Cleeves unfolds her compelling mystery like one of Vermeer's paintings that darkly springs to life amid a clouded northern light with nuanced shades of human emotion. Silent Voices is a tremendous visual and imaginative treat and just one of several novels brought vividly to life in the new television series staring the superb Brenda Blethyn as the driving, salt-of-the-earth force that is Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope.
When Vera finds the strangled body of social worker Jenny Lister in the steam room of a local health club called The Willows, she’s thrilled and almost excited at the prospect of plunging into yet another murder investigation. With no obvious suspects nor obvious clues left at the scene, Vera calls
upon her trusted assistant, handsome Joe Ashworth. Determined to get a headstart before the forensic team arrives, Vera and Joe begin to research the complicated case, questioning the health club members and trying to piece together some order out of all the chaos.
Luckily for Joe, the driven, lateral-thinking Vera is wise enough to recognize that her partner’s local knowledge is going to be an asset. Together they try to unravel the interconnecting relationships and secrets surrounding Jenny’s personal and professional life. It was probably natural for the residents to immediately blame Jenny, who had always been an outcast. After all, they thought she and her colleague Connie Masters were responsible for the death of a young boy years earlier. Still, it seems a bit of a stretch to kill her, especially when Jenny’s teenage daughter, Hannah, is so loved by the community.
Utilizing spare, clipped sentences and blunt, no-frills statements, Cleeves gives her story a sharp forward-moving rhythm that contrasts seamlessly with the complexity of the characters, the mystery being solved, and the recurring themes of cloistered sexual longing. The trail takes Vera deep into the rich farming country of Barnard Bridge and the tattered existence of Connie Masters and her infant daughter, Alice. Plagued by scary dreams and still reeling her husband leaving her a few years earlier, Connie has been exiled from the world around her, forced to survive on government assistance.
Also haunted by the controversy is ex-client and single mum Mattie Jones, who survived without much social-services support while her son Elias was a toddler, Connie faces the daily resentments and cruelties of Veronica Eliot, a well-to do local and current chair of the playground committee. As chapters unfold focusing on the tense relationship with Veronica and Connie, Vera plunges both Joe and the reader into a series of unspoken secrets at The Willows centering on the rumors that Jenny Lister may have had a secret lover.
Well plotted and furnished with interesting characters, Cleeves’ novel holds fascinating layers of determined attitudes in a social hierarchy in which Vera constantly finds herself judged. As Vera and Joe attempt to uncover the years of tears, denial and rage, they discover that even in Northumberland, lust and love can be a powerful motive for murder.
At the center of the tale is, Vera who slugs down whisky under sullen, rainy and windswept skies as she attempts to weather a discontented despair over her lonely life, the loss of her father, and a mother whom she barely knew. Demonstrating great depth of understanding of the perils and selfishness of human nature, Vera’s life appears as just as blustery and as bleak as the northern English landscapes she so dutifully inhabits.