Vera Stanhope's neighbor Jack Devanney is asking Vera for help: Jack's wife, Joanna, is missing. She's been away for two days with no word. She suffers from depression; there's a scar on her wrist from when she tried to kill herself. Vera is someone people feel they can trust, down to earth. With her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, Vera decides to help Jack, tracing Joanna's movements to The Writers House, a place of poets and novelists. An old windswept and fortified farmstead, the retreat provides a welcome solace for nascent writers.
The Center has been hosting a number of residential courses for authors with different levels of experience. If you want a place to write without distraction, The Writer's House suits the bill. As might be expected, there's a murder to solve. Joanna is found with a knife in her hand, just after Vera discovers Tony Ferdinand's blood-splattered corpse lying on the balcony at the edge of the glass room. While The House's owner, Miranda Barton, screams and denies any involvement, Vera focuses on Tony's fixed glare and all the blood that seems to be running from his chest.
Joanna admits that she didn't like Tony, but she's adamant that she did not kill him. Still, she becomes the prime suspect, especially after Vera discovers a note from Tony for Joanna to come to the glass room after lunch to discuss the news that a major publisher has expressed interest in her work. In a bit of irony, Joe takes a dislike to the "feckless and irresponsible" Joanna and Mark. He's also convinced that Joanna is mixed up in this: "they all seem like a bunch of loonies to me." While Joe is not accusing Joanna of murder, he's quick to point out to his boss that she has admitted her fingerprints were all over the knife.
Vera turns to her a dedicated group of detectives. Holly and Charlie conduct the initial interviews and work to get Joanna's official statement. Vera wants her team to work hard to bring in the clues and help solve the crime. She's also a relentless bulldog in pursuit of the guilty party. The focus turns to the other players in the drama: Lenny and Giles Rickard, Mark Winterton, and Alex Barton, Miranda's son who works as the retreat's cook. Miranda is full of showy emotion. She bought the house years ago and got the idea of setting it up as a writer's retreat when her books stopped selling. Joe doesn't see any motive for these people who are acting their hearts out in an attempt to persuade Vera that they're sophisticated, intelligent and entirely blameless in the matter of Tony Ferdinand's death.
Vera is a unique detective, and Cleeves' series is unique in crime literature. A lumpy, disheveled heroine determined to succeed in prying into her suspects' private lives, Vera's ultimate goal is to crack Joanna's background as well as those of the other suspects, who (Holly is quick to point out) probably understand the basics of forensics. Many of the people at The Writer's House disliked Ferdinand, but Vera still has no sense why they would choose this particular time and place to do murder him. Too many connections in the case create too many suspects with a shared history. In a sudden twist, up-and-coming author Nina Buckworth becomes unnerved by the oppressive claustrophobia of the Writer's House. Through Nina's point of view, we gain an insight into the other writers--the fresh and original voice of Lenny and ex-policeman Mark, whose writing is "well-crafted but pedestrian."
After yet another murder, Joe's latent attraction to Nina and the frustrations of the case come together in a mystery that exposes the fears of this group of budding writers. Cleeves has a wonderful way of weaving her plot lines that not only keeps us interested but also keeps us guessing. We need our detective skills as much as we need to watch each character's back.
Friends and family are alternately victims and suspects, and man's inhumanity to man is abundantly evident. It's indeed a chilling world, but the reader is glad that Vera is on the case, as truth will be told and justice will be done. Cleeves' mysteries can be read multiple times; the stories are well-constructed, the suspects convincing, and the wonderful Northumberland scenery as formidable a presence as Vera and her intrepid team.