This thriller is deceptively low-key, a celebrity murder set in Fair Isle, off the Shetland Islands. An ideal spot for birdwatching and naturalists’ studies, the Fair Isle field centre boasts a well-known warden, Angela Moore, whose breakthrough book and frequent appearances on television lend glamor to an otherwise obscure scientific venue. The characters are without exception eccentric, dedicated birdwatchers who roam the island with backpacks and binoculars in search of noteworthy species: “They’re all obsessive, these birdwatchers. They come across an area of research and dig away at it.”
Currently, the island is nearly devoid of visitors, a storm confining those few who remain to the centre. Frequently indulging in small cruelties, Angela veers from chronic irritation with her visiting teenaged stepdaughter to the satisfaction of giving notice to the cook. Angela’s older husband, Maurice Parry, remains in thrall to his beautiful wife, basking in her popularity, purposefully oblivious to her flirtations.
While an enthusiastic and dedicated Dougie Barr takes his avocation seriously, standing on the cusp of an exciting find, the insouciant Hugh Shaw cannot resist any opportunity to spread gossip or stir up confrontations between the guests. The two men share a dorm but have little in common. Recovering from another blow in their quest to have a family, the Fowlers are a taciturn couple focused on mending their ragged marriage and John Fowler’s shaky professional reputation.
The threatening weather doesn’t interfere with the celebration of Jimmy Perez’s engagement to Fran, the new fiancé meeting Jimmy’s parents for the first time. The happy couple is embraced by partygoers happy for a diversion from their confinement. Unfortunately, the party is brought to an abrupt end with the discovery of a very dead celebrity. A mainland detective, Perez is the only available authority on scene, forced to switch into professional mode in lieu of backup. Since motive and murderer are unknown, everyone on the island is a suspect. Perez is in the unenviable position of interviewing guests and acquaintances, a patient Fran accepting the sudden change in circumstances, willing to help her fiancé in any capacity he requests: “This was her own moment of triumph.”
The remote location and dispassionate scientific community lend a deceptive aura of calmness to a thriller boiling with repressed emotions and the sudden violence of murder. In interviews with Jimmy and intimate conversations, the various characters reveal their passions, petty professional jealousies and career disappointments, Angela’s stellar reputation suffering from repeated exposure to the truth. Jimmy methodically sifts through potential suspects, conflicted by his familiarity with the islanders and conscious of the dwindling time before Fran will have to leave the island. While I might at times have wished for a glossary of familiar birdwatching terms, nothing could have prepared me for the shocking denouement as Cleeves explores the duplicity of human nature and the deadly seeds of revenge.