Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Thin Air.
This authorís choice of place--the Shetlands, an archipelago of Scotland northeast of Great Britain--evokes the rugged coast and lingering Norse myths in a land surrounded by the roiling sea, subject to remnants of superstition and old folk tales. This unpredictable environment, reachable only by ferry, is the perfect setting for a mystery as a group of friends from London journey to an island wedding celebration, the ďhamefariníĒ of Cowrie and Caroline Malcolmson. The beautiful Eleanor Longstaff and her husband, Ian, share a cottage with Polly Gilmore and Marcus Wentworth, the three women, Caroline, Eleanor and Polly, devoted college friends.
Eleanor is recovering from a recent miscarriage, an event that led to a serious bout of depression, though she is currently feeling more like her old self.
She feels refreshed by the trip for the wedding celebration and looks forward to her upcoming television show, an investigation of ghosts--the island
is home to the famous tale of Peerie Lizzie, a young girl drowned in the 1930s. A sighting of Peerie Lizzie is said to be an omen
of a pregnancy soon to follow. Believers pass along stories over the years of this phenomenon, embellished from one telling to another. Perhaps even Eleanor is a believer, harboring hopes of a sighting for herself, a child in her future after visiting the island.
The night of the celebration, Eleanor is the last one awake at the cottage. The next morning she is nowhere to be found,
and her frightened companions call local authorities to request a search for their friend. At this point,
Cleeves brings in the stars of her Shetland series, the particular personalities who have become familiar to fans: Inspector Jimmy Perez, who has recently lost Fran, an artist and the love of his life, intent on proving his readiness to resume work to Willow Reeves of the Serious Crime Squad in Inverness.
They are assisted by local detective, the shy but effective Sandy Wilson. As locals, Jimmy and Sandy understand the idiosyncrasies of the islanders, families who have lived in the North Isles for generations.
Though the sophisticated Londoners are out of step with island folk, they willingly join in the search for Eleanor, devastated when her body is found floating in a pool of water still in her bridesmaidís gown. Eleanorís husband, Ian, is inconsolable, Polly overwhelmed, and Caroline her usual practical self as Willow and Jimmy initiate a series of interviews staged at a newly renovated bed and breakfast nearby. Each interviewee is hiding secrets and private information about Eleanor.
Deciphering the groupís resistance proves challenging for the detectives, to say the least,
with Willow pressured to wrap up the case quickly. Eventually they piece together Eleanorís actions the night before she died, delving as well into her personal life in London, including the backgrounds of the others, all of whom remain suspects. Willow and Jimmy leave nothing to chance, no fragment of information unquestioned, Sandy proving invaluable in gathering clues. What is essentially a police procedural becomes more intricate, quite fascinating with the eccentric personalities of both visitors and locals and the revelation that Eleanor claimed to see Peerie Lizzie the night of the celebration. The ghost sighting cannot be dismissed out of hand, Polly admitting
that she has seen the fabled Peerie Lizzie as well.
Cleeves mines the superstition and rich history of the Shetlands to delve into the motive for the murder of Eleanor Longstaff. When another death follows, also ruled a homicide, Perez has a suspicion of who the killer might be, though he fails to share this information with
Willow, still grappling with grief and unable to reclaim the future. No matter how he attempts to bury himself in the past, the tension between Jimmy and Willow is real, affecting the tenor of the relationship and exacerbating the danger. (Cleeves patiently and deliberately develops characters with complicated inner lives, adding nuance to the limitations of their circumstances.) Thin Air resonates with the weight of centuries as the investigation nears a surprising and harrowing end, yet another victim snared in a murdererís web. More than one dark secret is revealed, friendships shattered, and a tangled family history unwound in the mists of the Shetlands, where the past walks side by side with the present.