Monday, December 19, 2022

Vera Stanhope

Another mystery series that’s new to me: the detective Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves. In Hidden Depths, I found the most fun feature of the story to be a depiction of a group of bird watchers. We see them seeking rare sightings of birds, waiting for water birds to fly past a viewing point, and also participating in bird ringing. (In America, ringing is called bird banding). Ringing/banding involves catching the bird in a very light net and then gently fastening a small identification tag around the bird’s leg so that it can be traced if the bird is caught again, or if its little body is found somewhere. 

Here’s a passage that for me captured some of the feel of looking for a bird, in this case a rarity that a number of birders were trying to spot. I’ve been there when a lot of eager birders do this!

“‘There it is.’ Clive, still bent over the telescope, spoke so quietly that only Gary could hear. ‘About four metres in from the fence, on the bare branch just below the top.’ And then Gary was on to it and it was filling his scope. He could see the inside of the bill when it began to call and the colour of its eye. Mind-blowing. Only the sixth British record and it was here in Deepden. Worth falling out of bed at six in the morning and the tension of the drive. Around him other people had picked up his excitement and they were looking at it too. Then the bird disappeared behind the hedge again and they were all standing around grinning. Some people started wandering off, talking about bacon sandwiches and work. Clive remained focused, though, and when the bird reappeared, further away on a dead tree by the lane, he was the person to find it.” (p. 155)

There are also a few and bad good meals eaten, along with — of course — a very nasty murder story that Vera and her colleagues figure out. It seemed to me that the portrayal of the birders, who became enmeshed in the murder story, and of the lives of several other characters who were similarly involved was really much more vivid than the mystery, as if the real heart of the novel wasn't really the detecting, but the social aspect. This seemed a bit odd. Despite various clues, I never had any idea how the murder was done, and I’m still not quite sure about the exact details!

Here is an example of a good meal, being planned by a very dedicated wife and mother:

“She sat over another coffee and made a list for the farm shop. She had planned the weekend meals already in her head. There was a cake of course, already baked and iced. It was a pity the three older children lived too far away to share it. For dinner tonight she’d made a daube of beef, rich and dark, slippery with olives and red wine. It stood in the pantry and needed only to be reheated. Now she changed her mind. It was too hot for beef. If Neil at the farm had a couple of chickens, she’d do that Spanish dish with quartered lemons and rosemary and garlic. It would be much lighter, beautifully aromatic and Mediterranean.” (p. 25)

And here is an example of a bad meal: 

“The cafe had set a garden table and chairs outside on the pavement. Any attempt to create a continental atmosphere was ruined by the smell of greasy burgers and stale cigarettes coming through the open door, but the pavement was in the shade now and they sat there anyway. Vera drank instant coffee, Clive a bottle of bright-orange fizzy pop.” (p. 252)

Tea and coffee are constantly consumed by all the characters, especially Vera as she visits one home after another looking for evidence or even slight clues about the crimes. In every household where she enters, Vera is offered tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits, cake, etc. She can be quite manipulative in using these opportunities to distract or otherwise affect her subjects. Two examples:

“When Peter came out from his office, Vera had her mouth full, and spattered crumbs over the table as she tried to speak. Felicity wanted to say to Peter: Don’t be taken in by this woman. She wants you to believe she’s a clown. She’s brighter than she looks. But she could tell that Peter had already dismissed her as a fool. As she choked and coughed and swilled tea, he raised his eyes to the ceiling. At last the pantomime was over and Vera began to speak.” (p. 125)

“Mrs Richardson appeared from the kitchen, a mug in each hand. Vera accepted hers, then tipped most of the contents into the compost of a sad umbrella plant when the woman went to get biscuits. Julie, staring at the blank television screen, didn’t notice. ‘A great cup of tea,’ Vera said, slurping the dregs. ‘Just what I needed.’” (p. 138).

I always look for food and drink in mystery stories. I'm glad to learn about another very popular author!

Catching up: a couple of books I read but never reviewed:

The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants 
and the Making of an Empire
by Joseph Sassoon
Finished reading Nov. 26

Shimura Trouble by Sujata Massey,
latest in a mystery series I’ve been following.
Finished reading November 27

Blog post © 2022 mae sander


Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

What a fun review. I was a bit surprised by Vera and her "clumsiness," but it made for good reading, none-the-less. I can see why this would be a fun read for you, since you and Len are so involved in birding. Thanks for sharing this book review and all the coffee and tea references for T this week, Mae. Happy Chanukah.

My name is Erika. said...

I've read some of Anne Cleeves Shetland series, but never any of these Vera series. I really enjoyed your review, and I also love how it works for T day. This is a clever T day post Mae. I hope you have a Happy Hanukkah too. Hugs-Erika

DVArtist said...

I am so impressed with the books you read. Always wonderful reviews too. Have a very lovely evening and a happy Christmas.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Thank you for explaining bird banding. It's a new term for me.

Iris Flavia said...

LOL, and now I crave a bottle of bright-orange fizzy pop!
There was a ... hm... "pub". When the door was open you could... had to smell old beer and ciggies. brrrr.... made you walk fast!

eileeninmd said...

I have enjoyed the Vera series, I was trying to read them in order but I may have missed a few. Great review! Take care, have a great day!

Anne (cornucopia) said...

Looks like good books.

nwilliams6 said...

They all sound interesting. Love your drink excerpts too - they totally make me want to read the book. Fun stuff. Merry Christmas, Mae, and happy T-day.

CJ Kennedy said...

Fun book review and clever T Day references. Happy T Day

CJ Kennedy said...

Clever book review and T Day reference. Happy T Day

Divers and Sundry said...

I haven't read any of the Vera books but love the TV series. I'll try to find the first in that series and remedy that :)

Happy T Tuesday!

Cloudia said...

Thank you for the review. Wishing you delightful holidays my friend!

Empire of the Cat said...

Ann Cleeves is a good author, I prefer her Shetland series if you get a chance to read that, I recommend it, plus there is also a TV show for both series, both good. Happy T Day! Elle/EOTC xx

Jenn Jilks said...

I've not read Vera Stanhope. We've bought all the DVDs, though. Also, watched Shetland. I quite enjoy them.

jinxxxygirl said...

Hi Mae!

I love a good mystery! Right now i'am just starting.. Legend by David Lynn Goleman... Have a Merry Christmas mae! and Happy T day! Hugs! deb

Lisca said...

What a great review. I have read several Ann Cleeves novels, but always those that are set in the Shetlands. Never a Vera book. My mum loves the tv series, but not having a tv, I have never seen it. If she is/appears to be clumsy, it's a bit like inspector Columbo. Do you remember him?
Happy T-Day and have a lovely Christmas, if you celebrate it.

Let's Art Journal said...

Thanks for the review, it sounds like a great read ๐Ÿ™‚. Happy T Day wishes and Happy Holidays! Hugs Jo x

Let's Art Journal said...

Thanks for the review, it sounds like a great read ๐Ÿ™‚. Happy T Day wishes and Happy Holidays! Hugs Jo x

Kate Yetter said...

Great book review. I have never read or heard of these books but will add them to my list.
Happy Tea Day,

pearshapedcrafting said...

I don't think I've ever read an Ann Cleeves book but I am familiar with the TV Series that she inspired! Love the food references you found! Happy Holiday to you, hugs, Chrisx

Sharon Madson said...

You have piqued my interest in this first book. Thank you. I am always hunting for new books, especially series! Happy T Day. I hope you have a lovely Christmas.

Jeanie said...

I love Ann Cleeves and her Vera books. She's a wonderful writer. Do you have Britbox? You must find "Vera." Even though not all episodes are based on her books (there are 12 seasons) they are all great plots.