“I’m mad...I will never be sane again.”
That quote is an eerie reflection of the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands with all of their bleakness, beauty, and wealth that comes from the sea and from the hard, barren land. Well-known for her mystery series featuring Vera Stanhope, Cleeves adds to her considerable repertoire in another outing for embattled Detective Jimmy Perez. Still reeling six months after the death of his beloved wife, Fran, and placed by his boss, The Fiscal, Rhona Laing, on sick leave, Jimmy is inching his way back to work a couple of days a week.
The background to Dead Water is furtive and dark, inspired by the current realities of the past and the future. Once the oil dries up, the Island will face an uncertain future. The development of alternative green energy sources will hopefully add to the wealth of the Islands. Meantime, those who hold these alternative energy sources dear to their hearts, must do battle with the lucrative oil terminal at Sullom Voe, where the strange silver light looks almost magic.
Everywhere land and water are reflected. Drained into a monochrome mood-piece, the solstice hangover is draped in dim-lit shots of haunted horizons. Huts pass for houses and whispers of the past entomb the night. Into this haunted environment comes local journalist Jerry Markham. Shetland-born and bred, once a reporter for the Shetland Times, Jerry recently sought opportunity on a London newspaper. Now “the prodigal son” has returned to write about the current energy conflicts. Jerry left under a bit of a cloud—he grew up in Fetlar and was supposed to marry Evie Watt, but Evie’s religious parents were not happy that their precious daughter was having an affair with a man they considered to be a self-obsessed confidence trickster.
Unfortunately, the past is not so easily put to rest. Jerry’s sudden murder provides a gateway to the Watt family’s own intimate secrets and private shames. When Rhona Laing calls PC Sandy Wilson telling him she has found Jerry’s body in one of the racing yoals in the Aith Marina, the event jumpstarts the investigation (including the nightmare of Rhona’s private life) and the arrival of Willow Reeves, who has come to conduct her first murder investigation. From the outset, Rhona inserts enough surprise into her voice to annoy earthy, feisty Willow. Willow adds to Rhona’s animosity by almost immediately hitting it off with reclusive, damaged Jimmy.
Willow wonders why Jerry’s Markham’s body was placed in the yoal; forensic examination of the crime scene concludes that it wasn’t where he was killed. As events unfold, a portrait develops of a man who believed the world revolved around him. Willow finds herself feeling hindered by her lack of knowledge of the geography of Shetland and undermined by having a colleague who knows the place and its people better than she ever could. Still, Jimmy can almost hear Willow’s thoughts in a landscape where everything is connected and there are just too many links to be coincidental. Here are vast expanses and a claustrophobic community, council meetings and grisly crime scenes, all expertly judged and providing good lesson for Willow in how to solve a crime.
As devastated and fog-bound as the windswept hills of the Main Island, Cleeves’s characters gradually disclose the depths of human passion, dissatisfaction, and shattered dreams. While an embryonic attraction between Willow and Jimmy is one of the best attributes of the story, no one escapes unscathed—not even The Fiscal—as Jimmy, Willow and Sandy delve deep into her personal life, her connection to her neighbor John Henderson, and to the hard business of finding Jerry’s murderer. Jimmy finds it easier to deal with Jerry’s devastated parents, Maria and Peter Markham, owners of the Ravenswick Hotel, than his domestic loneliness, even with his beloved stepdaughter, Cassie, always at his side.
Cleeves is good at portraying a small, suspicious community living on the edge of the world, where the constant light is nearly as oppressive and depressing as the constant dark. Although at times the narrative moves slowly, its brooding nature perfectly matches the setting and the palpable feeling of isolation that haunts the characters. Finally the author’s vision is made real in the current BBC adaptation of Shetland (starring Douglas Henshall as Jimmy). We can now see how the eerie, sad landscapes and the constant grey skies are so much a part of this compelling mystery series.