Cleeves, Ann - 'The Glass Room'
THE GLASS ROOM is a solid crime novel, the fifth to feature the engaging Northumberland DI Vera Stanhope. Vera returns to her farmstead from work one night to discover her neighbour Jack in her kitchen, distraught because his partner Joanna has disappeared. He asks Vera to find where she's gone, which takes her no time at all. Joanna is at a residential course at Writer's House, a centre for aspiring authors to learn their trade and said to be an inside route to the elusive goal of publication. Vera decides to drive there herself to ask Joanna whether she wants Jack to know her whereabouts. But when she arrives she is plunged straight into a murder scene in the titular glass room, with Joanna the prime suspect.
Vera, present in a personal capacity, calls in the local police and her colleagues from CID. Those present at Writer's House at the time of the murder are rounded up and all but a handful eliminated from the enquiry for logistical reasons. The remaining suspects or witnesses include Miranda, the owner of the house and business; her son Alex; a retired policeman now hoping to be a published author; a young man who has discovered a writing talent while in prison; an elderly famous crime writer who is teaching on the course; and another teacher, Nina, an academic and aspiring writer. By the process of elimination, one of these people, or Joanna, must have committed the crime – though there is the outside chance that a random stranger could have gained access.
Vera and her sergeant Joe Ashworth interview most of these characters, though oddly leave one out whom I thought they would have wanted to question immediately. Of course, this proves to be an important omission a few chapters later. The police find that the evidence that seemed to incriminate Joanna in fact does not, so she is released and the course uneasily continues while the police examine the background and history of all their suspects (including Joanna of course). Part of the story is told from the point of view of Nina, who in her academic role has reason to dislike the murder victim and who seems to be a target for someone's malice or worse. Most of the book, however, is filtered through Vera's, and occasionally Joe's, perspective, all of which give the author plenty of opportunity for astute comments on the publishing scene.
THE GLASS ROOM is a traditional, Agatha Christie-style book, relying on gradual unearthing of untold relationships and past actions among a small group, rather than on modern technology or details of police procedure. There are a couple of early clues that the police don't follow up, but once the detectives gather momentum it is clear that Vera is getting to grips with all the complexities and will work it out eventually – without recourse to the "messages" the criminal is leaving, which in the end turn out to have gone over everyone's heads (will readers spot the references, I wonder?).
Those who have read the author's Shetland series will recognise some initial similarity with BLUE LIGHTNING, about a murder at a bird-watching centre, but the author treats this theme very differently in THE GLASS ROOM, which despite some tragic moments is not as dark as the earlier novel. THE GLASS ROOM is a chatty, relaxing read rather than a cutting-edge slice of noir, with a well-constructed crime plot that will please the many fans of Vera.
Maxine Clarke, England