Although Cleeves’ first Vera Stanhope novel is a departure from ITV’s television series (which is more streamlined and condensed), it is still an incredibly interesting read--mainly because Vera is such a fascinating character. In The Crow Trap, Cleeves gives only subtle hints as
to what makes Vera the way she is. The later books give much more insight into how and why she relates to the world around her. In the first half of this novel, Vera appears only briefly, as a
sort of shambolic, disheveled bag-lady intent on hiding out in the background during the funeral of her old acquaintance Bella Furness.
Gifted naturalist Rachael Lambert discovered Bella’s
hanging body, only recognizable from the older woman’s silk top. Bella had suicided
after her life had been worn down by financial debt and the needs of her husband, Dougie, recently paralyzed after a severe stroke. Rachael is shocked and angry at Bella’s recklessness. She recalls sharing a bottle of wine and “a bucketful of gossip” with her friend in Bailkie’s old stone cottage, a farm that was once
purchased by Constance Bailkie, a renowned local naturalist and illustrator. The cottage is now inhabited by two other naturalists, Anne Preece and Grace Fullwell. Both are shocked at the news of Bella’s sudden suicide.
The three women have been working on an Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed quarry in the National Park. The
assessment will determine the viability of an access road through the land adjacent to Bella and Dougie’s home of Black Law Farm. The women have been hired to do the survey and report to the agency head, Peter Kemp, who knows nothing about the history of the property aside from the fact that Bella had originally come out to the farm to look after Dougie and had supposedly been living “happily ever after.” Rachael thinks it odd that
no one from Bella’s past attends her funeral--no old-school friends or cousins. The only family member attending is Neville Furness, Dougie’s son, who Rachael is surprised to discover had a strange, fractured relationship with his stepmother.
In these early sections, Cleeves focuses on Anne, Grace and Rachael, who decides to enlist her mother, Edie, as an amateur sleuth. Rachael and Edie are driven by the need to find out what drove Bella to suicide. Edie in particular wants to help out where she can. Rachael hopes to uncover something unusual that will perhaps “put the bloody scientists in their places.” Hot on the trail of clues, she turns to Godfrey Waugh, the Chairman of Slateburn Ltd. Godfrey is determined that the area around Bailkie’s cottage become the nerve center of his new quarry.
At its core, The Crow Trap proves
the tangled financial and emotional webs we weave. Cleeve frames her tale around a complicated family drama that pits environmental concerns against local business interests.
When an important character is found brutally murdered, Grace’s father, Edmund Fulwell, becomes the prime suspect, his troubled history of drinking and mental illness
acting against him. Rachael’s investigation into Bella’s death ricochets between the past and the present, the murder investigation eventually falling to Vera, whose point-of-view composes the last half of the novel.
Beloved Joe Ashworth has little to do in this story, other than acting as
Vera's sounding board. For much of the investigation, Vera is convinced she’s right. She feels in her bones that the murder (and Bella’s suicide) have something to do with the development for the quarry. She’s grown up in this countryside, and she understands the issues of the people who are passionate about the land. Vera doggedly pursues justice for Bella and the other victims surrounding the complex case. The supporting cast is as real as she is.
Whether she is gruff or one of her subordinates is reacting to her, there is always a sense of unity and compassion for everyone involved in the investigation.
Although the novel was far too long, Cleeve mostly works her magic, unfolding the serpentine nature of Bella’s suicide as well as the more worrying facts that force Vera to consider the larger problem of Grace, Ella, and Edmund’s mysterious connection. A defiant and lonely figure, always hatted and disheveled, Vera spends her time traversing the rugged, lonely moors, trying to unlock the secrets of Bailkie’s Cottage and Black Law Farm, both revealed to be central to the murderer’s silent obsession with the past.