Readers who fancy top-notch crime procedurals need look no further than the latest by seasoned Brit author Ann Cleeves. Harbour Street is her sixth mystery featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope and her Northumbrian detective team. The first chapter unfolds on a Metro train that’s carrying a crowd of Christmas shoppers, one of whom doesn’t make it to the next stop alive. Vera’s top assistant, Sergeant Joe Ashworth, is in the train car where the fatal stabbing occurs, and he sees zilch until the train empties its passengers, all except for a lone, very dead elderly woman.
Who’d kill an elegant, self-contained older lady who seems to spend most of her days helping others? But this is no locked-room mystery, as Vera sets out to discover the truth, starting with victim Margaret Krukowski’s little attic room on Harbour Street and soon expanding to the street’s boat yard, church and local bar, as well as the Haven, a nearby hostel for homeless women. Margaret’s life begins to emerge through those who knew her: as “one of the family” to landlady Kate and her teenage kids; as friend and supporter to a downbeat, desperate woman of the Haven; and as a long-ago lover to more than one man who vividly remembers her. Yet she remains a private and secretive woman to those searching for her killer. Vera and her team delve into the past of Harbour Street to put together Margaret’s story and find a motive for her death.
This is an outrageously good book, one of the best procedurals to come down the pike in a while, with a comprehensible plot full of believable characters. Cleeves is superlative as she subtly and cleverly alters our perceptions of the main characters as the book progresses. Harbour Street’s colorful back-story is persuasively drawn, and its characters fit like pieces in a surprising puzzle.
Vera herself is a piece of work, as readers may know from Cleeves’ earlier books and thanks to the PBS TV series “Vera,” now in its fifth season. Overweight, opinionated and obsessive, Vera pursues often-eccentric lines of detection and makes unsparing demands on her team, including the hidebound but persistent Joe and the clever, self-absorbed Holly. Readers become party to the detectives’ private thoughts, petty grievances and jealousies that make them human and accessible to us.