White Nights is an oddity in the first series of Shetland books (Ann Cleeves wrote two sets of four novels): it is the only one of the four that did not receive a TV adaptation, and it describes the slow and gentle beginning of the relationship between Jimmy Perez and Fran Hunter: a relationship that defines the TV Perez even in the recently finished fifth series. Both are good reasons to give it a try.
I think that it would be hard to have televised this novel. There is, once again, fine characterisation, but the overall sense is of the ‘simmer dim’, a time of year when you can read outside at midnight and a season that in the view of Jimmy Perez sends everyone ‘a bit crazy’. It’s a function of the Shetland calendar that is integral to the overall plot and to the mystery, and it ties perfectly to the themes of familiarity and otherness that are a hallmark of Cleeves’ creation. This community of Biddista is a place in which generations grow up together, pathing a way between curtain-twitching claustrophobia and the alienation of the city. Biddista has produced its share of artists and an internationally-known musician. It’s a place that thinks of England, rightly, as a foreign land, and where a resident can find that a year spent on Fair Isle can be incredibly unsettling.
As is often the case in these novels, a contemporary death opens up a long-suppressed secret, involving lost loves, regrets and a disappearance. Cleeves continues to build the character of Perez, and of Fran, and gives us Kenny, a man largely comfortable with life in his own skin, and his great love Edith. Their relationship has grown stronger over the decades and is beautifully described. Cleeves has slightly less patience with Bella, an artist most comfortable in the limelight, and Peter Wilding, a creepy writer.
It is Roy Taylor, Perez’s superior from Inverness, with whom you think Cleeves has had the most fun. Whereas Perez is rooted in his humanity and understanding of his community, Taylor is all about the action. He’s energetic but not necessarily in a good way. For Taylor, as Perez observes, it’s the ‘last-minute flights and hurried arrangements. The overnight drive. Gallons of coffee in empty service stations.’ This is not a man of Shetland. He is an unKenny creation. We raise our eyebrows at his tetchiness and pettiness. But Cleeves makes it clear that Taylor’s big problem is that he has never found a way to belong. And if the Shetland novels are about anything, they are about what it means to belong. (Perhaps the TV series takes a slightly different path.) That perhaps explains the Easter egg with the part of the novel set in the West Yorkshire town of Denby Dale. A little bit of time of the search engine reveals that Denby Dale is where Ann Cleeves’ husband Tim once worked, though the couple met on Fair Isle.
But there is another meaning of ‘belonging’, referring to possession and ownership – both over property and over other people – that cuts to the heart of the plot. You won’t be surprised to know that it’s our Jimmy Perez who pwns his boss Taylor at getting to the bottom of it. As for me, I was nowhere near solving the mystery. But I was glad to have the chance to be an observer, and to share in the simmer dim.