Monday, September 22, 2008

Ann Cleeves' "White Nights"

Ann Cleeves' Raven Black, the first volume in the Shetland Island Quartet, received crime fiction’s highest monetary honor, the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new novel, White Nights, the sequel to Raven Black, and reported the following:
White Nights takes place in Shetland in mid-summer, when it never quite gets dark. It’s about shifting perceptions, pretence, performance, the glitter of celebrity. In one sense page 99 represents the theme. It introduces an Englishman, Peter Wilding, who has rented a house in Biddista, the small community where a stranger has been found hanged. Wilding is a writer of fantasy fiction, something of a celebrity himself.

He was tall, rather good-looking, Perez saw now. He was wearing a striped collarless cotton shirt and jeans, canvas shoes. The writer smiled. He didn’t speak, but waited for his visitor to explain himself. Perez found the silence disconcerting.

Perez supposed he should show his warrant card but couldn’t remember what he’d done with it and introduced himself instead. ‘I wonder if I could ask you a few questions?’

‘Oh, please do. Any excuse to stop staring at a blank laptop screen.’ It was a rich voice, as if he was constantly amused by a private joke. Perez had imagined a writer with a deadline to meet as brooding, self-absorbed, but now there was no hint of that. The man stood aside. ‘I noticed that there’s been some activity on the jetty. Is it about that, I wonder?’ Perez remained silent. ‘Oh well,’ Wilding went on. ‘No doubt you’ll tell me when you’re ready.’ His eyes were so blue that Perez wondered if he was wearing coloured contact lenses. It pleased him to think of Wilding as vain.

Perez has seen Wilding on a previous occasion. The writer was present at the party to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of Fran Hunter’s paintings. The party is disrupted when a stranger, dressed in black, falls to his knees and begins to weep. The man claims not to know who he is or where he’s from. We meet him next as the murder victim, with a mask covering his face.

Fran appeared in the first of the Shetland novels, Raven Black, and we know that the detective, Perez, is attracted to her. At the gallery party Wilding and Fran seem to enjoy each other’s company. That’s why it pleases Perez to think of Wilding as vain. The jealousy hinted at here becomes more relevant later in the book; it clouds Perez’s judgement. He wants Wilding to be the murderer.

It would be convenient for everyone in Biddista if Wilding turned out to be the killer. He’s an incomer, who’s intruded into the small community unsettling the residents. While the theme of what it takes to belong is more important in Raven Black, it’s still there in White Nights. The last paragraph of page 99 emphasises the difference between Wilding the newcomer and the previous occupant:

Willy Jamieson had been born in this house and lived in it until he’d moved into sheltered housing. He’d scratched a living from fishing and, when he was younger, from odd bits of work from the council.

Willy belongs; Wilding is distrusted, an outsider.
Learn more about White Nights at Cleeves's website and read her online diary.

The Page 99 Test: Raven Black.

--Marshal Zeringue