Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Harbour Street.
“Get them to tell you a story. It's all about stories. It might be a pack of lies, of course. But that
will tell you something useful too.”
Perhaps the most apt line of the novel and the one that really encapsulates DI Vera Stanhope’s method of interviewing. A salt-of-the-earth detective who tries to get the heart of the truth, Vera is as expressive and as interesting as the blustery northern English landscapes she inhabits. It is nearly Christmas on Harbour Street, a working-class area of Mardle: a place of chip shops and boat ramps, where deserted dinghies lie like dark shadows, half hidden. The cold air and the flurry of snowflakes only make Harbour Street look ominous, as though its buildings are still coated with ancient coal dust. Even on Malcolm Kerr’s boatyard,
the snow seems to soften the harsh silhouettes, making them mysterious and hardly recognizable.
At the Coble pub at the end of the street, the square glows and the moon reflects the black
"M" that marks the Mardle Metro station (“the end of the line”). Here DS Joe Ashworth’s daughter, Jo, discovers seventy-year-old Margaret Krukowski sitting dead on the last train, apparently stabbed with a knife. At first, both Joe and Vera think it might have been a “bit of a scuffle that got out of hand,” yet on a closer examination it is revealed that Margaret had a secret past that she was anxious to cover up.
While the case is a perfect opportunity to do what Vera does best--dig around in other people’s private lives--breaking the news to Margaret’s landlady, Kate Dewar, initially offers few clues. Margaret married a Polish guy just out of school and divorced him a couple of years later, and since then seems to have lived alone. She was given to religion and good works, and had stayed rent-free in Kate’s guest house in return for helping out in the place. Margaret was also a regular volunteer at The Haven, a hostel for homeless women and domestic abuse
survivors run by a charitable trust. The senior social worker, Jane Cameron, tells Vera and Joe that Margaret was able to work miracles with some of the women--especially Dee Robson, who had a record of soliciting and shoplifting that goes back twenty years. Dee lives in a flat in Percy Street that Margaret visited, but now she can be mostly found in the Coble, drinking away her benefit.
Was Margaret’s murder an evil and random act of violence, perhaps a sign of the times? The question troubling Vera from the start of the investigation is how nobody noticed. Margaret would have screamed, and there would have been blood. Clearly the crime requires the tedious work of tracking down activities and interviewing the witnesses on the train as well as gathering information, all to be processed in order to piece together the last hours of the elderly woman’s life.
Determined to get to the heart of Margaret’s “bloody secret,” Vera and Joe turn to Kate, who is desperately attempting to get her life back on track after a bitter divorce. Kate tells them about her romance with Stuart, the unlikely infatuation that hit her in middle-age, and how her son, Ryan,
has nightmares and sometimes prowls through the neighborhood at night like a
feral cat. Ryan has had occasional outbursts of temper and in one instance clashed with Margaret. The most obvious suspects are George Enderby,
a publishers’ rep who is pleasant, but rather shy; and Malcolm Kerr, who talks about Margaret’s secrets, implying she had a mysterious past. Although Malcolm denies any involvement in her murder, he admits to Vera that he had fancied the pants off Margaret and he wouldn’t want her memory sullied by rumors.
Cleeves' novel creeps up on us with its cunning and gentle storytelling. (This episode has already been filmed in Season 4 of the ITV series starring Brenda Blethyn). As the case literally grows wings, Vera and Joe find themselves on the scent of a quarry that leaches its way back into Mardle’s dark and murky crime-ridden past. The author does a terrific job of evoking the environment and daily life of the ruggedly beautiful Northumberland district, as well as creating a beguiling cast of characters who
always seem fresh and interesting. We can almost smell the earthy, wintry fragrance of this windswept land and marvel at the skills of the supporting police officers such as Detective Constable Holly Clarke, who are more than ready to match Vera’s investigative talents.
A perceptive and observant story that explores the shock of crimes on families, Harbour Street is
a haunting tale about characters trapped in the prison of their memories. Even Vera is not immune. She weathers the storms of conflict within and without: she doesn't take care of herself at all, even when Joe nags her to do so. Sometimes she outwardly bristles and snaps at Joe's nagging and "making a fuss." Still, she lets Joe in bit by bit as the harsh Northumberland wind
whistles through the walls of her isolated, ramshackle house.