The Starlings and Other Stories (2015) ed. Ann Cleeves

It has been a while since I have tried a short story collection but what drew me to this particular anthology is that each of the short stories was inspired by a photograph (which are included in the text). There are 12 writers who contribute to this collection, 6 of whom form the Murder Squad, which is group of Northern based crime and mystery writers and the other 6 writers outside of this are termed as their accomplices. The photographs in the book are from David Wilson and are of scenes in Pembrokeshire and I have to agree with him that his black and white photographs are quite ‘eerie’ and ‘foreboding’.

The Starlings and Other Stories

Something new I thought I would try with this book review is to include questions for each story which could be used to fuel a book group meeting or to provide food for thought for the individual reader as they progress through the collection.

Home Coming by Cath Stancliffe

Home Coming by Cath Staincliffe

This story opens with Hugh returning to his family home in Wales, near derelict now, an occasion which forces him to confront his very painful and difficult upbringing, especially in regards to what happens with his sister, who he also wishes to locate, not having heard from her since she is said to have run away from home all those years ago. The open ended way this story concludes is certainly chilling in what it implies.

Things to Think About:

  1. Look again at the title of the story. What expectations does it generate for you? And how do these expectation measure up with Hugh’s home coming?
  2. The derelict house is a key image in the text. What role do you think it has in the story, what might Stancliffe be trying to symbolise through it?
  3. Thinking about the overall setting of the story, how do you think it is used to express emotional pain? (One example being: ‘Hugh found a stone… where he could sit and watch the sun bleed across the sky and sink beyond the horizon.’)
  4. How is information revealed in this story? What effect do you think this has on the reading experience?
  5. What is your reaction towards the ending of the story? How does it connect to Hugh and his family?

Sirens by Mary Sharratt

Sirens by Mary Sharratt

Although no time frame is given, the content of the story suggests it is around the 16th or 17th century. The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a girl called Judith, who lives with her older sister, Sarah and her father. Her mother is dead and is mysteriously regarded as a forsaken and bad woman, though the reader does not know why until much later in the story. The means through which we out this information is borne out of a forbidden journey Sarah and Judith make to the nearby town of Whitby, which has fatal and long reaching consequences for both of them. This is an interesting story, where Sharratt has carefully shown the conflicted emotions Judith feels as she is pulled from one person to another (metaphorically speaking). I would also say this is a story ripe for a feminist reading, as there is a general narrative of defiant women coming up against a patriarchal society.

Things to Think About:

  1. Who is the siren in the story?
  2. How does Judith perceive herself and her other family members?
  3. How do you think the community Judith is brought up in is depicted?
  4. A desire for knowledge seems to be the root of a lot of antagonism in this story. What types of knowledge are the female characters seeking? Are their punishments a response to this desire?
  5. How do you think women are depicted in the story?
  6. Consider the time within which the piece is set. Why do you think the writer may have chosen to set their story in an earlier time? Do you think the story has anything to say about the present?

The Wizards Place by Chris Simms

The Wizard's Place by Chris Simms

Two boys, named Thomas and Michael, whilst bird watching, see a man enter a disused farmhouse which they have nicknamed the Wizard’s Place. He does not seem the usual hiker type, looking far more urban and the narrative switches over to the farmhouse, revealing the first glimmers of something must more sinister going on. The following day the boys hear of a local robbery and their minds turn to the man they saw yesterday. Eager to fit in with the other local boys and tempted by the reward money on offer for the robber, they determine to get definite proof of the secret lodger at Wizard’s place. As the narrative switches between them and the farmhouse, a shocking tale unfolds, with a good twist to round it off.

Things to Think About:

  1. How is the farmhouse depicted in the story? Consider how this depiction of the house changes, as the story progresses.
  2. How is the theme of friendship treated in the story?

The Man Who Didn’t Breathe by Jim Kelly

The Man Who Didn't Breathe by Jim Kelly

Teenager Jed, has an unusual interest in practising slow breathing and holding his breath under water, based on the erroneous assumption that everyone has the same number of breaths, so the slower you breathe, the longer you live. During his attempts to hold his breath under water for a long time, Jed encounters a girl called Amber, who he is immediately drawn to him. But apart from the sense she is a user of people, Amber also has a boyfriend called Eddie. But Jed is no quitter and when he sees Eddie is not very adept in the water, a sinister plan formulates…

Things to Think About:

  1. Consider Jed’s relationship with the sea. How does he perceive it? What does he use it for and at what times does he go for?
  2. Amber has an amber ring with an insect trapped in it. In one passage it is described like this:

‘Taking the ring off she let him hold it, as if he was a child, to be bought off with a trinket. The captured insect, with its black carapace and bowed legs, looked alien.’

In the story which people could be likened to this insect?

3. Compare this story with The Siren. Consider the women in these stories and how they lure others into danger.

The Starlings by Ann Cleeves

The Starlings by Ann Cleeves

Vera Stanhope at the end of a depressing day’s work at Kimmerston police station opens a letter which intimates that the sender was a ‘comrade in arms’ with her father. This is a letter which taps into Vera’s residual pain concerning the loss of her mother, her difficult schooldays and her father, who ‘was no kind of father.’ Vera recollects that the letter writer, Edward Forbes was involved in her father’s illegal egg trade business, until one argument led to the friendship being severed. Forbes’ letter invites Vera to tea, implying that history is repeating itself, yet when she turns up, she finds Forbes shot in the chest. Suicide or murder? Her colleagues believe the former, but Vera thinks differently. The solution to this case is reached through Vera’s increasing recollection of childhood memories and her ability to match it up with the present day events. This is a carefully crafted story in that tiny details found at the beginning of the story, tie into the ending seamlessly.

Things to Think About:

  1. Look at the different purposes Cleeves uses buildings for. In particular how do the buildings reflect their occupants? Or how are they used to contrast with them?
  2. Consider the role of sirens in the story. What is Vera being called or lured back to?
  3. Consider the ways in which humans exploit nature in the story.

Mountains out of Molehills by Valerie Law

Mountains out of Molehills by Valerie Laws

This story is set in the 1970s. Ian is spending his summer after university, before a job in London, working at a youth hostel in rural Wales. Although usually gentle and kind to animals, he ‘loved feeling part of the Welsh farmer lads’ world of carefree lawlessness’ and he gladly accepts an invitation to shoot wood pigeons with them. Ian also has a complicated love life, having an innocent holiday romance with Huw’s (one of the aforementioned welsh farmer lads), sister, Megan. He is also having a fling with another hostel worker, Susie. As you can imagine this is a recipe for disaster.

Things to Think About:

  1. What attitudes toward nature are shown by the characters? How do they contrast/ compare with the other stories in the collection?
  2. What impact do you think the stark animal images have on the reader? What is their purpose?
  3. What parallels/ connections are shown between the humans and animals in the story?

Port Lion by Margaret Murphy

Port Lion by Margaret Murphy

Three young men are taking a holiday in Wales, spending a lot of their time swimming. Though their landlady, Mrs Jenkins warns them about not swimming in a certain place, reinforcing her point by telling them a tale of how such a site was used long ago by a man and his lover to murder his wife. The ending to this story is quite blunt and callous (in terms of characters’ demeanours), yet its’ matter of fact tone to me seems a ruse to hide a hidden and much more deadly unwritten story.

Things to Think About:

  1. Consider the attitude of the young men at the end of the story. What effect does this have on you?
  2. What do you think is not being said at the end of the story?
  3. What parallels can be made between the tale Mrs Jenkins’ tells and the present day events?

Sorted by Toby Forward

Sorted by Toby Forward

This story was definitely one which left me feeling uncomfortable and it revolves around the breakup of Ben and his girlfriend Becks. Yet from the very beginning this is no normal breakup and things are far from what they seem.

Things to Think About:

  1. How are relationships depicted in the book?
  2. How does the writer play with our sympathies and makes us consider the issue of moral culpability?
  3. How are technology and nature juxtaposed in this story?

Through the Mists by Martin Edwards

Through the Mist by Martin Edwards

Piper and Jared are on a back to nature holiday, in remote rural Wales, with Piper having been recently fired from her high powered editing job. On one of their walks, Piper becomes inexplicably drawn to the Evans farm, returning to the property repeatedly despite the warnings the locals have given Jared about the place. These warnings start out quite vague, but eventually the true story about the place is made known. Jared, despite his feelings pointing towards another, is determined to ‘rescue’ Piper from what has come over her. Yet this plan transforms into a confrontation which in turn leads to an open ended conclusion, leaving you wondering what entirely has been going on and how the past may be affecting the present.

Things to Think About:

  1. What does this story say about the difference between a house and a home?
  2. How far is Jared responsible for what happens at the end of the story?
  3. What role does mist play in the story?
  4. How is the role of the knight errant complicated in this story?

House Guest by Helena Edwards

House Guest by Helena Edwards

It was interesting that this story uses the same picture as the previous story and it shows how one picture can inspire many different stories. The McCullen family have moved away from London into a farm house, in Wales, doing it up so they can have dinner parties there. Ceri, from a nearby farm asks if they have any work, which leads to her working at their first dinner party, which includes the godfather of Rowena McCullen, Alistair. He takes an inordinate amount of interest in Ceri, in a way making readers feel they can predict what will happen next, but Edwards successfully pulls off an unexpected ending, making you rethink the story.

Things to Think About:

  1. Consider the role narrative assumptions have in our reading and how writers may exploit them.
  2. What is the McCullens’ attitude towards living in the countryside? What parallels can be made between them and characters from the other stories? Mountains out of Molehills makes a good starting point for doing this.

Secrets by Kate Ellis

Secrets by Kate Ellis

Emrys Williams and Bryn find slanderous comments about local inhabitants when pulling down a chapel (which is to be renovated into a bar). This is disturbing for Emrys as he was a child when these were written and living in the area he knows the people referred to. One of them hits home in particular concerning David Bell, a boy who disappeared one afternoon after school. There are other suspicious circumstances which happened at the same time. Most disturbing of all Williams finds one saying they know where David Bell is. Williams hands them over to Myfanwy Pryce, now a DI, but back then was the minister’s daughter. This is a case which is brought close to home for Pryce and it is interesting how memories and texts (not the mobile phone variety) are used to piece the case together. The multiple twists at the end of the story are very satisfying and thread right back to the beginning of the story. This is also a story which you could easily see being fleshed out into a full novel.

Things to Think About:

  1. Consider how this story creates a variation on the poison pen trope of crime fiction and what effects this produces?
  2. How does memory/recollection differ or mirror that of other stories in the collection?

Weeping Queens by Christine Poulson

Weeping Queens by Christine Poulson

This tale is told in the first person and begins with a young woman going to Wales to work on a book and to also get over a broken heart. Her sister Pippa also comes to stay, yet it is when our narrator goes for an early walk on her own on the nearby beach, that she finds a corpse. Yet when she returns with her sister the body has gone and even more puzzlingly there are no tracks or prints suggesting the body has been carted away. There are merely impressions which indicate the body has gone back in the direction of the sea, giving this story an impossible crime story feel and it did slightly remind me Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase (1932). The story finishes in a suitably dramatic fashion, which is added to by the choice of location. Again I could see this story being made into a full length novel.

Things to Think About:

  1. What role do dreams play in this story?
  2. What parallels do you think can be made between the events in the book and the Arthurian legend the narrator outlines to her sister?
  3. How does the story play around with notions of detective work? For example the cliché of the detective following footprints is used in this story to preface the narrator’s discovery of the corpse.

Overall Thoughts

On the whole this is a strong collection of stories, providing a plethora of brilliant twists (people and events are never what they first seem) and also a lot of food for thought. Setting plays an important part in all of the stories, but there are also other significant themes such as parent- child and romantic relationships, the impact of childhood and transgressive women. I also liked how the stories, although based on different pictures had a number of connections between them. The concept of the siren, as well as crows seem to be recurring images in several of the stories. I also found the titles for the stories very evocative and I liked comparing what expectations they gave me and how these were met or overturned. On ending the stories, I found I often looked at the titles in a new way, as in some cases the titles were given an extra bite to them by the endings. I must also emphasise the high quality of the overall book, in regards to the paper and photographs, which I think did add to the reading experience. My favourite stories in the collection are Weeping Queens, The Starlings, Secrets, Through the Mists and the House Guest. This is definitely a worthwhile collection to get, with a lot to be got from the reading experience.

Rating: 4.25/5

The Puzzle Doctor at Insearchoftheclassicmysterynovel blog has also reviewed this collection which you can find here.



  1. This collection looks appealing, as I’m thinking of sampling some contemporary writing within the genre. Just wondering if you think you might recommend it to me, given my taste for puzzles? Or would you say it veers more towards modern crime than mystery?

    Liked by 1 person

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