Weighing in at 550 pages, I was slightly daunted at the prospect of reading this book, but I need not have worried. It’s very absorbing – a slow burn of a book (published by Pan Macmillan), full of atmosphere and suspense, as well as with a well-drawn cast of characters and a satisfying plot.
The first part of the novel concerns three women who are staying in a remote cottage in a village in the north of England. Rachael, Anne and Grace are conducting an ecological review, the results of which will determine whether the area can be developed into a quarry. As the novel opens, Rachael arrives at the cottage to begin the project and discovers her friend Bella, owner of the neighbouring farmhouse, hanging from a noose, having apparently committed suicide. This being a crime novel, we know that this conclusion may not be justified, but for the first part of the novel, the author is content to let everyone believe that Bella took her own life, while we get to know the living characters and the dynamics between them. Each section of the book is told from the point of view of one of the three women researchers, having the double benefit that the characters and their concerns can come to life, and that certain events can be with justification kept from the reader.
Tensions build between the women and with the people in the nearby village who have conflicting interests in the project. Peter, the women’s employer, is a greasy-pole-climber who among other nefarious activities has plagiarised Rachael’s research and discarded her after an affair without telling her he’s begun to see another woman (whom he eventually marries). Rachael is the most successfully portrayed of the three central women, as she fights to overcome her insecurities and relationship with her confident, overwhelming mother. Anne is married to the local squire, but their relationship is semi-detached to say the least; Grace also has a local connection – she is the most mysterious of the three women and one senses she must have some connection to Bella’s death.
A crisis occurs in the shape of another death, which leads to the introduction of DI Vera Stanhope, a middle-aged, unmarried and distinctly unconventional woman who has bags of external confidence but her own share of internal insecurities relating to her own past, and in particular her father’s “secret obsession”. Vera brings a welcome dynamism to the book, both in terms of plot and her working environment with her subordinates.
The author cleverly switches between points of view; these, together with her paced revelations of past events gradually show the full extent of the network which Vera must unravel to get to the bottom of the mystery (or mysteries). I shall certainly be reading the next books in the Vera Stanhope series (though I believe that THE CROW TRAP was originally written as a standalone novel), not least because I find her an attractive and unusual character, and want to know more about her.
Since first drafting this review it has been confirmed that Vera Stanhope is to become a TV detective. I’m very much looking forward to watching her exploits, and well-deserved congratulations to Ann Cleeves for this news.
The Crow Trap reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence
Wheredunnit on Northumberland, Ann Cleeves and the Vera Stanhope books.
Brief review at Mysteries in Paradise, as part of a "female detectives" post.
Ann Cleeves guest post on "crime for all" at DJ's krimblog.
Posts about Ann Cleeves at DJ's krimblog: includes reviews of all the Vera Stanhope series.