A truly remarkable series, Cleeves's Shetland stories have been complicated, richly detailed and unexpected. In this last novel, DI Jimmy Perez, Chief Inspector Willow Reeves and DC Sandy Wilson are served up a tough case: the murder of Emma Shearer, whose body was left hanging in the shed next door to the home of Helena Fleming. Christopher, Helen's autistic but high-functioning 11-year-old son, found Emma's body. Perez is convinced that Emma's death is not a suicide. Emma's boyfriend, Magnie Riddell, is questioned, but the investigation soon turns to the events immediately preceding the previous suicide at the Fleming property.
Dennis Gear, who once owned Hesti, killed himself soon after the Flemings moved in, both shocking the community and somehow tainting the family. Helen confides to Jimmy that she thinks someone is coming onto their property and leaving sheets of graph paper that shows the frame of a gallows with a noose and a hanged man. Given Helen's concern over her family as "incomers with different voices, different attitudes" and Christopher, her "strange fire-obsessed son," Perez believes that the dead man in the byre and the strange little notes appearing in Helen's house would make anyone fearful.
Are we to disregard instincts or trust them? Readers will find more questions than answers in Wild Fire. Emma worked as a nanny for the Moncrieff family for years. Though the two oldest, Charlie and Martha, are teenagers, Emma felt responsible for them. Charlie and Martha's parents, Belle and self-entitled Adam, are shocked to learn that Emma was strangled, her body strung up from a beam. The Moncrieffs could be considered suspects. They had employed the woman, lived with her. It's impossible to have secrets in Deltaness, but Helen admits to Jimmy that she still hadn't told Daniel about the graph-paper messages with the images of the gallows and the hanging figure.
Sandy's mind races, pulling together a scenario that might explain Emma keys left in the ignition of her car and the footprints leading to the front door of the Hesti. Of the two other families involved in the case so far, the Flemings and the Moncrieffs, one is "old school Shetland and the other incomer." As the case unfolds, Jimmy sees Emma as an outsider a girl, a child-minder who made no effort to fit in and had done what she needed to in order to survive. Willow works diligently to untangle the strands of the case: two hangings and murder, as well two educated families with no motive for killing the woman who had dealings with their children--apart from Daniel Fleming, who admits he was obsessed with Emma. In Willow's opinion, this gives Helen a good motive for murder.
The menace of Fran's death follows Jimmy. There's the guilt and the ridiculous desire to put "back the clock" and rewrite the story on Fair Isle three years before. Jimmy loves nine-year-old Cassie, who was just starting school when Fran died, but he seems emotionally incontinent as he attempts to spread his compassion to anyone he comes into contact with. Willow vows to not make any demands, but she scolds him for having nothing left for the people who care for him. For now, at least, Jimmy is forced to focus on Emma, a teenage girl who'd survived such stress only to be killed when she was still a young woman with the possibility of a happier life ahead of her. There's also Margaret Riddell, who spits bile and revels in every accusation. Perez tries to get a handle on Margaret as he, Sandy and Willow start digging into Margaret's past and her connection with Dennis Gear. Jimmy initially thought Emma's death had something to do with a hatred of outsiders; there seems to be a poisonous atmosphere in the community, a horrible mix of gossip and prejudice. Margaret Riddell, born and brought up in Deltaness, seems to be at the heart of all the muck-spreading and rumor.
The small population of the Shetland Islands creates an oddly effective closed-house murder-mystery environment. Jimmy and Willow's relationship is a curious detour, though one that doesn't quite fit in with BBC's continuing television series. Perez attempts to unpick his emotions for Willow, punishing himself. Willow isn't to blame, but she ends up taking the brunt of Jimmy's guilt and anger. Broken into small chapters, the novel captures both Jimmy's ongoing grief over Fran and Willow's independence as her problems are traced back to events of her past. While the revelation of Emma's murderer is a bit anti-climactic, Wild Fire shines for its descriptions of Shetland's scenery, the blue-gray rain-and-wind-driven climate and sea that hangs over the reader like a blanket, adding much to the dark suspense throughout all of the author's eight books.
Most fascinating is how Jimmy Perez, a man of honor and intellect, employs his insight to ask penetrating questions that will connect the clues to who is capable of committing crimes. I've loved experiencing the mysteries of the Shetland Islands, this far away, isolated, and deceptive eerie land. And with Wild Fire, Cleeves adds one final element. Her wonderful series will be missed.