A Lesson in Dying by Ann Cleeves

I've mentioned here, I think, that I've been trying of late to track down novels set in Northumberland, and this was one of them. A Lesson in Dying is set in the south of the county, but you don't get a huge sense of place, really - it's recognisably the Northumbrian coast with its ex-mining villages, and there's mention of Morpeth and Blyth to locate it, but there's no sustained description of the area. Partly this is owing to the comparative shortness, which curtails description or leisured portrayal of characters - the word which came into my head was "workmanlike" - it set out its plot and then got on with it briskly. We've become used, of late, to long rambling detective novels with multiple red herrings and complex sub-plots, but here we have just 200-odd pages and not much exploration of the inner workings of people's minds.

I could certainly imagine it set not many miles away, and hear the local accents, but I think that depended more on my own knowledge of the area than its evocation by the author. I missed the kind of development and examination of motive and personality that we get in longer books, including of the lead detective, Inspector Ramsay - he is clearly intended to engage our interest and sympathies, but I never really felt that I got a handle on him, nor was my interest really piqued. You know how with a new protagonist you can be really itching to get the next in the series to see what they'll do next, and to learn more about them? For example, no one could have loved Andy Dalziel in the first of the Reginald Hill books, but you were certainly eager to be appalled by him all over again in the next! I've read one of the books featuring Cleeves' later creation, Vera Stanhope, and she's certainly a much more rounded character, although admittedly I read it after I'd seen the excellent TV series. I've yet to read any of the Shetland series, but I've heard good things said about them. Perhaps it didn't help that Ramsay is a loner - the chat between a detective and his or her sidekick is always illuminating, and we're missing that here.

A brief run down on the plot: Harold Medburn is headmaster of the small local school, but no-one likes him, he's a man who abuses his position of authority in the community. But a small town isn't a likely place for murder and, when Medburn's found dead, Ramsay is happy to fix on the obvious suspect, the dead man's wife. It takes the school caretaker, Jack Robson and his daughter to keep the investigation going, and Ramsay, faced with a lack of support from his own team, finds himself making an almost cynical use of their efforts to prove Kitty Medburn's innocence, even while believing that their faith may be misplaced.

All in all, it's a perfectly competent and readable novel, but not one to get excited about. And, published in 1990, it's another year crossed off the Century of Books, and a nice sub-theme of the twentieth-century detective novel beginning to emerge.


  1. It sounds like something that would make a good read when one is "between books" and looking for something that won't take too long to complete, or engage the mind too much in the set of characters and story; nice for a long train ride, for instance.

  2. Funny, I was just talking to Yvonne at 'Fiction Books' about Ann Cleeves' books... here:


    The only books I can think of set in Northumberland (I think) is Nancy Farmer's YA fantasy series, The Sea of Trolls. But those are way back in history, before the Romans. Nice sense of place though and a very good series. I also seem to recall some horror short stories in one of Brian Lumley's anthologies... Fruiting Bodies I think it was. Though he was born in County Durham so my memory may be misleading me as to where the stories are actually set.

  3. I've only read one of her books, but it wasn't a Vera Stanhope. This one was set in the Shetland Islands, and I remember liking the setting and the sense of isolation.

    Funny, though, I've been watching Vera on Netflix lately.

  4. I just read Raven Black by Ann Cleeves at Christmas, and really enjoyed it - so much so that I went out and finally bought book 3 because I couldn't find book 2. Jimmy Perez (detective) and all the other characters are very well done in the first Shetland book. Maybe this one - A Lesson in Dying - was one of her first books? so she was still developing as a writer?

    Good points you make about Andy Dalziel, that he's not a likeable character, yet he's fascinating and we do really want to know what he will do and say next.

  5. I wonder if you've read her Vera Stanhope series. I haven't read anything by her but did watch some of the television version with the wonderful Brenda Blethyn. I found the stories a bit dark and twisted for my taste, but she was such an interesting character.

  6. Librarian, yes, exactly right for those sort of circumstances.

    Cath, I'm collecting them in a desultory fashion, and made a list of sorts at one point. Perhaps I'll tidy it up and post it. Sea of Trolls is on it, though I've yet to read it.

    Jenclair, it's on the TBR list! Raven Black, I think?

    Susan, oh yes, it was Raven Black! I think A Lesson in Dying was indeed pretty early, and so I expect the Shetland ones to be much better. The library has it, I think, but I wanted to read the Northumbrian one first.

    Nan, I loved the Vera series, I do rather like dark and twisted. I'm switching off right now to go and watch the last part of The Killing II - heaven!


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