Winter’s tales from the lands of cold earth
Fêted crime writer Ann Cleeves, the novelist behind the BBC’S Shetland series and creator of doughty Northumberland detective Vera on ITV, reflects on the wild, northerly landscapes in which she has lived and how they have inspired her
The first of my Shetland novels, Raven Black, was inspired by snow, ice and fire. I’d arrived into the island by the overnight ferry early one December morning to a still, white landscape. There was no wind and that’s unusual in Shetland— usually, there’s a gale strong enough to take your breath away.
In midwinter, it’s dark for much of the morning—the islands lie on the same line of latitude as parts of Greenland and Alaska, after all. When the sun did rise, it was an orange ball throwing long shadows across the bare landscape. There are few trees in Shetland, so there are long horizons and big skies.
Then, I saw a group of ravens, stark black against the snow. As a crime writer, I thought if there were a splash of blood on the white, the scene would be like something from a fairy tale, almost mythic. In that moment, the ‘Shetland’ novels (featuring detective Jimmy Perez, played on BBC by Douglas henshall) were born.
The fire came a little later that winter. Lerwick’s Up helly Aa is the biggest fire festival in europe, held on the last Tuesday in January. It’s a Victorian concoction from a Viking tradition, dramatic and visually striking. The Guizer Jarl and his squad look like true Norsemen, with full beards and beautifully crafted