For years, Ann Cleeves introduced herself at book events, unashamedly, as a mid-list writer. Even when her 2006 novel Raven Black, featuring Shetland detective, Jimmy Perez, won the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger, she confessed in her acceptance speech that, after 20 books, she still felt like an impostor.
Now celebrating her 30th year in publishing, the British author remains just as down to earth and modest. With 36 books published, six million copies sold and three successful TV adaptations, does she feel she has finally arrived?
“No,” Cleeves says. “I always had a sense that when I was at publishing events, people were looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important was coming in behind you. That’s not changed.”
Such humility may be because, for the first half of her career, Cleeves needed to supplement her earnings from books through working in libraries, the probation service and childcare. It was, however, her job as a cook in a bird observatory in Fair Isle in Scotland that proved the most life changing. There she met her future husband, ornithologist Tim, to whom she would be married for over 40 years. They moved to Hilbre Island nature reserve on the northwest coast of England where Tim was a warden and, with little else to do, Cleeves began to write.
“We’d no mains electricity or water. I was pregnant and training to be a probation officer. Each morning I went from this idyllic island setting to helping people struggling with drug problems and poverty.” It’s not surprising that so many of her books feature terrible events in beautiful places, while giving a voice to the socially marginalised.
“As a crime writer in England, you have to write about class,” Cleeves contends. “With government cuts to services, it falls on the police to deal with many social problems. The crime novel is perfect for exploring those issues.”
Her early books featured a crime-solving ornithologist and his wife. They are traditional crime novels: “I was reading Golden Age writers so wrote a wealthy sleuth, right down to the double-barrelled surname!” However, when Pan Macmillan announced it would be reissuing those George Palmer-Jones mysteries this year, Cleeves said she wished to reread them, primarily to change some phrasing to better reflect modern attitudes towards mental health.
It’s a topic about which she’s passionate: in 2021 her Reading for Wellbeing project launched. An initiative supported by Public Health England, it sees GPs and social services utilising reading groups and libraries to support those suffering from mental ill health, loneliness or chronic pain. The programme began when Cleeves sponsored two part-time project workers and challenged local GPs and social services to match her funding. It now has nine project workers and, subject to the positive outcome of an ongoing evaluation, could be rolled out across England.
Cleeves is typically modest about her role: “I had the idea, but others did all the hard work.” Still, she recently met the mayor of North Tyneside who promised that all libraries in the area would remain open, warm and welcoming places, each with reading groups continuing through the difficult winter ahead. “If you have a profile, you get publicity and so you can get people to do things,” she says.
She has also used that profile to support other writers, frequently inviting emerging authors to join her in events.
“It’s important that people hear new voices and stories different from their own,” Cleeves says. She remembers benefiting from such support herself from Val McDermid. She has been very careful to pay that forward: a rising tide floats all boats, after all. It’s not a difficult task, she says, because “the crime writing community allows you to develop genuine friendships with other writers”.
Indeed, friendship lies at the heart of her new novel, The Rising Tide, written during lockdown and featuring the shambolically attired but fiercely intelligent DCI Vera Stanhope. Following a group of friends who have met every five years on Holy Island for the past 50, the story takes a dark turn when secrets are unearthed and one of the friends is found hanged.
Friendship has clearly been on Cleeves’ mind recently. “My 6th form was magical. Falling in love, drinking too much coffee, heading off round Dorset with my schoolfriends. And I’m still very close to them.” She believes that the rise of Zoom during lockdown helped rekindle old friendships, albeit with a new perspective. “You’re still the same person, even if you’re older. You still love those friends and have that desire for adventure. That hasn’t changed. But as I’ve got older, I’m more aware of my mortality.”
Vera first appeared in The Crow Trap (1999), a book originally intended as a stand-alone thriller: “An editor at the time told me that ‘detective’ fiction was dead. Yet Vera came to me. Not long after, the editor moved on to a new job and Vera stayed.” Stanhope is a brilliantly realised character, something which has made the TV adaptations, featuring Brenda Blethyn, an easier experience for Cleeves.
“Brenda has read all the books and has a real sense of Vera and what’s in her heart. As a result, she represents Vera on set. If she feels scripts are moving too far away from the character, she sends them back to be revised.” Blethyn inhabiting Vera’s indomitable spirit so closely means Cleeves has felt little need to adapt the world of her books to reflect that of the TV series. “I’ve been lucky. All the adaptations have worked so well because, while plot details change, they’ve got the location and the characters exactly right.”
Both Vera and the new Two Rivers series, featuring detective Matthew Venn, a gentle, clever but deeply conflicted central character, continue on page and screen. However, Cleeves concluded her Shetland series in 2018 with Wild Fire.
“I realised I’d said all I wanted to say about the area,” she explains. On the final pages, Perez, sitting on a ferry, sees a young Tim and Ann heading across to Fair Isle to begin their life together. It’s a tender moment reflecting Cleeves’ enduring affection for the place where she first met her beloved late husband. She still returns often, dividing the rest of her time between North Devon and Northumberland, all of which provide backdrops for her stories. “I can’t imagine writing about anywhere else,’ she says. “For a novel, you need to know the places intimately if you are going to recreate them convincingly.”
She alternates between those settings and protagonists with each new book. She’s just finished the next Devon-set Venn mystery and will then move back to Vera’s Northumberland. It’s a good way to avoid getting bored, she says: “I love coming to the end of a book and having something different to do next. And a new place to visit.”
Having recently signed up for another four books, she’ll be visiting new places for some time yet. Despite this, and the expectations of a huge readership, Cleeves feels no pressure, something she attributes to those years spent on the mid-list: “Writing was fun then. I was able to sit at the kitchen table and make things up. I still am. Nothing has changed.”
If anything, she feels sorry for debut authors, saddled with massive expectations who are considered failures if their books don’t deliver. “Of course, they’re not failures at all,” she says. “But publishing is a ruthless business. Nowadays, I don’t think they’d have allowed me to continue publishing as they did then. I was lucky. Shetland came at the right time.” There was more than luck involved: the series features complex mysteries, the deeply empathetic and engaging DI Perez, and a stunning island backdrop.
Asked what advice she would give her younger self, Cleeves says without hesitation, “Go with the flow, take every opportunity and enjoy it”. She clearly does. “I love meeting readers. I’ve never been to Dublin before so I’m looking forward to Murder One. Since Tim died, I’ve had to go out more on my own, so I enjoy festivals and being part of a group, meeting up with old friends and making new ones.”
In a world where celebrities debut on bestseller charts, Cleeves is an old-school crime writer in every sense, working her way up the list over years, building a readership while honing her craft.
The “Queen of the North” as Slow Horses author Mick Herron describes her, is no impostor.
Ann Cleeves will be in conversation at the Murder One crime writing festival, at dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, October 8th.