I have come very late to Ann Cleeves’ novels and I haven’t actually read all of the previous books in the series featuring Vera Stanhope. Consequently, in reading this, the latest episode concerning the Northumbrian DI, I am behaving very much out of character as I normally prefer to work my way chronologically through a sequence. However, having been given the opportunity to read The Darkest Evening for review, I couldn’t resist the temptation and in fact, reference to the aftermath of one of the cases I have yet to encounter apart, nothing substantial enough seems to have happened to the officers stationed at Kimmerston to make me feel that in doing so I am in anyway spoiling the novels between this and The Glass Room, my most recent read.
It’s the dead of winter; Christmas and the longest night are on the horizon; the snow is falling and against her team’s advice Vera Stanhope is trying to get back to her isolated cottage through the dark and a raging blizzard. Missing her turning she finds herself on a road she normally would not take and discovers an abandoned car, with door wide open and, when she investigates more closely, a toddler tucked up inside. There is no sign of any struggle, no evidence of any foul play, but why would a mother abandon her child on a night as wild as this? Freeing the child’s car seat from its restraints, Vera sets out with the baby in the direction she thinks the driver must have taken, in order to see if she is in need of any help.
Rather than discovering the missing driver, Vera finds herself approaching a once grand but now rather crumbling country house, Brockbank, ancestral home of the Stanhopes. As an adult, Vera’s father, Hector, a youngest son and very much the black sheep of the family, had rarely set foot in the place, and consequently, while Vera has some memories of visiting as a child, those memories are not necessarily happy ones and she approaches the encounter with her relatives with a trepidation we do not normally associate with the blunt and forthright DI. Crispin, Vera’s cousin, is dead, but his widow, Harriet, still lives in the mansion along with her daughter, Juliet, and Juliet’s thespian husband, Mark. Despite the foul weather, a house party is in full swing, as Mark attempts to interest backers in a scheme to turn Brockbank into a theatrical venue and consequently Vera’s interruption is not particularly well received. However, when one of the Stanhope’s tenants, Neil Heslop, arrives to collect his daughters, waitressing for the evening, with news that he has discovered a body, they are only too grateful that the police are already on the scene.
The body turns out to be that of Lorna Falstone, also a member of a tenant family, and it is clear from the start that she has been brutally murdered. Lorna has struggled as a teenager, suffering from anorexia, and in her tentative recovery and life as a young mother she has been supported by her former primary teacher, Constance Browne. Her relationship with her parents, Jill and Robert, has been less secure and when questioned it is clear that they know little of her current life and can offer no suggestion as to who might be the father of her young son, Thomas. Reluctantly, Vera leaves the toddler with them, unexpectedly showing, if not exactly a maternal side, then a concern for the child that is more personal than professional.
Hampered by the weather, the Stanhopes’ less than helpful attitude and Lorna’s, if not exactly secretive then certainly very private, lifestyle, Vera, along with her usual crew, Joe, Holly and Charlie, makes little progress towards discovering the identity of the murderer, although several possible motives begin to rear their heads and then Constance Browne goes missing. Did she know more about Lorna‘s life and personal entanglements than she has let on? Has she seen something, somebody, and consequently poses a threat that must be eliminated?
However gruff Vera may appear on the outside, I think anyone who has read the earlier novels knows that there is both a softer and more vulnerable individual hidden behind the unforgiving and unprepossessing exterior. In The Darkest Evening those warmer aspects of her character begin to show more openly, especially in relation to young Thomas, who may or may not turn out to be a distant relative. Questions of fatherhood abound and it isn’t only Thomas’s paternity that is called into question as the investigation progresses. I liked this rather more vulnerable Vera and I also found myself more in sympathy with Holly than has been the case in the previous books I’ve read. She and Vera seem to be coming to something of an accommodation with each other, perhaps beginning to realise that they have more in common than either might like to admit. All in all, a worthy addition to the continuing story of Vera Stanhope; now to go back and fill in the gaps.
With thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy.