This is my first Ann Cleeves novel and I am so glad that I have finally got around to trying her work. Murder in my Backyard (1991) is the second in Cleeves’ Detective Stephen Ramsey series and the book opens with him moving into a new home in Heppleburn, through which hints are given about the failure of his last case, his recent divorce and his inability to fit in with his co-workers, who see him as aloof and on many occasions incompetent. Yet like for so many fictional police detectives the lure of the job is always there to distract him from his personal problems.
The narrative then switches to the village of Brinkbonnie and the Tower where Alice Perry lives and when you first encounter her she can easily be mistaken for a Miss Marple figure, with various village inhabitants confiding in her. However, this soon disappears and there is more than a suggestion of Perry being a more intrusive and interfering figure. Recently she has sold the field behind her home to Colin Henshaw, a developer, on the understanding that the houses built would be for cheap start up homes. However, this was all a ruse on his part and he plans on building expensive homes for rich commuters. Unsurprisingly many of the inhabitants of Brinkbonnie blame Perry, despite her overtures to make things right.
Alongside this, Perry also has various family members to stay, to celebrate St David’s Day, including her nephews Max and James and their wives Judy and Stella and their children, the eldest of which are Peter and Carolyn. None of these families though are happy ones with signs of strain and disintegration showing in them from the very beginning of the book and subsequent events do nothing to alleviate this. In particular there is the suggestion that one of the nephews is being unfaithful with one of the reporter’s on James’ newspaper The Otterbridge Express and there is also the problem of Stella who is incredibly emotionally unstable. Perry is also not her usual self, arguing with various family members, as well as mentioning a death threat she has received. Late at night she decides to go to Henshaw and see if she can buy the land back. The others try to dissuade her but in the end she says, rather like Oates, ‘Don’t wait up for me. This may take some time.’
Of course the reader is not surprised when the next morning Perry is found dead in the garden, stabbed in the back. Like in many a detective novel her relatives are very uncommunicative with the police, though the reader is aware that the children certainly know something important. Although this is a case which focuses strongly on the family members, Ramsey also has to cast his search wider, to those who were annoyed with her over the land developments and Henshaw himself, whose own business interests come under scrutiny. Initially this seems to bear fruit, especially when someone makes a run for it. But this all changes when another body turns up…
One of the strengths of this novel is its focus on the key family members and their interactions with each other, which are less than cordial. Moreover, their reactions to Perry’s death also interested me. I also enjoyed the different viewpoints Cleeves includes in the book, especially the perspective the children have of what is going on around them and how they respond to stressful situations. Carolyn was of especial interest due to her very difficult mother who absorbs most of her father’s time. Characterisation comes in layers in this story so people are not always what they initially seem to be and their darker sides become more apparent as the story progresses. Additionally Cleeves often uses the way people’s homes are described physically as a way of revealing something of the owners.
Detective Ramsey is an intriguing character who is very aware of his fallibility, lacking confidence at times and worrying over his own prejudices. I think the reader also feels some sympathy with him when his colleagues think harshly towards him. At the start of the story the class difference between the suspects and detective is made apparent, though I don’t think this issue is maintained throughout the tale. Ramsey’s wife was posher than he was so he feels he is better able to understand such people, which they don’t expect. He calls this his ‘secret weapon,’ which in a way reminded me of Poirot and Miss Marple who are underestimated for different prejudices. Yet, I don’t think we really get to see Ramsey using this ‘secret weapon.’
I enjoyed how this was mostly a family drama, filled with less than perfect relatives who are more interested in themselves than Perry or each other. This atmosphere of pettiness and spite reminded me a little of Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958) and The Crooked House (1949). Furthermore, I felt that although this book was written 25 years ago, it still has resonance with today’s issues such as housing problems and building on green belts. Cleeves has an enjoyable writing style and she is able to spring a number of surprises on the reader. The motivation for the killings was a satisfying one, complex, but not confusingly convoluted. I think my only criticisms of this novel would be that it needed a quicker pace in the third quarter of the book and that I would have liked the children characters to have been more involved. But in all in all I have enjoyed my first Cleeves novel and I shall definitely be returning to her work again.