A series of fictional plots are pressed into service as blueprints for real-life crimes at a writers’ retreat.
Vera Stanhope may be an unattractive middle-aged woman living alone in the country, but her razor-sharp mind serves her well in her job as a police inspector. Vera’s developed a friendship with her ecologically correct next-door neighbors Jack Devanney and Joanna Tobin. After Joanna takes off, leaving a note bidding Jack not to worry, Vera tracks her to the Writers’ House, a country home run by author Miranda Barton and her son, Alex, as a workshop for aspiring writers. Curiosity takes Vera to the house, whose inhabitants have already called the police after discovering a grisly murder. The dead man is Tony Ferdinand, an unpopular professor whose clout in the literary world has launched the careers of many authors. The other residents have locked Joanna in her room because she was found holding a knife near the crime scene. Joanna denies being involved but admits that she went off the meds for her bipolar disorder but went back on them just before coming to Writers’ House to explore her talents and use writing as a cathartic experience to overcome the pain of a horrible first marriage. Exploring the backgrounds of the suspects is never an easy job when people lie to protect secrets often unrelated to the crime. Aside from Joanna and the Bartons, these suspects include two tutors, academic Nina Backworth and author Giles Rickard, and two students, mild-mannered ex-con Lenny Thomas and retired police officer Mark Winterton. A second murder using a piece of fiction as a template forces Vera to dig even deeper to find the past secrets behind the present-day crimes.
Cleeves (Hidden Depths, 2018, etc.) has created a masterful though not always likable detective who uses her uncanny knack for crime-solving to identify an unexpected killer.