It is always a treat to visit with DCI Vera Stanhope, the determined and compassionate Northumberland detective who brings solid skill to solving crimes and finding justice for her victims. When Vera calls you "pet," she's not always aiming to be endearing; her rough and exacting standards sometimes exasperate her team.
For Vera and her right-hand man, DS Joe Ashworth, a number of baffling twists and subtle clues revolve
around the mysterious double murder of Patrick Randle and Martin Benton.
Patrick’s body has been discovered in a ditch, “quite clearly dead and cold.”
Shortly thereafter, Vera and Joe discover middle-aged Martin Benton in Patrick
Randle’s flat, his body lying on the floor under the window. Patrick has been housesitting at Carswell Hall while the Carswell family are staying with their son in Australia. At first it seems as if there’s no connection between Benton and Randle--until the team discovers that both victims were passionate about moths. The “bloody” moth traps had been running since Patrick arrived right in the heart of the woods below the Carswell
estate: “you can’t see them from the road, but you might see the bulbs at night.”
Almost at once the investigation turns to Valley Farm, an upscale retirement community just down the road from the Carswell
estate. Filled with well-to-do “retired hedonists” who seem resentful at the comings and goings up at “the big house,” this mismatched and rather self-satisfied group offer few insights into the nature of Patrick’s job with the Carswells. While DC Holly Clarke tells them that it looks as though Patrick
was horribly stabbed, Vera remains convinced that the mystery behind both murders belongs with the residents.
From the professor and Mrs. Kane, to Annie and Sam Redhead, Nigel and Lorraine Lucas, and Annie and Sam’s young daughter, the currently incarcerated Lizzie Redhead, the group seem to be good at hiding secrets. Vera sends Joe back to the station to start making calls and pull together information that can somehow solve the two murders in a valley where nothing ever happens and where smart people seem to have too much time on their hands. Upon discovering that Patrick Randle had no criminal record and
had provided two good references to the Carswells, Vera begins to think that perhaps this was a burglary “gone wrong.” It makes sense that Patrick was killed somewhere near the house. It seems to Vera that this makes his killing more likely the result of some delusional person.
Cleeves cleverly builds intrigue, switching between Patrick Randle and Lizzie Redhead’s past to the present investigation and to embattled social worker Shirley Hewarth, who worked with Martin Benton and
remains steely in her a refusal to answer Joe’s questions about her co-worker’s movements on the days leading up to his death. Vera drives her subordinates to seek answers. When another character is killed, the team is plagued with an underlying sense of failure. Still, Vera never lets up in her mission to prowl around her suspects’ territory, prodding for answers and intruding into their space while attempting to unfurl the mysterious lives of two dead men who shared a passion and a secret.
Cleeves has a particularly good touch for authentic characters; they’re flawed and very human and full of foibles and inconsistencies. She also ensures that they are never too heroic or too favored--especially Vera, who seems to revel in the complicated stories of her suspects’ feuds and tensions: ‘It’s as if they were all spies, telling half-truths planning deception.” Each suspect stumbles even when they're full of good intentions and act as foils to Vera’s investigation into their lives.
In The Moth Catcher (once again set on the wild landscapes of Northumberland), Cleeves doesn’t shy from exploring the hard issues of depression and suicide that infiltrate the complicated pasts of her characters. Seizing the energy of Vera’s active murder investigation, Cleeves shows her heroine’s softer side as well as the different sides of Holly and Joe, Vera’s two loyal cohorts who prove to be just as interesting in their own right.