Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves – book review

raven blackShetland series 4 is on its way, and I’m excited. I decided to celebrate by reading the first of the Ann Cleeves novels on which the TV drama is loosely based. You should too.

Raven Black is the story of two murders separated in time. It is on the surface a fairly straightforward police procedural. What makes the novel stand out is the sense of place that seeps through its pages and the amazing level of detail through which Cleeves defines her characters, in particular Jimmy Perez and the recluse Magnus Tait. We get a real feel for the lives of the islands’ residents, both for the romance of the wildness of the landscape but also the fish-bowl nature of the remote society. This mix of something that is both very familiar and very other is a particularly attractive draw for us on the mainland.

The TV series Shetland picks up the overall theme but decides to go its own way. Its producers recognised that what was important was Perez and the islands in which he moves, although they have given him additional characters to work with that might translate better on screen than those that work so well on the page. As a result, Raven Black the book is not what a TV fan might expect. A different cast list is one thing but we find that the mystery is quite different: partly this is a necessity provided by the different cast list but it also helps that you can do more ambitious and complicated things in a novel. Cleeves’ creation is more raw and direct. It is less cinematic but gives a level of detail which is both claustrophobic and exhilarating. This is a feature that has divided readers but I think some have mistaken rich for slow. Cleeves helps us to invest time into understanding Perez, which is great in itself, but for me the highlight has to be the exploration of Magnus Tait, a man who is both sharper and blunter than society allows.

But I wonder whether my interest in Tait as a character arises from his portrayal (as Magnus Bain) by Brian Cox in the TV adaptation? Cox’s performance intrigues but I want to know why Bain/Tait ticks as he does. I am on the edge of a muddle, in which two very differing experiences, each finely drawn for their medium, allow us to synthesise and create our own understanding.

What does this all mean? I guess what I am trying to say is this. On the basis of Raven Black, the TV series is very different from the novels. If you are familiar with one, you should try the other and you will find something that is new, unfamiliar enough to be worthwhile, familiar enough to be comfortable. Which, kind of, is what both the TV series and books are individually trying to tell us about the Shetlands. I am looking forward to reading White Nights, which was not adapted for TV and which I suspect will give me a contrast to the Raven Black experience. I am interested in your views about the approaches taken on novel and screen.

Get Raven Black here.

One comment

  1. This has been on my TBR for literally years and keeps getting bumped down in favour of new releases. Which is a pity because I really want to read it. I’m not much of a TV watcher these days, but did watch and enjoy the first series of Shetland. Fortunately for me, I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it except the scenery, so I won’t have its version of the story in my head when I finally get around to the book. In general, I quite enjoy TV series based on books and don’t mind too much if they diverge – the mediums are so different and the need for recurring ‘stars’ limits the TV versions from developing as much as a series in books can do. I get much more upset (don’t ask me why) when a film messes about with a book I love…

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