Shetland author Ann Cleeves: Why I had to say goodbye to Jimmy Perez
- Credit: Micha Theiner
'I wanted to go when people wanted more, rather than starting to get a bit bored' says East Anglian-bound author
The Queen of Crime is just where she should be: on her beloved Shetland Islands. They've done much for her, over the years, and she's given a lot back. Ann Cleeves had published five successful novels, set on the islands, before the BBC adapted one of her tales of foul play for TV in 2013 and found an even bigger audience for her story-telling. But now the 8th and final book about Det Insp Jimmy Perez and his tight-knit team is out. And there won't be a ninth.
A surprise, perhaps, given that four TV series have lent such momentum, with a fifth currently being filmed. But Ann had her exit strategy worked out long ago. So when exactly did she decide Wild Fire would signal the end?
'I think when starting on book five.' Dead Water, out in 2013. 'I thought I'd do another quartet, and that would be it. I'd have said enough about Shetland, then.
'I think there's a danger of going on too long, because you lose interest in a character. There are only so many stories you can tell about one person. If you carry on too long, you tend to repeat yourself. I certainly wanted to go when people wanted more, rather than starting to get a bit bored with it.'
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But wasn't it a difficult decision, as Douglas Henshall has become the face of the detective?
'The TV series can continue. There's no need to stop. They've taken a quite different path already. They're doing original stories and they're very beautifully done, and they're very, very true to the central character, so I don't think that will change at all. That's fine with me, for them to carry on doing that. Great!'
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She finished the book last autumn. Was it a sad moment? A happy one?
'Both, I think. I wanted to end it in the right way. I wanted to think quite carefully about how it would end.'
There was some disappointment among fans when it dawned there'd be no more fresh cases (in print at least) for Perez to get his teeth into.
'But I think I would, as I said, go out while people were still wanting more, than thinking the books were starting to lose their punch. I would rather go out on a high, like sportsmen.'
I talked to Ann on Wednesday – a beautiful, lovely, still day on the island of Whalsay, with just a little bit of high cloud. She and her publicist had driven from Lerwick, the main town in Shetland, to take a roll-on, roll-off ferry to the smaller island. There, she was talking to students about Wild Fire.
Then it was back to Lerwick to give the book its UK launch at the town hall. Fitting, as Shetland and her crime novels 'changed my life'.
'I first went to Shetland more than 40 years ago. I dropped out of university and got a job as assistant cook at the Bird Observatory in Fair Isle – the remotest inhabited island in the UK.
'I fell in love with it from the minute I got there. It's the wildness and the peace. It was very different, especially then.
'Now, with mobile phones and mass communication, it doesn't feel so remote, but then oil was being brought ashore and it felt a bit like a gold-rush community in Lerwick. But out in Fair Isle people were still harvesting by hand; there was one woman who still milked a cow by hand.'
Considering the profile her crime mysteries have given the islands, is she lauded as The Queen of Shetland whenever she returns?
'Ah, lovely!' Ann laughs. 'Not quite. I think it's bringing lots of tourists to the islands – which is brilliant, because the islands aren't making so much from oil anymore, so they're glad of people coming in. But there's a lot of cultural tourism here – a lot of music festivals; a great film festival.
'Mark Kermode curates that. Timothy Spall was up last week, and Nick Park talking about Wallace and Gromit. So there are lots of people who come for the culture as are coming to see where the TV series was filmed. It just adds to that, really.'
I don't suppose her island pals allow their heads to be turned by any showbiz hoohah.
'No, course not! Because we're friends and have known each other for ages.' There was 'quite a big party' planned during this visit to thank all the people who have helped her in one way or another.
Ann had another reason to thank Shetland: She met husband-to-be Tim while she was cooking on Fair Isle all those years ago. He was a visiting ornithologist. According to her website, she was 'attracted less by the ornithology than the bottle of malt whisky she saw in his rucksack when she showed him his room'.
Very sadly, Tim died suddenly last December, after being taken into hospital for a heart condition.
His influence had contributed to the start of her writing career and the shape of her first novel.
Shortly after they married, Tim was made warden of a tiny nature reserve in the Dee estuary. They were the only people, and there was no mains electricity or water. Not being devoted to bird-watching, Ann started writing.
Later, they'd go quite often to coastal Norfolk – to places such as Cley – so Tim could follow his passion. 'My first book, ever, was set there in north Norfolk: called A Bird in the Hand (out in 1986). So I have great affection for it; good memories.'
While Ann has no more adventures in store for Jimmy Perez, there's unfinished business with Det Ch Insp Vera Stanhope, a clever but dowdy-ish sleuth played on screen since 2011 by Brenda Blethyn.
'I've got a bit more to say about Vera. It's a wider palette in the North East. There are only 23,000 people who live in all the Shetland Islands, and although each community is different, they're not that different. Whereas if I'm writing about Northumberland, you've got the beautiful moors and the beaches, small market towns and all that going on, as well as the more-depressed post-industrial landscape that I find quite interesting. So there's a greater variety of background to choose from… more to say.'
What's it like for a writer to hand their characters over to TV scriptwriters and directors? Must be like having a teenager leave home for university – a bit sad.
'Well, it's not for me. I'm quite happy to do that. I think when readers get hold of a book it's (then) not mine anyway, because they see the characters differently in their heads and they have their own creative vision.
'I think reading is much more active than it's thought. You're not being passive: you're having to create those images yourself. Handing over stories to a scriptwriter and a director is just taking that one stage further.'
So what's next?
'I'll be writing a new (book) series. A fairly traditional crime story, but I hope it will be a bit different, with a bit of a twist. I'm hoping it will be published this time next year. It's set in north Devon, which is where I come from.'
What's the essence?
'I suppose people think of it' – north Devon – 'as holiday places, beaches, surfing, cream teas. But because it has some towns that were Victorian seaside towns, with big hotels and guesthouses, and (because) people now don't choose that sort of holiday so much, it's attracted more transient people.
'Some of the guesthouses have been turned into hostels for recovering addicts, or asylum seekers, and there are people who come and work in the hotels or the holiday parks in the summer and then stay on because they haven't got anywhere else to go. Like quite a lot of faded seaside towns, really; but it's quite interesting, I think, to write about.'
What does writing do for her? Why does she love it?
'Oh, a lot of it is an escape. But it's also a way of exploring what I make of the world, because you can tease out ideas in fiction that are harder to do in non-fiction.'
But for the moment Ann's saying goodbye to a certain detective, though not to the islands he's been policing.
'It certainly doesn't end my relationship with Shetland! I'll still be coming up, seeing friends. But I'll be able to come as a visitor now, in a lighter-hearted way, because I won't be coming looking for (ideas about) books and thinking about stories.'
Bet an author can never entirely switch off that ideas-seeking antenna, though. A writer's imagination is never off-duty.
Well, Ann says, she might come across something that inspires a short story or a ghostly tale. 'But there will be no more Jimmy Perez in fiction – though there might well be on the screen.'
Jarrold, the Norwich store, hosts An Evening with Ann Cleeves on Monday, September 10. It runs from 6.30pm to 8.30pm at The Pantry Restaurant on floor three.
'Join us for an evening of conversation and insight into Wild Fire, the eighth and (brace yourself) final novel in the Shetland series,' says Jarrold.
There are two options: Single tickets at £16.99 and couples' tickets at £21.99.
They're available online (jarrold.co.uk) and at customer services, floor two. Tickets include one copy of the book and a glass of wine on the evening.
So what's Wild Fire about?
Drawn by the reputation of the islands, an English family moves to the area, keen to give their autistic son a better life. But when a young nanny's body is found hanging in their barn, rumours of her affair with the husband spread like wild fire.
Perez is called in to investigate, knowing it will mean the return to the islands of his on-off lover and boss, Willow Reeves, who will run an inquiry shaping up to be the most disturbing investigation of his career.
Wild Fire is published by Macmillan. General retail price £16.99
Woman behind the words
Ann Cleeves was born in 1954
Grew up in the country: in Herefordshire, then North Devon
Father was a village schoolteacher
Studied English at university in Sussex but left early
Had number of temporary jobs: child care officer, women's refuge leader, cook, auxiliary coastguard
Went back to college and trained as probation officer
Has two daughters
2006: Won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the top crime-writing prize in the world, for Raven Black, the first in the Shetland Island series
The Vera Stanhope series had started earlier: In 1999, with The Crow Trap
Other Vera novels include The Glass Room, and The Seagull last year
There have been eight series of Vera on ITV
Autumn, 2016: Thirtieth book published, in as many years
Last October: Awarded the Diamond Dagger by the Crime Writers' Association. The highest honour in British crime writing, it's a lifetime achievement award that celebrates excellence in writing
Ann's books have been translated into 20 languages
They're bestsellers in Scandinavia and Germany, and popular in America