Shetland is an archipelago of around 100 island, of which 16 are inhabited by a total of some 23,000 people. It normally features on maps of Scotland in a box near the top right hand corner, so it comes as a surprise to most people to find out that it lies over a hundred miles north of mainland Scotland; that it is nearer to Bergen in Norway than to Aberdeen; that it is further north than Moscow or southern Greenland; and that Lerwick is as far as Milan is from London. This all serves to give Shetland a unique and highly distinctive personality.
Ann Cleeves has been writing novels for three decades, and crime novels about Shetland for the past ten years. Taking "Cold Earth" into account, her "Shetland" series comprises seven novels, and it's tempting to suggest that over the course of them she has thinned out the population of the archipelago, if only slightly. The series is well named because although there is a single main protagonist, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the central character of the books is without any doubt Shetland itself. Ann Cleeves succeeds in getting beneath the skin of the islands and bringing them to life in a way that is simply compelling. Even, as here, when the short gloomy days and dismal weather of winter is being portrayed, Shetland emerges as somewhere quite magical. We suspect that Ann Cleeves has done a lot for tourism in the islands.
"Cold Earth" finds Jimmy Perez attending a February funeral of an elderly neighbour. Torrential rain triggers a landslide that nearly engulfs the mourners, and smashes through a nearby croft house. It's supposed to be empty, but in the wreckage D.I. Perez finds the body of dark-haired woman wearing a red silk dress. Her identity is a mystery, and Perez sets out to discover who she was. Then it emerges that she was murdered, presumably by someone whose plans to conceal the body more permanently were thwarted by the landslide. Perez and his team are reinforced by the arrival of Detective Chief Inspector Willow Reeves and forensic support from Inverness, and the investigation shifts up a gear. Ann Cleeves is a master of misdirection, and the twists and turns of the story are beautifully calculated to keep the reader engaged, and guessing, right to the end. The best mysteries have conclusions that cannot be predicted in advance, yet which feel natural and right with hindsight, once the author has revealed their hand. So it is with "Cold Earth", but that's as far as we'll go in discussing the plot to avoid spoiling it for you.
The Shetland series will be known to many who have seen the deservedly successful TV dramas based initially on the books and subsequently on the characters. D.I. Jimmy Perez is played by Douglas Henshall, so convincingly it is now impossible to read the books without seeing him in your mind's eye as you do so. This can lead to slight discontinuities as the reader comes to terms with, for example, the fact that Jimmy's step-daughter Cassie is very much younger in the books than she is in the TV adaptation, but it's not something that gets in the way of your enjoyment of an outstanding novel.