Hidden Depths is a classic crime-fiction story set in the small towns and villages of Northumberland (and, a bit, in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), north-east England. Inspector Vera Stanhope and her team are called out when a young teenager, Luke Armstrong, is found dead in his bath by his mother, Julie. Julie at first assumes the boy, who had learning difficulties, had committed suicide, but Vera and team quickly establish that he had been murdered. Soon after, the body of another young person, this time a woman called Lily Marsh, is found on the beach, having died in a similar fashion to Luke. Again, Vera’s team investigates.
The former case, that of Luke, has proved hard to tackle for the police due to a dearth of suspects, though Vera quickly picks up on the fact that Luke’s best friend Tom had drowned some time ago, and that although the death was accidental, Luke tried to save Tom and has since blamed himself for his friend’s death. Tom comes from a family of criminals, so Vera visits his father in prison and uncovers a couple of clues, or rather hints.
The second case, that of Lily, presents a richer crew of suspects. Lily is discovered by four men who are celebrating the sixtieth birthday of one of them, unpleasant Peter Calvert, a botanist. Calvert, in common with Cleeves characters in other novels, is both an obsessive birdwatcher and a failed yet pompous academic. Although he is a university lecturer, he has not reached what he considers to be his full potential, and has to suffer the indignity of having research papers rejected from journals, and so on. His smug wife Felicity is much younger than him. She does not work outside the home, spending her time looking after the couple’s youngest child James, cooking and keeping the house and garden beautiful. She enjoys flirting with her husband’s birdwatching friends Gary, a sound technician, Sam, a librarian and writer, and Clive, a museum curator.
Vera and her team search for a link between the two cases. Soon they find that they have almost too many connections, as more characters turn up who have or could have intersected with both victims. The charm and heart of this novel is the personality of Vera. She’s much more central here than she was in Telling Tales, her previous outing, so we learn a bit more about her background and relationship with her father, as well as her investigative methods and attitudes, and her relationship with younger policeman Joe Ashworth. Vera is not the kind of detective, nor Cleeves the kind of author, who is big on procedure and documentation. Rather, Vera goes to see all the characters in turn, gradually digging under their defences and working out how their past or present secrets might be relevant. Whether or not this approach is a realistic depiction of police-work, the result is a compelling, sympathetic and insightful account of the quietly desperate lives led by some people, on the edge of mental illness in some cases, and how they struggle to keep going in a hostile or indifferent world. The character studies here are acute, and while there are so many clues and connections that the solution to the mysteries does have an element of “select any person out of the list of suspects” about it, the novel as a whole is readable, absorbing and enjoyable.
My copy of this book was a gift from the publisher.
There are three books in the Vera Stanhope series: The Crow Trap, Telling Tales and Hidden Depths (links go to my reviews). The next installment, Silent Voices, is out in the UK early next year. Vera will also be a TV character early next year (UK), in which Hidden Depths is currently planned to be the first episode even though it is the third in the book series.