. There is little of that ‘waffle’ or ‘rubbish’ in Written in Blood, a densely detailed work that spins its storyline over just 25 pages. Why Vera Stanhope again? This “classic crime fiction outsider”, though initially conceptualised as a bit-part, has now spent long enough on our pages to become “nuanced”. She has undoubtedly connected with plenty of unacknowledged hard-working lives in the UK today, so much so that we now want her to enter the writing workshops and book festivals we attend – to fuse her lives with our own. Just as fiction offers us a way out of daily angst into the obsessive world Cleeves has created, it is Vera’s saviour here, helping her bring the threads of an apparently incoherent case neatly together. Ultimately, it all comes back to that classical ‘what if’ question – the one that keeps reinventing Vera Stanhope. Everything may seem different for now, but the long shadow this lead has cast over so many lives is here to stay.

Image: Anna Kupstova

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