Reviews / Cleeves talk ‘enjoyable but slightly unfocused’

Ann Cleeves signed copies of her new book Cold Earth out in the Mareel foyer. Photo: Davie Gardner

A BOOK launch is usually a straightforward affair: the author reads some extracts and talks a little about the book to entice people to buy it. However, when that book is Ann Cleeves’ new Shetland-based murder novel, and to discuss the plot risks spoiling the enjoyment of unravelling the mystery, what’s to be done?


Shetland on Page and Screen was an attempt to solve this puzzle. A panel comprised of Cleeves, eminent forensic pathologist Dr James Grieve and local music promoter and journalist Davie Gardner – who has been heavily involved with the BBC adaptation of Cleeves’ stories, Shetland – graced the stage at Mareel in Lerwick on Saturday night for the launch of Cold Earth.

The panel, entertainingly compèred by Shetland Arts’ Bryan Peterson, managed to avoid spoiling the new book by saying very little about it at all.

Cold Earth is the seventh book set in Shetland starring Cleeves’ Detective Jimmy Perez, and her 30th novel overall. Perhaps going by the rule that less-is-more, all that Cleeves gave away about the book was a fairly brief extract, in which a landslide at a funeral, which Detective Perez happens to be at, wipes out a croft and exposes the body of a woman.


Appetites suitably whetted, the audience was told that if they wanted to know any more, they would have to read the book (which was, incidentally, on sale in the foyer). Cold Earth was rarely mentioned after this, and the evening became very much about the novels as a whole, and the BBC adaptation.


Dr Grieve, as professor of forensic pathology at the University of Aberdeen, was able to fill the audience in a little on the role of the pathologist, the ins-and-outs of forensic science, and the trade-off between artistic license and scientific reality.

Dr Grieve, who is fictionalised in Cleeves’ novels (as a “short man with very shiny shoes”, no less), discussed the fact behind the fiction with authority and humour – he was disarmingly funny and possibly the highlight of the evening.

Ann Cleeves and Dr James Grieve proved to be an enjoyable double act at Mareel in Lerwick. Photo: Davie Gardner

The spotlight soon moved to Davie Gardner to speak about the filming of Shetland. Davie’s tales of working on the series as the productions’ local liaison were as informative as they were engaging.

From a description of how they had to recreate Up Helly Aa in the middle of summer with a mere 300 extras to how the entire production team of nearly 70 managed to get to Fair Isle (lots of trips in the nine-seater inter-island plane) and get around the island by borrowing the locals’ vehicles, Davie painted a vivid picture of the trials and tribulations of trying to capture the essence of a place as unique as Shetland on film.

Since it was widely discussed (and derided) at the time, it seems important to note that Davie also explained how, in the most recent series of Shetland, a character managed to run from Bigton to Eshaness during a chase sequence. He described how he had managed to find an old croft near some tall cliffs that fit the requirements of the scene perfectly, only for the director to decide the cliffs were not dramatic enough, and insisted on using Eshaness instead.


Dr Grieve was more than happy to answer questions about death by suffocation, and Davie ran through the budget for shooting a series of Shetland: series two spent in the region of £350,000 for a two-month shoot, and up to £500,000 for series three. The vast majority of this, he noted, was spent in Shetland; local accommodation for the cast and crew, catering, and down the pub.

Perhaps the most illuminating discussions came from the Q&A session at the end of proceedings. Cleeves mentioned that she is already working on her next Shetland-set novel, Wild Fire, and that it seems likely no more of her books will be adapted for TV (the last series of Shetland was an original story using Cleeves’ characters and setting, into which she had no input).

It was certainly an interesting and entertaining evening, but one that seemed to lack focus. As the crowd moved out to the foyer for the book-signing, it definitely felt like they had spent 90 minutes getting fired up about Shetland as opposed to Cold Earth.

Shetland on Page and Screen would have been far better as two separate events. It was enjoyable to be sure, but clearly less than the sum of its parts.

In the end, it left the little grey cells wondering why, with the Wordplay literary festival just around the corner, the opportunity for two great events was missed, and one decent-but-unfocused one was presented in its place.

Alex Garrick-Wright