First Sentence: Lorna lifted Thomas from his high chair and held him for a moment on her knee.
DCI Vera Stanhope comes upon a car that has skidded off the road in a snowstorm. There is no driver to be seen, but an infant has been left secured in a child seat. Knowing she can't leave him there, Vera and the child head for a nearby house; Brockburn, where her father grew up. When a neighbor of the house finds the body of a murdered woman half-covered by the snow, Vera calls up her team to solve the crime, uncovering family secrets along the way.
Vera is one of the best creations of contemporary mystery fiction. She is older, overweight, rather shabby, completely devoid of maternal instinct, and raised in a way to make her a loner, yet not unaffected by how others view her, and not without insecurities—"She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded."
In addition to her descriptions of Vera, Cleeves creates a vivid sense of place—"The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars."—and scene—"…pheasant, cooked slowly with red wine and shallots…And a vegetable casserole…Roast potatoes and parsnips and sprouts…A variety of puds, hot and cold."
Vera's relationship with her team is interesting. She knows their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Although she seems to take advantage of them, in knowing what drives them, she is helping them grow and improve individually and as a unit. What makes it work is that they understand what she is doing. They know her, too, with the teammates often bolstering one other.
Cleeve's books are as much personality studies as they are mysteries. By focusing on motivation, it becomes clear how the past can influence the present and the future. One cannot help analyzing oneself in the process.
The plot is excellent. The information on anorexia is well presented and stresses the severity of the disease—which not simply an issue of vanity. There are plenty of questions and red herrings. The question as to who fathered the baby leads to effective supposition. A "ta-dah" moment gives way to real suspense and threat, and a wonderfully English ending.
"The Darkest Evening" is another example of Cleeves' excellent storytelling. The climax is well done and even touching. It's a mystery one may not figure out before the end when it all makes sense, and the use of Frost's poem in the title is perfect.
THE DARKEST EVENING (PolProc-Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) - Ex
Cleeves, Ann – 9th in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2020, 384 pp.