Book review: Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

She’s not pretty, she’s certainly not glamorous and she struggles with the whole concept of subtlety… but boy, is she clever.

Tuesday, 14th January 2014, 9:00 am
Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves
Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

Chaotic but charismatic detective Vera Stanhope, the shambling, shapeless Tyneside police inspector made famous by Brenda Blethyn in ITV’s Vera, returns to solve another puzzling case courtesy of her extraordinary crime writing creator Ann Cleeves.

Middle-aged, overweight and married only to her job, Vera is an inspired creation and she’s back on the beat with her trademark tweeds, wry humour, caustic bluntness and razor-sharp brain.

The doughty detective’s patch is the dark, atmospheric countryside of Northumberland and her passion is not hearth, home, family and friends but the buzz of solving crimes and rooting out the truth.

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Vera still clings to memories of her long deceased father Hector and with no personal life of her own, she likes nothing better than digging around in other people’s private worlds.

In the sixth book in this classy and classic whodunit series, Vera sets sail for shadowy, downbeat Harbour Street, a tight-knit, uncommunicative small town community which could, ironically, be harbouring a murderer.

It’s just ten days until Christmas and as the snow falls thickly on Newcastle, the laughter of revellers breaks the muffled silence as they move in a shifting tide onto the Metro train heading out of town.

DS Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jessie are returning to their home after a carol service and are swept along with the jostling crowd. But when bad weather halts the train and the other passengers fade into the swirling snow, Jessie notices that an old lady in the corner hasn’t moved. Seventy-year-old Margaret Krukowski is dead, fatally stabbed as she sat on the crowded train.

Nobody saw the stabbing take place and her killing appears to be motiveless so why would anyone want to harm a reserved and elegant old lady?

DI Vera Stanhope is relieved to have an excuse to escape the holiday festivities and soon Vera and Joe, the sidekick she regards as her protégé, surrogate son and ‘her conscience,’ are on their way to Margaret’s home at a guest house in Harbour Street in the Northumberland town of Mardle to begin their enquiries.

Just days later, a second woman is murdered. Vera knows that to find the key to this case and to prevent another killing, she must understand what had been troubling Margaret so deeply before she died. She can feel in her bones that there’s a link.

Retracing Margaret’s final steps, Vera finds herself searching deep into the hidden past of this seemingly ordinary neighbourhood. But why are the residents of Harbour Street so reluctant to speak and at what point do silent witnesses become complicit to a crime?

Cleeves, a master storyteller with a forensic eye for small detail, is fast becoming the new Agatha Christie with her fiendishly clever plotting, compelling characterisation and earthy, authentic dialogue.

But like all good crime writers, Cleeves never lets the private lives of her principal players get in the way of a terrific whodunit. She allows Vera’s colourful character to shine without her personal and professional conflicts eclipsing the enjoyment of some good, old-fashioned detective work.

The result is a perfectly crafted murder mystery… don’t miss it!

(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)