Cleeves' latest Vera Stanhope thriller has all the elements: a dark, freezing night, a group of isolated inhabitants waiting for the storm to blow over, and Vera herself--a defiant and lonely figure, hatted and shambolically dressed, who drives the lonely snowbound Northumberland roads. She should have spent the night in Kimmerston even after she told her beloved Sergeant Joe Ashworth that she can drive the route blindfolded. Pulling up in her battered Land Rover, she spies an abandoned car. The door is open, a toddler boy strapped to the front seat, wrapped in a red snowsuit.
With the prospect of a fire and beer disappearing, Vera finds herself at the entrance of Brockburn, the ancestral home of the Stanhope family. Hector, her father, would be in his element, though humiliated and angry at this branch of the family that now consists of three generations of women: wiry, white-haired Elizabeth, wife of Hector's elder brother, Sebastian; Harriet, the glamorous wife of Hector's nephew, Crispin; and her daughter Juliet and Juliet's enigmatic husband, Mark Bolitho, who ran a theatre in Newcastle before moving out to the country. Vera bumbles through this beautiful place, sizing up her distant relatives while ruminating on the fate of Lorna Falstone, whose body is suddenly found on the grounds of the Brockburn estate. Vera discovers that Lorna had been driving her friend Constance Browne's car, the same car that Vera found abandoned.
Vera's colleagues Joe and Holly Jackman arrive at Brockburn and begin questioning the inhabitants. Mark exhibits a sort of casual disregard--Lorna's death just doesn't hold the same meaning for him--and Elizabeth fails to grasp the sadness. Juliet has a grudge, but we are not sure with whom. Is it Mark? Her mother? And what of Dorothy Kelling, the housekeeper, and her partner Karan Pabla? Dorothy's posh accent is more clipped and regal than Juliet's. Holly doesn't understand why Dorothy, an obviously intelligent, well-educated woman, is working as "a skivvy" for a bunch of entitled people. Dorothy doesn't want to upset anyone. Nor do Lorna's parents, Jill and dour Robert. Joe visits them to give them their new grandson. Robert is reluctant to engage. Joe learns that Lorna suffered from anorexia, then got pregnant and decided to keep the baby.
Vera sets about learning the victim's state of mind while immersing herself in her thoughts and memories of Brockburn's past and present, as well as ruminating on why the girl was found dead on the property. Vera turns to the tenant farmers. She's also a countrywoman, so she understands how these things work and how reluctant the farmers are to talk in a world that seethes with history and obligation. Like Vera, Holly is a natural detective. Arriving at Brockburn, she finds herself wandering into a world that is alien to her.
Cleeves writes of these dark, almost abstract landscapes where Holly and Vera notice the first clues, a series of paintings where the subject is always the same: a stone cottage, almost derelict, surrounded by pine trees, with ivy covering most of the wall and growing through of the window frames, and a cottage in winter, the glass frosty. The one at the top of the pile is labeled "The Darkest Evening." There's a book of poetry, a collection of Robert Frost's work, inscribed inside by Constance Browne. Was it possible that a woman could have murdered her? Out of jealousy? Could gentle Juliet, who was apparently so anxious and timid have killed Lorna? Harriet seems desperate to preserve the reputation of the Stanhope family.
I found The Darkest Evening to be Cleeves' most atmospheric outing yet. Vera, Cleeves' feisty heroine, sits in her office and broods about an elderly educated woman who filled her life with good works and trips to the theatre; about a young lass who stopped eating to bring some order to her existence; about her own strange family, landed gentry who despite being lords of all they surveyed seem fraught and anxious and not at all at ease with themselves; and also about young Thomas, who will now grow up without parents. Vera pauses. Suddenly she's the 15-year-old girl again, excluded, aware of a different, more glamorous life which would never be hers.
Among the snow flurries, the dappled moonlight and star-flecked sky, Vera sees lots of questions but no simple answers. Even when we think we've nailed the right suspect, it's the wrong motive. The skeletons of Lorna's life keep crawling out of the closet, and nothing prepares Vera for an incredibly tense and emotional climax.