Thin Air

Image of Thin Air: A Shetland Mystery
Release Date: 
May 5, 2015
Minotaur Books
Reviewed by: 

“Readers who like classic whodunits immersed in location, along with development of complex characters, will enjoy this story.”

In this sixth volume of Cleeves’ sturdy Shetland Island series, Inspector Jimmy Perez is back in harness after recovering from a devastating loss.

He is joined by Willow Reeves, an unseasoned chief inspector in the Serious Crimes unit, to investigate the disappearance of a London woman visiting the islands with her old university chums. They’ve come for a hamefarin’—the traditional island post-wedding celebration—being held for one Eleanor’s friends. Eleanor is also chasing the ghost story of “Peerie Lizzie,” which she hopes will revive her ailing TV company.

Instead, she steps hard on the wrong person’s toes and vanishes into thin air.

Not for long, though. This is a murder mystery, so it comes as no surprise when she turns up dead. That brings in our lead characters—Jimmy, Willow, and their loyal sergeant Sandy Wilson—who slowly and separately accumulate clues. These are spread among the cast of characters and their different circumstances, so it’s as challenging for the reader as for the police to identify the killer.

In the process, we get a roundabout portrait of Jimmy Perez. Even though the story is told through alternating viewpoints of the investigators and the distressed friends, Jimmy is clearly the lead player of both this volume and the series.

His ex-wife once called him “emotionally incontinent” and “too empathetic for his own good.” This may be a liability in some instances, but it’s an asset for solving perplexing cases. Jimmy has an intuitive knack for getting to the heart of things, connecting incomplete bits of information to see the larger picture. Willow often wonders “what his magic was, how he managed to win people over. Perhaps it was something as simple as kindness.”

Definitely true: Jimmy is a kind and compassionate man. But part of that comes from deep sadness, along with an equally deep love for his remote and dynamic corner of the world.

The Shetland Islands play the role of supporting actor in the series. Their landscape and weather, and the surrounding waters, seep into every scene as stark undertones to the surface jangle between ancient and modern. The elements’ constant intrusion into daily life give these stories rich atmosphere. Jimmy seems to rise from it like an archetype of human endurance.

While his colleagues gather evidence, Jimmy gathers sensory impressions, patterns, and anomalies, and draws from a history the others don’t share to find the missing piece of the puzzle. It would be easier to follow his process if the narrative stayed within his frame of reference. But the multi-viewpoint structure keeps him absent from many scenes. Still, like the island backdrop, he quietly dominates the novel while other characters are profiled and the plot unfolds.

Readers who like classic whodunits immersed in location, along with development of complex characters, will enjoy this story. It began as a quartet themed with the seasons; then, in response to demand, the author has undertaken a second quartet (of which this is book two) themed on the elements: water, air, earth, fire. Thin Air makes a good entry into the series, but as with most serial stories, it helps to have read at least one previous volume. Regardless, there’s no mystery why the Shetland crime novels have been adapted for TV and the author has won awards.