Ann Cleeves, bestselling crime novelist and creator of TV big-hitters Veraand Shetland, knows how banal real-life murder can be. A man serving a prison sentence for strangling a prostitute once told her why he did it: “Because she laughed at me and she wouldn’t stop laughing.”
Cleeves is more aware than most of the over-powering motivations that can lead one human being violently to take the life of another. Before she became a professional writer she was a probation officer. It led into the darkest byways of damaged lives, and was grist to her writerly mill.
“Being a probation officer was very hard work, but it was good experience, not so much knowing about courts and police procedure, but the chance to go into people’s houses to ask really nosey questions. I could ask whatever I liked – an amazing experience for a crime writer.”
Cleeves, 59, came to crime-writing relatively late after an eclectic career as, among other things, an assistant cook in a bird observatory on Fair Isle. Her first novel, A Bird in the Hand, was published in 1986 but she’s scornful of it. “Oh, it was dreadful. I’d read lots of Golden Age [of crime fiction] stuff so I thought you had to have a posh central character. Mine had a double-barrelled name and was an elderly naturalist sleuth.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that her publishers asked her to do a big, stand-alone psychological novel because they felt the more classic detective novel had gone out of fashion. Thus DI Vera Stanhope – resolutely, proudly North-Eastern, fat, unattractive, shambolic, charismatic, intensely clever – was born. But The Crow Trap wasn’t an instant passport to success because it didn’t sell.
Yet, in one of those happy bits of synchronicity that life throws up from time to time, it meant that years later there were lots of spare copies washing around Britain’s charity shops. One of them, the Oxfam shop in Crouch End, north London, was visited by ITV producer Elaine Collins, who was looking for a substantial new detective series to replace A Touch of Frost on Sunday nights. She picked up The Crow Trap, read it and loved it. Brenda Blethyn was cast as Vera and the first in what was to become a big ITV drama success was broadcast in 2011.
Says Collins, who’s also executive producer of Shetland: “I knew straightaway the Vera books were perfect for adaptation. No gratuitous sexual violence and a completely distinctive, highly intelligent middle-aged woman picking crime born out of recognisably human situations.”
In an embarrassment of riches for the modest, quietly spoken Cleeves, not very long afterwards BBC drama chiefs decided they wanted to adapt her Shetland series of novels for BBC1 with Douglas Henshall as her quietly tormented detective Jimmy Perez. Again, Shetland won huge audiences. So Ann Cleeves is a big name on the biggest TV channels, which must make her the envy of her fellows. “There are crime writers all over the country who stick pins in little images of me every night.”
Of course, TV exposure has led to a late explosion in the popularity of Cleeves’s books, including her extensive back catalogue of both Vera and Shetland novels. But she’s not precious about handing over her work for adaptation and doesn’t react to changes like some authors, as if their hearts have been torn from their chests.
“People ask me, ‘Are you cross when they change the murderer or cut characters or add characters?’ but I think in both Vera and Shetland they’ve really captured the essence of the books. You’ve got to be relaxed about it. I write for entertainment and if they can make an entertaining TV show, that’s all to the good.”
The Vera and Shetland books and adaptations thrum with a sense of place, something that’s key to Cleeves both personally and professionally. She might have been born in Devon, but she’s a North Easterner by adoption; she and her husband Tim, an ornithologist, live in a Northumbrian former pit village and their two daughters have both married Geordies.
“Murder really is about putting a community under stress so you can see it at its most intense. In both Northumberland [where Vera is set] and Shetland you have that contradiction between open landscapes and secrets. There are small communities harbouring secrets, skeletons in cupboards are not often spoken about.”
Her novels are thoughtful, elegant essays on how a sudden, violent death can tear jagged strips through a family and community. There are no serial killers and no sexual sadism towards women. She baulks at both. In fact we both took part in a recent Newsnight discussion on how TV crime drama treats its female characters (badly).
“I’m not interested in reading about psychopaths because I come from a tradition of the classic detective story where there is a plausible motive. I don’t believe in a psychopath who hates women because his grandmother stuck him in a cupboard when he was seven or his mother was a prostitute. These sorts of facile, glib reasons for somebody to go out and sadistically kill women, I just don’t believe them.
“I’ve met murderers and most of them are pathetic, inadequate little men who couldn’t cope with life or who had drunk too much. Or they were frustrated and angry individuals, they weren’t clever and they weren’t damaged in the way that serial killers in novels and on television are often damaged in a very simplistic way.”
She’s writing a new Vera novel and the latest in the Shetland saga, Thin Air, will be published in September. Before that, she’ll be at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival to host a murder-mystery dinner and a talk with Peter May, author of the Lewis Trilogy. And in September she’s undertaking a 24 Islands/ 24 Hours challenge with events on 24 islands in Orkney and Shetland to raise awareness about libraries and how they should be treasured. (She campaigns against council closures of libraries.)
Meanwhile, Cleeves will continue to do essential research by eavesdropping, so if you see her on a bus or a train, mind what you say: “I don’t understand how anyone can write if they don’t use public transport. I earwig all the time.”