In the first couple pages, we meet a young woman, Lorna, with a young son that she has fought for fiercely. We know little about her, other than she was once ill and overcame it, and now has a young son. It's just before Christmas, and it's nasty weather.
When Vera is lost in the blizzard, and comes across a stranded car with a baby in the backseat, we know where it's heading, that something happened to the boy's mother. But, it's Vera's panic at being lost that we feel. When she can take on her persona as a police officer and rescue the baby, she overcomes her fear. Then, she's forced to face her family past when she shows up at Brockburn, the family estate of the Stanhopes, where she and her outcast father, Hector, were not welcome in her younger years. Even though she's not fond of the family, and knows Harriet, her aunt, always looked down on them, she's willing to speak up and confront them on behalf of the child. Then, when a farmer finds a young woman's body outside the backdoor of the house, it's a murder case, and Vera can call in her team, and step into her role in life.
The Darkest Evening appears to be a case connected to the village, the Stanhopes, to family. When there's another murder, Vera is angry that she brushed aside the victim. She already had her suspects, and didn't pay attention. When the man who discovered the corpse leads Vera and her officer, Holly Jackman, to the victim, Vera handles it professionally, and stays with the corpse. That night, Vera feels her age and her vulnerability.
As always, Cleeves' books are complex. There are red herrings that set Vera's team and the reader off in the wrong direction. Just once, I had the correct inkling who the killer might be, but I let it go. Cleeves is clever that way. As a reader, I don't always acknowledge the truth in front of me.
But, Vera. She is a little too close to this case. It's too personal. When Holly realizes how Vera is related to the Stanhope family, suspects in the case, she knows Vera is ignoring that. "She's never really understood the difference between her own morality and the constraints of the law."
Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope books are excellent police procedurals. Readers can follow the entire case and the investigative process. Let's face it, though. As much as I enjoy police procedurals, Vera is the reason I read these books. She's an aging woman struggling with her life, her family history, and her lack of relationships. For her, work is her life. Her personal life is an unwanted stopgap between investigations. It's only as a police officer that Vera has standing in life. In The Darkest Evening, with its connection to the Stanhope family, Vera is forced to face her vulnerability as a person. Any one of us who has used work as an escape can feel for Vera. As a reader, I can acknowledge the murder victims, and the loss felt by the families and community. As an aging woman, I feel for Vera.
Ann Cleeves' website is www.anncleeves.com
The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves. Minotaur Books, 2020. ISBN 9781250204509 (hardcover), 373p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.