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WHITE NIGHTS is Cleeves' follow-up to RAVEN BLACK which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, perhaps a little surprisingly, in 2006. Cleeves has planned a 'Shetland quartet' and this is the second book in the sequence. The book's premise and opening are terrific. Inspector Perez, her series protagonist, is attending the opening of Fran Hunter's first exhibition at Bella Sinclair's Herring Gallery. Bella, a famous and wealthy artist, is also exhibiting and all three are surprised at the paucity of the turn-out for the event, especially given the presence of Roddy Sinclair, Bella's nephew, who is an internationally renowned folk/pop violinist. However Perez's mind is mainly on whether or not he will manage to take Fran to bed for the first time; he is therefore a little distracted when a man, whom nobody seems to know, starts weeping at the sight of one of the pictures.
Perez takes him to the kitchen and tries to find out something about him, but the man claims to be in a state of amnesia with no means of identification on him. When Perez returns to the gallery to question people further the man disappears. Perez, his mind on Fran, forgets the incident. But the next morning, after a highly successful night, it is forcibly brought back to his attention when the man is found hanging in a shed, his face obscured by a clown's mask.
It is quickly determined that this was murder; the man was strangled before being hanged in an attempt to make it appear like suicide. The reason for the poor attendance at the gallery opening is also quickly established - leaflets had been distributed claiming that the event had been cancelled owing to a 'death in the family'. This also explains the brief Prologue which consists of a man in a Pierrot costume handing out leaflets to passengers disembarking from a cruise ship - an original and arresting conceit, which certainly avoids the dreaded Prologue Cliches.
Because Perez cannot head a murder enquiry on his own, once again Chief Inspector Turner flies in from Inverness to head up the murder team. It soon becomes clear that the main protagonists, all living in the tiny village of Biddista, are linked by events in their past, and it is in the past that the solution to the crime is likely to be found.
WHITE NIGHTS succeeds brilliantly in the trick of developing themes and characters from the first book to the satisfaction of series readers, while also producing a plot which would stand perfectly well on its own. You will appreciate WHITE NIGHTS more if you have read RAVEN BLACK, but it also works as a very fine mystery in its own right.
Part of the explanation for this success lies in Cleeves' ability to alter her narrative style. Some of her books, notably some of her one-offs and indeed RAVEN BLACK itself, are less conventional - they involve the use of different narrative perspectives, unreliable narrators and a focus on the psychological. In others - and WHITE NIGHTS is one such - the narrative framework is more conventional and the investigation is at the heart of the book. There is no clear cut division between these two approaches but a spectrum. Here we have a compelling concept at the start of the book and the narrative is driven on by the investigation into the initial riddle - a classic mystery narrative strategy.
Certainly Cleeves once again uses the Shetland Islands setting to the full extent. The book is set in the summer which explains the title - nights when it is never properly dark and people can go a little mad. The tiny isolated community of Biddista provides a closed circle, although Cleeves is careful to break this by having interludes set in England, as the back-story of the hanged man is investigated.
Perez, Fran and Taylor are all interesting characters in themselves. But for all the pleasure of these trimmings, it is as a classic investigation-driven mystery that WHITE NIGHTS succeeds best and succeed it does because Cleeves is exceedingly good at providing us with a mystery and then a wholly convincing solution (one which I certainly wholly failed to spot although it seemed completely logical and obvious in retrospect - which is always the ultimate test).
So how does WHITE NIGHTS compare to RAVEN BLACK? Well, for this reviewer anyway, this is a better book. Perhaps Cleeves now feels more comfortable with her setting so there is less explanatory matter. But I suspect it is more to do with personal taste - in my view RAVEN BLACK was a little too concept driven, where as previously remarked, here the plot is at the centre. This is probably just splitting hairs. WHITE NIGHTS is a very good book and it looks as though the Shetland quartet will be a major achievement.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, February 2008
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