The first Shetland book, RAVEN BLACK, was planned as a stand-alone novel. My editor thought it would be stretching credibility too far to have a series of murder mysteries set in a community of less than 25,000 people. But then the reviews were good, and it went on to win the Dagger and she decided that after all the central character, Jimmy Perez, might feature in a short series. I decided on a quartet with each title set in a different season. Shetland is so far north – closer to Bergen than to Edinburgh – that the weather and the time of year makes each season dramatically different.
But with the completion of BLUE LIGHTNING, the final book of the quartet, I felt bereft. I’d been visiting the islands since the mid-seventies when I dropped out of university and got a job as assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle. Writing the books gave an extra depth to the visits. I was sitting in croft kitchens and gossiping but now I could tell myself that it was work… And I’d come to like Jimmy Perez, the Fair Islander whose ancestors had survived an Armada shipwreck. I wanted to follow him in the next stage of his life.
So I’ve decided to write a new quartet and DEAD WATER is the first of that series. Shetland is an interesting community. It’s dynamic and open to incomers while being fiercely proud of its own traditions. It has a confidence and willingness to take risks that’s at least in part a result of the affluence brought by oil. But now the oil is running out and the islands council has to make difficult choices. In DEAD WATER I explore the tension between the drive to explore new sources of energy – wind and tide – and the reluctance to accept change. Shetlander Jerry Markham left the islands to become a journalist on a big English National newspaper. When he returns it’s unclear whether he’s on the trail of a big story or if his motive is more personal. His body is found in a yoal, a traditional boat, floating on the water and the pursuit of his killer leads the investigation to Sullom Voe, the oil terminal to the north of Shetland Mainland.
I was in the islands a couple of weeks ago for the preview screening of SHETLAND, the BBC adaptation of RED BONES, the third Jimmy Perez book. We were in Mareel the new arts centre right on the water in Lerwick and everyone involved with the project was nervous. Shetlanders had been hugely supportive during the filming, lending their houses as locations, giving technical support, even recreating Up Helly Aa, the famous fire festival. What would they make of this portrayal of their home? We needn’t have worried. The audience was caught up in the story and just wanted to know what happened next.
I’ll be back in Shetland at the end of January to launch DEAD WATER. And to begin research for the second book in the new quartet.
DEAD WATER by Ann Cleeves is published by Macmillan, £16.99 hardback. The BBC 1 two-part adaptation of RED BONES, titled Shetland, will be broadcast in March.