The Seagull
Ann Cleeves
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Buy *The Seagull (A Vera Stanhope Mystery)* by Ann Cleevesonline

The Seagull (A Vera Stanhope Mystery)
Ann Cleeves
Minotaur Books
417 pages
September 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Cleeves’s latest is filled with insidious intent, quite a phrase for a tightly plotted book that reflects the close relationship between Vera and her “favorite boy,” DI Joe Ashworth, and also Holly and Charlie, who form the core of Vera’s crack team. This thriller begins with a request from John Brace, a former CID superintendent currently incarcerated in Walworth Cat. B prison. An obsessive egg -collector and dealer in stolen birds of prey, for years Brace had avoided arrest. Lately he has been praying for a divine intervention; he has some secrets he wants to get off his chest. With Vera's arrival, he can finally confess to the whereabouts of local boy Robbie Marshall.

Vera always wondered what happened to Robbie, one of the legendary Gang of Four. Robbie, who’d worked in a shipyard on the Tyne, went missing years earlier. Brace says he knows what happened to Robbie, but he won’t tell Vera until she agrees to check up on his daughter, Patty, and her three children. Vera isn’t at all sure that Brace’s deal is entirely convincing. Maybe he’s just into making mischief or even having a bit of a laugh at her expense.

The early sections of The Seagull are driven by Vera’s need to find out once and for all whether Robbie is alive or dead. Endeavoring to hold up her end of the deal, she visits Patty at her home in Kimmerston. With her lank hair and her greasy skin, Patty seems lost. She was once married to Gary Keane, who Brace thought was a maniac, but now runs a fairly lucrative business repairing computers. Patty’s mother, Mary-Frances, had been a heroin addict. Patty tells Vera that Brace met her through his work while Mary-Francis was desperately trying to get clean: “it was love at first sight, like in the soppy movies.” Mary-Francis knew she couldn’t take care of her daughter properly so she gave her up for adoption,. That broke her heart, so she started taking drugs again until, in the end, they killed her.

While Vera tries to recollect her father’s role in the Gang of Four, Joe starts researching the life of John Brace. Even by standards of the '80s, Brace was a bad police officer, a bully and a corrupter of young officers, but it was decades before he was brought to justice. Joe also works to uncover the identity of The Prof, a shady individual who used to hang around with Hector, Brace, and Robbie. The Prof, the mysterious fourth member of the Gang of Four, always seems to hovers at edge of the action, just out of view. Brace tells Vera that Robbie was a pleaser, but he was also weak and liked to mix it with the “bad lads” until he got in out of his depth. Robbie’s 91-year-old mother, Eleanor Marshall, confesses that she rebuffed by the police many times in the past but holds out hope that her son is still alive.

The mess and complications of the case keep Vera up until the early hours as she fights to find a single thread to link murder victims and the possibility that Hector might have been murderer. The discovery of Robbie’s body in a culvert in Whitley Bay leads Vera and her team into the heart of The Seagull, a once-exclusive club that looked like “a white shiny palace.” The club was once symbolic for a chaotic seaside existence of loose connections --seasonal workers, drifters, and ex-offenders. The Seagull also had a classy reputation (“drinks you need a mortgage to pay for”), and it was the place to go if you wanted to meet famous footballers and their girlfriends. The club links all the players in the case. It was also owned by Gus Sinclair, who is now back on the scene in Whitely Bay, acting as a sort of benefactor and general nice guy. Gus also employed Mary- Francis, and Robbie was a regular--as was John Brace.

In this outing, bright and ambitious Holly proves her worth as she works to pull together some sort of timeline. Although Brace says that Mary-Frances had long been dead by the time Robbie Marshall went missing, Vera can’t help feeling that somehow both victims are tied together. The wheels of the murder enquiry are finally set in motion, Vera determined to discover what had happened that summer night more than twenty years earlier. Brace, meanwhile, is determined to follow his own agenda. Vera thinks about the Gang of Four held together by loyalty, shared secrets, and by a strange male friendship more important to all those involved than rriage or family. Her memory blurred, Vera thinks again of Hector’s life in a landscape where two men are dead and one is in prison.

Vera's spirited, eccentric appeal allows her to remain a powerful paradox: a devoted, loyal detective and feminist pioneer all wrapped up in one. Beyond the desolate places and the nicer neighborhoods of Northumberland, Vera tasks her team with bringing in the clues to solve a crime where friends and family are alternately victims and suspects--as are the Gang of Four, odd friends and misfits held together by something far more sinister than a shared interest and an old-fashioned love of the English countryside.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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