25 year old Lizzie grew up in the care system and became a social worker, when a work incident pushes her to take a travel break. While away, she has a quick fling, but arrives home to find that the man she slept with has died, and left her a sum of money and a strange request: in order to get the money, she has to find someone. But why did he leave her money in his will and who is the person she has to find?
Ann Cleeves is well known for her Vera Stanhope and Shetland series, both of which have been adapted into popular TV series. This book is a standalone novel, one of only two that she has written, and this book is a re-release in hardback to coincide with 30 years of Cleeves being published with Pan MacMillan. Interestingly, it’s also one of the only books that she has written in the first person.
For me, at this point, any Ann Cleeves is a must read. She is an absolute queen of curious set ups and intriguing complex scenarios, and, unlike a lot of writers, her plots hold up and entertain while remaining tight. She also uses location and atmosphere to good effect too, with her books often being set in smaller towns or more rural areas, like Northumberland, which is the setting for Vera novels and for most of this story too.
Whilst this is one of the more satisfying and entertaining novels I’ve read in recent months, and I do recommend it, it’s arguably not one of Ann Cleeves most impeccable stories. Early on in the book, we are told that Lizzie was abandoned as a baby, and coupled with the odd way that Phillip, the deceased lover, singles out Lizzie for the bequest and hints in the blurb on the book, I felt like there were secrets in Lizzie’s past that were linked to the case or central mystery of the book. Without wanting to give anything away, I felt like this was a bit like introducing a gun the the first act and then not using it. Phillip and Lizzie meet in a foreign country but just happen to come from the same small area? What is the mysterious connection? The answer is not satisfying and it felt more like an oversight than an intentional misdirect, and left me feeling like the ending was interesting but a bit flat or abrupt.
That aside, the book opens with a chapter dripping with blood and drama, and we are drawn right into the mystery and Lizzie’s mindset. She’s a likable lead. Scrappy and toughened by a rough life, but also smart and curious. You want her to succeed and Cleeves really grasps the way someone with her up bringing approaches other people and life situations. The pride and distrust, the lack of self belief, the independence that also isolates, and the bull dog grip on the task at hand. She lives and has worked in the rougher side of the town, not the cute little village on post cards and in cozy mysteries, and this is always something I enjoy so much in Ann Cleeves books.
I did really enjoy this book from Cleeves’ earlier writing career. It’s really very good, with the kind of puzzle-like premise that has become her wheelhouse, and you can see her grasp of character, location and atmosphere is already there. For me, it was a real page turner, and I wanted to find out more about Lizzie’s secrets and her past as well as how the characters all fit together and what this rabbit hole was that she was going down with this last request from a man she barely knew. There are some great twists and turns here, and a few well done misdirects. I think the publisher has been very smart to re-issue this one in hardback for fans, it’s a good mystery book and a wonderful way to explore the authors earlier and perhaps less well known work.
Read It If: while there are perhaps a few plot holes here, a common thing in a mystery authors early work, this is a very good read, and one I would recommend to mystery lovers and also to those who are Ann Cleeves fans. Great to come across this early book re-released, congrats on 30 years!
Thank you to the publisher for the copy of this book for review.