Some Other Night, Perhaps, Mr. Tchaikovsky
Nice to See You Again, Mr. Tchaikovsky

Ann Cleeves: Raven Black

My wife and I listened to an audio version of this book on an overnight trip a couple of weeks ago. I picked it from one of several options she gave me (ordinarily she's the one who locates the book and downloads it to her phone) because it is the first of eight novels in a series set in the Shetland Islands, and we've been watching the TV series Shetland, which is based on those books, since it began about then years ago. (I note in passing that this series is only one of several by Ann Cleeves, which come up to a total of several dozen novels, of which the ones I've read are lengthy and complex. I don't understand that level of inventiveness. Granted, Cleeves was born in 1954 and has been at this for a long time. But still.)

We both like the series a great deal, and I recommend it if for no other reason than the gorgeous cinematography of Shetland. So I was curious about the novels. This one is good, an excellent detective story with a complex plot and interesting characters and setting. However, though I am not a connoisseur of detective fiction, and so am subject to correction, I think this one cheats a bit according to what I take to be the traditional rules of the genre. And I can't say any more than that without committing spoilage. 

I was going to remark that Cleeves is not an especially poetic stylist; that is, I didn't find her prose, as a listening experience, noticeably enjoyable for itself. But then I thought that might be unfair: one doesn't, or at least I don't, have the opportunity to savor the language of an audio book, and this is especially true if one is driving a car, as I was for most of this. In that situation I can only try to follow the narrative.

Perhaps if I read her on the page I would have a different view. I tested that conjecture by going to Amazon and reading a few excerpts; it is correct. Here is the opening, poached from Amazon's sample: 

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whisky and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but still he waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland, when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there had been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheen of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.

He must have slept. If he’d been awake he’d have heard them coming because there was nothing quiet in their approach. They weren’t creeping up on him. He’d have heard their laughter and the stumbling, seen the wild swaying of the torch beam through the uncurtained window. He was woken by the banging on the door. He came to with a start, knowing he’d been in the middle of a nightmare, but not sure of the details.

‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.

The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw they were drunk.

Magnus is a recluse, not exactly mentally retarded but not very bright, and quite eccentric. He is one of the people who will be suspected of murdering one of the girls. And I'll leave the plot at that. It is, as I mentioned, pretty complex, and involves in a great deal of the history of the main characters. I'll probably read the next one, at least, to watch their further development. 

Raven Black

Of course I already had, from the series, some sense of their personalities and background. Naturally I was constantly comparing the book to the series--favorably for the most part. And a few days later we (re)watched the Shetland episodes which are based on this book. Naturally there are major differences, and in general I thought they were justifiable, though I wondered if some of them were necessary or smart. I've often thought it would be interesting to sit in on the deliberations of directors and writers developing a dramatization of a novel. It must be a pretty difficult thing. The necessity of putting everything into action and dialogue would force some changes, obviously. And others might be dictated by practical necessity.

One striking change, though not an important one, is that the main detective, Jimmy Perez, is played by an actor who is the visual opposite of the book's Perez. He is not, as the name might suggest, an imported Spaniard, but a native Shetlander whose ancestry goes back generations. The name is attributed by family lore to a sailor of the Spanish Armada who was shipwrecked on one of the Shetland islands, married a native, and never went home. And in the book his complexion and hair are dark. But Perez in the series is played by a very blond and fair-skinned actor, Douglas Henshall. Plausibility is addressed by a remark that the current Perez must have inherited his appearance from the maternal line of that first marriage.

I assume that change was a simple result of the choice among available actors. Another, which is more substantial and which I would have liked to see in the series, is the switch of the series from winter to summer, which significantly changes the atmosphere (no pun intended)--consider the opening quoted above, which is very much determined by the season and even by the particular night. It also eliminates a fairly large piece of furniture from the story: a sort of Viking Mardi Gras festival, Up Helly Aa, pronounced something like UP-ayly-AH, accents on the first and last syllables. (If you don't already know, look at a map and you'll see why Shetland has a Viking connection.) Much of the story involves this festival, and a general winteriness, and I speculate that the change was due to practical constraints of filming.

There was something a bit disappointing in this audiobook. The narrator seems to be English, and apart from dialogue reads in an English accent. I think all the actors in the TV series are actual Scots, and I missed that in the reading. Even in the dialogue, I think the narrator is sometimes a little off.  He pronounces the name of the city of Lerwick, for instance, exactly as it's spelled: Ler-wick, "Ler" rhyming with "there." Whereas in the series it's something like "Lerrick," rhyming with "derrick." Or even "Lerrig." Or  something closer to "Layrig." I have learned, beginning some years ago when I listened to an audiobook of one of M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mysteries, read by a woman who was either Scottish or very skilled at sounding that way, that I very much like the Scottish accent, especially in a woman. And I would have preferred the woman who did the M.C. Beaton book (possibly Davina Porter, but I'm not sure, as I'm not even sure what the title of the book was), or someone like her. (Beaton's career, by the way, makes Cleeves look like a slacker.)

And there's one thing entirely missing from the book that I like very much about the series:  Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, known as "Tosh," played by Alison O'Donnell. She is pretty much my favorite character in the series, because I am delighted every time she speaks. And also by a facial expression she uses from time to time, a sort of grimace in which one side of her mouth turns up and the other down; my wife suggested that she might have been cast specifically to make that face. Perhaps she appears in the later books. You can catch a few glimpses of her in this trailer for the current season, which does not include Perez, because of the departure of Douglas Henshall. I learned from something I came across while looking for a suitable clip that there was a Team Tosh composed of viewers who wanted Tosh to be promoted to Perez's position. Had I known about it, I would have signed up.


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I didn't know about the new season of Shetland until I read this. I didn't expect one, and I doubt it will hold up, but I guess I'll watch it. And there's a new season of Unforgotten - which I thought would end when they killed of the main character. I guess they have to draw these things out until people stop watching.

I expect that’s exactly it. Audience metrics functioning as sort of heart monitor.

I have seen both of them and liked them. Not real crazy about the character who’s apparently going to replace Perez but she’s ok. [redacted] is somewhat harder to replace in my opinion.

Wait -- they killed off which main character in Unforgotten????!!!!

(I knew this already -- just a little reminder to watch out for spoilers.)

I still have to catch up on the last two Shetlands with Perez. And the final season of Line of Duty as well, which to me is the UK equivalent of The Wire -- best British procedural ever.

I've watched a couple good but not great Nordic ones in the interim, plus did a full rewatch of the original Danish The Killing, which is brilliant, especially the first season. Also watched two or three Polish ones but after good starts they grew to be a bit too melodramatic for me.

Oops...I wasn't thinking about spoilers.

I've watched Line of Duty and enjoyed it, but wouldn't rank it with The Wire. The original The Killing finally showed up on Prime, but at a cost of $20 or so, which I would by willing to pay, but it's dubbed, with no option for the original language. I really don't care for dubbing so I passed.

After reading this post, I listened to my library`s sample of the Raven Black audiobook and read the sample of the e-book. I agree it`s odd to hear it read in an English accent, but I really liked the ebook sample and will request the paper book.
I`d like to watch Shetland, based on the trailer, but I hesitate to subscribe to Britbox. I`m afraid my desire to get my money`s worth would lead me to me watch way too many shows.

Odd that you can only get The Killing dubbed on Prime. Generally they give you the option of choosing language and subtitles.

I know, it's very weird and very annoying. If it were free, I'd give it a shot. I just checked again, and I'm not sure it's even really available for purchase. Offered options are: subscribe to a streaming service called Topic, or buy episode 1. Usually those options include purchasing an entire series for $20 or so. So maybe you have to subscribe to Topic to get the whole season. Anyway, ferget it.

Anne-Marie, your caution is justified. There is a LOT there. We don't really watch anything except crime dramas, but there's much more.

I think I got a trial subscription for Topic once because I wanted to watch something on it -- six or seven bucks for a month's trial. Of course it would depend on whether the show came "free" on Topic or if you'd have to pay more for particular shows.

I could do the cancel during trial thing, but I kind of balk at that, out of some misplaced ethical sense. Besides, I don't want the pressure of having to watch eight or ten episodes in seven days.

I have three video and two audio streaming service subscriptions. I feel like I have to draw a line.

Good point. I don't have any -- I sign up to either Prime or Netflix depending on what I want to watch, and I join the former only when Bezos throws me a free month.

I have no moral qualms about cancelling during trial, only practical difficulties. The company makes a judgment of the expected value being worthwhile to them given the probabilities of people, so me being one of those people is factored in. The practical difficulties are the bingeing problem and the likelihood I'll forget to cancel..

We have Prime, in part because my college student son gets it at a discount. Once he graduates and we have to pay full price, we may drop it. But at that point, I think I would be more willing to pay for individual shows.

My ethical reservation is definitely misplaced. :-)

Prime just announced that they are adding commercials, which you can get rid of by paying an extra $2 per month. I think it was $2. Bah. That's just enough to really annoy me but possibly not enough to make me cancel. We'll see.

I knew the commercials were coming, but I was still annoyed when I saw them last night (during the new Kevin James comedy special. He's OK. Not the funniest guy ever, but he goes to my parish so I feel like I need to watch at least some of his stuff). I really should cancel, but I'm more likely to pay the extra to get rid of ads.

It occurs to me that since 80% or more of what I watch via Prime is actually BritBox. Maybe it won't be affected. If it is, I'll have a tough choice, because I have a deep burning hatred of tv commercials. Always have.

Never heard of Kevin James but it's good that there's a Catholic comedian. I suppose and hope he's not as crude as a lot of contemporary comedians seem to be. Or at least that's my not very informed impression.

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