Author: Ann Cleeves

Publisher: Minotaur Books (St. Martin's Press)

ISBN: 978-0-312-38434-0

Red Bones is billed as an Ann Cleeves Shetland Island thriller. I would call it a mystery because in a thriller the reader generally knows who the villain is and the hero's task is to thwart him (her) before he assassinates the president, murders the girl, destroys the world, or all three. In a mystery, neither the detective nor the detective know who committed the murder.  

Red Bones begins with a what appears to be an accidental death—the half-drunk hunter who may have fired the fatal shotgun blast has no reason to kill the old lady. A second death midway through the book seems like a suicide, although mystery readers know that the moment a character telephones the detective to say at the end of a chapter, "I've got to talk to you! Not on the phone! I'll meet you tomorrow," you know that character will be dead in the next chapter. So, two bodies in Red Bones.

The BBC has made a series based on the Shetland Island mysteries. For the first time, I read the book and watched the movie so close together that I could compare and contrast the experience. The movie is the same but different, and part of the pleasure is trying to decide why the script-writer and movie producers made the changes they made.

For example, most of the book's action takes place on Whalsay, one of the small islands off the east coast of Shetland. Most of the movie's action takes place on Bressay, another small island off the east coast. It seems like a change without a difference; both are windswept, barren, and picturesque.

Jimmy Perez, the inspector, works alone in the book. He has a young female assistant, "Tosh," in the movie. Adding her to the story allows the scriptwriter to create bantering dialogue between the two and gives Perez someone to order around.

The two deaths are handled similarly, an old woman killed at night, a young woman an apparent suicide. The reader and viewer also learn about the "Shetland Bus," the effort during WWII to take agents and money to German-occupied Norway and bring escapees back. The red bones that turn up in an archeological dig on the murdered old woman's land may be those of a 15th merchant, a Norwegian traitor, or someone else. The discovery of the bones is really the story's inciting incident.

By necessity, the scriptwriter had to condense and simplify Cleeves's story. With a book, you can always go back and reread a key chapter that explains motivation and continuity that may not be clear on a first quick reading. Not only are the characters in the movie necessarily less fleshed out (the producers had less than two hours to work with after all), the mechanics of the plot are also simplified to the degree that the murderer in the movie is not the same as in the book. That makes for an interesting aesthetic experience regardless of which you encounter first. Because I read the book first, I was disappointed in the movie although I could understand why the scriptwriter made the switch.

Bottom line: Watch the movie first, then read the book. They each offer their own pleasure. Together, the pleasure is, if not doubled, at least significantly increased.