Book review: The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

I’ve been a big fan of the TV series Vera since it first started airing in Italy, but lately our TV reception has put new seasons in a permanent stasis. We’ve had the technicians out three times in three years, and each time they assure us the signal will be better, and maybe a few days pass before we lose the signal again.

So I decided to buy the first book to see how different it is compared to the show, and it’s a pretty big difference. Part of that has to do with the book being a traditional mystery, inviting the reader to pick up the clues and solve the crime themselves. But even beyond that, the TV show swapped the order of the books and created entire new characters and plot lines.

The Crow Trap, the first book of the series, is actually the third episode of the show. (Book three is episode one, and confusingly, episode two is book two.) The first victim of the book isn’t revealed until thirty percent into the story, and the main character doesn’t come in for the investigation until close to the middle of the book. Even then, the story’s perspective is told from two civilians’ perspectives until seventy percent of the book is done. Only then does Vera take over as the protagonist and give readers insight into her thoughts.

In The Crow Trap, ornithologist Rachel Lambert begins an environmental study in the cottage of her friend Bella Furness, only to discover that Bella has hung herself. The study goes on, being part of an impact report that could influence the choice to open a quarry on the land. Rachel works with a botanist, Anne Preece, and a mammal expert, Grace Fullwell. The study seems to be proceeding without issue when Grace is found far from her scheduled route, strangled to death.

Once DCI Vera Stanhope is introduced properly in the middle of the book, it becomes clear that she had a cameo during Bella’s funeral, being briefly noted by both Rachel and Anne. Vera details how she knew Bella’s mother-in-law Constance Baikie as a child, and then later explains how she knew Bella. Both help to highlight Vera’s connection not just to the characters, but to the land itself.

Even after she enters the mystery, instead of relying on her team of inspectors, Vera recruits Anne, Rachel, and Rachel’s mother Edie to snoop around and dig up clues through gossip. She has her own ideas about the murder, and despite entrusting the woman with her investigation she is unwilling to support their speculation of possible connections between Bella and Grace. It’s only after the second victim is revealed that Vera is forced to recognize the flaws in her theory.

By this point, the book is eighty percent done, and all the clues have been presented to the reader. It’s then that the writer subtly asks, “Are you ready to solve this?” I was, and when the big reveal came, I was right. However, I did not catch the motive, and the real reason for the deaths left me stunned in the best possible way.

I give The Crow Trap 5 stars, and I appreciate that it was less of a police procedural and more of a traditional mystery. That said, I hope the next book in the series does more to explore Vera’s squad, because aside from occasionally tossing Joe Ashworth in a scene as a background character, everyone else is treated as a nameless audience member to Vera’s speculative performances. A big part of my love of the show is her interaction with her team, like Kenny, Holly, and pathologist Dr. Cartwright.

Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses and different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I’d recommend both the show and this book. Just, go into them knowing they are navigating the investigation from vastly different motivations. One wants to make you the detective, and the other wants to show you the process Vera goes through to solve the mystery.