Off the north coast of Devon sits the island of Gillibry, the location of the Observatory, an ornithological retreat. It is funded by a trust, but the annual weekend meeting of that trust is disrupted when the actual owner of the island, Charlie Todd, announces that he is going to sell the island – and not to anyone who wants to keep the Observatory running.
Needless to say, tempers run high. Charlie’s isolated dwelling catches fire “by accident” and, after he escapes that blaze, he is found the next day in one of the hides, strangled by a net. Enter George Palmer-Jones, birdwatcher and ex-civil servant, (and eventually his wife Molly). George agrees to help the police, but when a second murder occurs, they are convinced they have got their man. Can George find the real killer before an innocent man is sent to prison?
I picked this one to read on the train yesterday on the way to the British Library for a discussion between Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards and Mark Lawson on “The Return Of The Golden Age In Crime Fiction”. It was an odd sort of talk, as while Martin clearly is an expert on the Golden Age, I was unsure as to how much of an expert Ann was. It was a bit like discussing the 1996 World Cup Final with Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton. Lineker certainly knows a lot about it, but Bobby Charlton actually played in the match, so it seemed a little unbalanced. I presume that this is the reason why Lawson deviated wildly from the topic for a fair chunk of the talk, focusing on all areas of crime fiction, but steering it often into the area of more recent crime writing, and areas where Ann had considerable more expertise. It was a highly entertaining experience (the high point being when Martin waved at me from the stage – I do hope he doesn’t think I’m stalking him) but I do hope that people expecting a more focused discussion on the topic in the title didn’t go away disappointed. And it was extremely odd that the books on sale outside the talk didn’t include any of the Crime Classics series for Martin to sign. Luckily, I brought my own…
Anyway, one of the most interesting topics that was discussed was how the two writers plot their books. Ann basically makes it up as she goes along, not knowing who the killer is until her writing reveals itself to her. She also cited a preference to Sayers and Allingham over the tight puzzle plotting of Christie. Which is odd, because this is one of the most Christie-esque books that I’ve read in a long time.
Let’s take a look – isolated island, a shock murder-inducing revelation, small group of mismatched characters, all with a motive to kill the victim, police who take the easy solution, a character who announces that she knows something, arranges to tell it the next day and then gets murdered in the night – yup, all sounds pretty Christie to me.
The only exception is the lack of a most-unlikely-therefore-most-likely-suspect, although the killer’s not a million miles away from this, although there is at least one other character who falls into the most-unlikely category. The solution is logical and, I think, fairly clued. Oh, and I got the killer completely wrong by the way…
It’s a more straightforward tale than the work that Ann is best known for, but these books, along with the Inspector Ramsay series, make up the first fourteen on Ann’s books – her latest, Cold Earth, is her thirtieth novel – and they shouldn’t be overlooked. Luckily Bello Books reissued them as ebooks and paperbacks a couple of years ago, so they are readily obtainable again. I really enjoyed this one and while I’ll be dipping into the Vera series next time I read one of Ann’s books, I’ll be back for more from this one as well soon. Highly Recommended.