I had the interesting experience of reading Anne Cleeves’ The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope series book #1) while listening to the audio book version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Alcott and Cleeves are both superb writers, but what struck me was the contrast between the hope and optimism of the one set against the dysfunction and hopelessness of the other. Curiously, the circumstances ought to have brought out the reverse.
Four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their mother, are trying to survive in Concord, Massachusetts with their father away in the Civil War and having to make due with very little money. They live in an era before antibiotics or vaccinations when almost any infection could kill you and are in the midst of the deadliest war America has ever faced. Furthermore, it is long before the welfare state and the only help the very poor received, sprang from the generosity of others. Yet the March daughters had a strong faith, a profound sense of obligation toward others in need even if they weren’t family, a bright optimism for the future, and relationships with each other and their mother and father that made them want to spend time with each other.
Jump from 1862 to the late twentieth century and we have five women in England in the North Pennines. In contrast to the Alcott girls they live in a time of modern medicine, the welfare state, and a time of relative political peace where starving to death or dying from an infection is an almost unheard of event. Yet, one of the women has already committed suicide (Bella Furness), the three educated women conducting an environmental survey, are quite different, but each is beset with her own troubles that so consume her, that there is little evidence that she can care about anyone except herself.
Finally there is Vera Stanhope, a brilliant detective who seems obsessed with her own homeliness, loneliness and the poor relationship she had with her deceased father, Hector. She seems to take out her frustrations on her assistant (Joe Ashworth) who has a happy family life, or would have if Vera didn’t take such delight in calling him out at all hours of the day or night to help with some aspect of their investigation. She’s clever enough to know exactly how far she can push Joe before he quits, or Joe’s beleaguered wife insists he change jobs.
It may be true that Ann Cleeves is an accurate reporter on our times, but it still tells me how far we have fallen from the hope, optimism, and selflessness of our past, and how extensively hopelessness and relational dysfunction seems to color our world. Cleeves writes well, but it’s hard for me to spend extended time is such a world colored a dismal grey. I enjoy it in small doses and then read something more hopeful before I dive in again.