It's summertime in Shetland and the sun never sets: during those white nights it seems like everyone goes a little crazy.
A stranger falls to his knees weeping in front of one of the pictures at the opening of a glamorous art exhibition. The man then disappears after claiming to Detective Jimmy Perez – attending the launch with one of the artists, Fran Hunter – that he is suffering from amnesia, only to be found dead the next morning.
White Nights is the second to be published in Ann Cleeves's Shetland Quartet of stories. The first, Raven Black, was released in 2006 to much acclaim, and White Nights followed in 2008. Over the last few days I've thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in a warm Shetland summer: the book is an engrossing puzzle that kept me guessing right until the very end, and has sympathetic characters I liked spending time with.
The story is focused on the isolated settlement of Biddista, a fictional location on the northwest coast of Shetland's main island. The village comprises little more than a few cottages and crofts, a manse where world-famous artist Bella Sinclair lives and an art gallery and restaurant called the Herring House, converted from a building that once dried fish. Ann Cleeves based the arts centre on the real Bonhoga Gallery at Weisdale Mill, a former grain mill housing Shetland's premier gallery showing local, national and international exhibitions of art and craft, plus a coffee shop, and famous throughout the islands.
The author herself provides a most helpful map on her website giving the general location of the first three books in the quartet.
Though part of the British Isles, the Shetlands are in fact 130 miles north of the Scottish mainland (12 hours by ferry, which is why the detectives from HQ in Inverness prefer to fly!). Shetland is further north than Oslo in Norway, Stockholm in Sweden, and even Moscow, and Lerwick is as close to Bergen in Norway as it is to Inverness and Aberdeen. The Shetland Isles are much further north than they usually look on a map of the British Isles, as they tend to be scrunched up in a box in the top right-hand corner with the distances not to scale.
Travel to the Shetlands is either by ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, or by flying from one of the major Scottish cities to Sumburgh in the south of the main island. The distance and lack of direct communications to many places on the mainland cause problems for Inspectors Taylor and Perez in their investigations. Cruise ships visit Shetland during the summer months, docking in Lerwick for a few days and offering various trips around the islands to their passengers, and it is with one of these that White Nights begins.
The Shetland Tourist Board are of course keen to encourage visitors and have been very supportive of author Ann Cleeves as she explains in her blog on the launch of White Nights at a gallery in Bloomsbury last April. Ann herself talks about living in the Shetlands for two years in the 1970s in this article for The Times.
The next in the series, Red Bones, will be published on 20th February 2009, and I'm looking forward to reading it!
Click on the map below to go to WhereDunnit's map of Ann Cleeves's Shetland Quartet:
Thanks to Roger Cornwell for permission to use his photo of the Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland, and to Jean Rogers for her wonderful view of Shetland, top.