Ottawa Writers Festival: Ann Cleeves delves into the mystery of the human condition in her crime novels

Ann Cleeves. Photo: Micha Theiner

Thirty years or so ago, Ann Cleeves sat down at a desk and wrote her very first mystery. She was living on Hilbre Island off the west coast of Wales. The only other person living on the island, which is a nature preserve, was her husband.

“I had always wrote bits of stories, but never really got anywhere,” she said in an interview. “My first book was written when I was living on Hilbre. It’s a tiny island off the west coast of Wales. My husband was the nature reserve warden.

“There was no electricity. There was a generator that worked if we were lucky. There wasn’t much to do if you weren’t into birds and I’m not really. So it was a great chance to start writing. I just did it. It was a crime novel called A Bird in the Hand. I killed off a bird-watcher with a heavy brass telescope. That book saved our marriage.”

You quickly discover, when you talk to Cleeves, her quiet self-deprecating sense of humour that is very endearing for someone who is making a pretty darn good go of being a crime writer. Her books today sell in the millions and two series featuring her police officers Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope are solid TV hits.

Success did not happen overnight for Cleeves however. It took about 20 years of writing an obscure book a year that sold just enough to keep the accountants at bay. And then Jimmy Perez walked into her life and changed it forever.

Cleeves is now an in-demand star at readings and events around the world. On Oct. 10, she will join Ottawa’s own Barbara Fradkin for a discussion of crime writing.

What is also apparent when you talk to her is that she has not been overwhelmed by fame.

“I don’t have to do a day job and it saves me from worrying if the roof leaks. I don’t feel the pressure (of fame) because it was 20 years before I had any commercial success. I was writing one book a year and they were going into libraries.”

The book that turned it around was Raven Black. It was the first of a string of novels set in the Shetland Islands featuring Perez. It won a coveted Gold Dagger which is the Oscar of crime writing in the U.K..

“After 20 years of nobody wanting to interview me, all of a sudden I was in demand. It was OK. I still have a bit of the imposter syndrome and I’m still pinching myself. It’s much better coming later. It would be dreadful to have success with a first book and having a second book.

“You also know that it’s not going to last.”

The Perez novels have helped transform tourism into the Shetland Islands, which for many years have been benefited by being an oil depot for North Sea rigs.

“People are going there because they have seen the TV show and to a lesser extent read the books.” That’s a good thing she believes.

“They want cultural tourists. It’s not a place you would normally go to to just to sit on a beach. Shetland is looking for people who would enjoy the bleak landscape and the birds and the music and understand the place a bit better.

She, herself, went to the Shetland Islands as a 19 year old.

“I had dropped out of university and a chance meeting in a pub got me up there. A friend of friend said they were headed to Fair Isle (the most isolated of the Shetland Islands) and I thought that was an interesting thing to do.

“The employer was also desperate for an assistant cook and I needed work. I was working at a bird observatory. I just loved the place; it was a good place to run away to. I met my husband there. He had come to Fair Isle as a bird watcher. That was more than 40 years ago.”

She also worked as a probation officer for a short time, a job that allowed her “to ask all sorts of different people very intrusive questions and to go into their homes and try to work out why they did what they did. That’s what a writer does.”

Cleeves has always written.

“I can remember even before I could read and write that I had a narrative running in my head in the third person describing what was going on around me. Writers are often observers rather than participants I think.”

She has faced writer’s block but cures it with a long walk or a train journey.

“Train journeys unblock very well I think. There’s not much you can do when you are travelling by train. You can’t do the washing. You have to sit there and that’s when your mind is freed up.”

What she is looking for are complex flawed characters that she can explore within the structure of a classic crime novel.

“I write traditional crime fiction because I am not … so interested in the plot as I am in looking at people who are under stress and how that works.”

That is where the art is, she says.

“It’s a bit like a psychological archeology dig into a family’s past to see what is there that causes tension and problems.”

Cleeves even digs into her own protagonists. Jimmy Perez, for example, has difficulty expressing his emotions.

“That first book (Raven Black) was going to be a stand alone exploring the idea of the outsider and what it means to belong. That’s even more important now than when I was writing it. How long do you have to be in  a place before people start to accept you?

“I wanted a detective who didn’t quite belong, someone who had been away and was a bit sad. Having created him I was sort of stuck with him.”

Seeing him on television amazes her. The actor who plays Perez is Douglas Henshall who is blond and blue-eyed.

“He doesn’t look like my Jimmy.” Her Jimmy is the descendant of a Spanish sailor and dark-haired. “But what he does beautifully and why he took the part, is that he can do kindness.”

With eight Perez novels under her belt, Cleeves is now in the process of winding the series up with a final  novel.

“Partly because I have said all that I think I can say about Shetland. It’s a small community. And there is lots going on there but I think I have pretty much explored them all.”

Her other detective, Vera Stanhope, will carry on for awhile at least. There is more to write about in Northumberland. It’s a bigger place with  beautiful landscape and towns and cities trying to recover from the end of the industry and shipbuilding.

“There will certainly be more Veras. But I think I will write other things. Maybe I’ll find a standalone that will turn into a series. I like being able to alternate. I don’t want to write the same thing all the time.”

Vera, who is played by the actor, Brenda Blethyn, is also a flawed person. She is overweight, alone and lonely. She is brutally direct, bossy, slovenly dressed and plagued by guilt over her corrupt father.

But, “she is very competent. I grew up with some formidable spinsters. I was born in the mid-’50s just after the war and there were a lot of women who had lost sweethearts or husbands during the war, or who had come into own during the war. They were allowed to have responsibilities and they decided they didn’t want to be tied down as 1950s housewives. I don’t blame them.”

The eighth Vera novel is called The Seagull. It is an exploration of Cleeves’ own homebase Whiteley Bay,  the renovation that is taking place there and the corruption caused by past actions. She is acutely aware of trying to interest outsiders in her home region. She’s even seen the naming of a new beer after the novel by the Whiteley Bay Brewery.

“Because of the book they getting orders from all over the country for the beer,” she says proudly.

Cleeves also enjoys the company of other crime writers. She’s often at conventions and festivals. She is a member of the Detection Club which she calls “quite cool.” The club was founded by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and John Creasy.

“We are a very clubbable bunch, crime writers. We like getting together often become good friends with each other.”

She also belongs to a group called the Murder Squad made up of six writers based in the North of England that has been going now for about 15 years.

“Somehow it’s easier to promote yourself when you are in a group. We all joined when none of us were particularly successful.”

This will be her first time Ottawa and she is looking forward to getting together with her good friend Ottawa crime writer Brenda Chapman. Also on this Canadian tour, she’ll be meeting and interviewing another friend Louise Penny, author of the popular Gamache series of detective novels.

Scene of the Crime with Ann Cleeves and Barbara Fradkin
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Ann Cleeves’ latest novel is called The Seagull (Macmillan).

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.