Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves (2007)

28th April 2023

Hidden Depths is the third of Ann Cleeves’s detective stories set in the North East of England and featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. It has subsequently been followed by seven others, which the prolific Cleeves has – to date – published in parallel with the nine stories centred upon DI Jimmy Perez on Shetland and 18 other crime novels and novellas. As Vera and Shetland have been highly popular television adaptations – on ITV and the BBC, respectively – the author has enjoyed great success in this genre in recent years. (Hidden Depths was the first of the Vera transmissions in 2011).

For many new readers, it will be inevitable that the initial perception of Vera Stanhope will be determined by the skilful way in which the actress Brenda Blethyn has played the role on television. And, indeed, many of her characteristics and circumstances are interchangeable between page and screen: her empathy with the downtrodden, her ability to deflate the pompous antagonist, her lonely domestic life in her late father’s remote Northumbrian cottage…

But other things are different, not least her physical appearance. Her introduction in Hidden Depths refers to “the fat woman wedged in the Delcar armchair” and, later, one of her interviewees makes a mental note of her “loud intrusive voice, her big feet, the heavy hands…” Having climbed up several flights of stairs to interview a suspect, Vera herself acknowledges that “I don’t like lifts. I’m never quite sure they’ll carry my weight”. However, whilst we wait for the culture warriors to impose their Roald Dahl-like amendments to these descriptions in future editions of the books, it remains the case that Vera is as sharp as a tack and fully observant of the detail of the world around her.

Vera Stanhope – and, by extension, we – are seeking to solve two murders that occurred with a couple of days of each other: one of a teenage boy and the other of a young woman. Although there appears to be absolutely nothing to link the victims in terms of mutual friends or contacts, the ways in which their bodies were placed make it difficult for Vera to deny a connection. In addition, we learn early on that the mother of the boy had recently become close to one of a group of the four keen birdwatchers who, whilst sea-watching at a watch tower on the coast, had discovered the second victim. A coincidence or not?

The Detective Inspector is alternately frustrated by and respectful of the efforts of her supporting team: the young, keen Holly Lawson, the experienced and slightly resentful Charlie Robson and, notably, her Detective Sergeant, Joe Ashworth. “I’ve taught you well”, she reflects to herself, when, seeking information about a university lecturer, Joe informally ingratiates himself with a couple of female students in a café near the university. She is less impressed when Joe introduces her to the girls as his auntie.

The role of Newcastle and its environs is given full rein. We learn that the suburb of West Jesmond is a relatively prosperous location in which it would be unusual for a group of students to be sharing accommodation; North Shields was “still not quite respectable, but interesting” with the new apartments, bars and restaurants on the Fish Quay meaning that “there was no shame in living in Shields these days”; by contrast, another (unnamed) location on the coast “… had once been famous for its docks. Now it’s only claim to fame was as the drugs capital of the North East”.

The comforting patois of the locals in their environs is used by Vera Stanhope to her advantage, though not always consistently with the requirements of political correctness. “H’away, hinny. and let me in. I called at the baker’s at the corner and got a couple of custard slices. Let’s get the kettle on and have a civilised chat”, she suggests to an elderly lady reluctant to let her through the front door. “Don’t be daft, lad. I’ve worked with more loonies than you’ve had hot dinners. And I don’t just mean the offenders”, she later responds to another interviewee, when it is suggested that she might be uncomfortable making enquiries in the confines of a psychiatric day centre.

Hidden Depths contains many of the expected characteristics of the modern detective novel: the detailed contributions from the crime scene investigators, the black humour of the pathologist, the red herrings, the sudden revelations of character relationships, the shortlist of potential murderers and, at the conclusion, the race against time to save another potential victim. Ann Cleeves moves the story on briskly and I enjoyed being in the company of the dogged Vera Stanhope and her colleagues on their home patch. As for my detective skills, I had tentatively decided on my chief suspect by about the half-way stage and then changed my mind and then changed it back again. Pleasingly, by the end, Vera and I were on the same wavelength.

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