The Baby-Snatcher by Ann Cleeves

I’m trying not to take on too many crime series, and when I do I try to read in order, but I broke my rules for this book. The premise looked intriguing, and when I saw that it would fill a difficult year in my Century of Books, well I decided that was a sign …

The story began one evening, when Inspector Ramsay was at home and off duty. The quiet evening that he had planned was disturbed when a teenage girl, alone and clearly frightened, banged on his door. He hesitated, aware of the risks of having a distressed girl in his house with nobody else present, but he realised that he couldn’t turn her away.

She told him that her mother was missing, and that her mother was so reliable, so involved with her family, that she knew something had to be wrong. And he was inclined to believe her because he had often seen them in the town, and he had never seen one without the other.

Ramsay drove the girl back to her home, to the Headland, a small, remote coastal community. And he found the girl’s mother, safe and well. He didn’t quite believe her account of where she had been, or of what had happened, but he didn’t think that there was really anything amiss.

Until six month’s later. When the same woman was reported missing again. And her body was found on the beach

the-babysnatcher-978144725023401There was precious little physical evidence, and even less witness evidence.

There had been a children’s party that day, for one of the children of the family at the Coastguard House. With all of the coming and going, somebody should have noticed anything unusual. But nobody did. Save a man in the red car visiting one of the neighbours.

She only knew his first name, she told the police; he was just somebody she had met in a club who had called round. Ramsay was inclined to believe her. She had a lot of male visitors, indeed she made her living from them. But it was a line of enquiry that had to be followed.

They had to look closely at the woman’s family. Her husband, who worked in an office, but was building up a lucrative side-line as a children’s entertainer. He was at the Coastguard House, entertaining the party guests when his daughter reported his wife missing. Her sister, much younger than her, who she had brought up after both their parents died. She worked as a nanny at the Coastguard House. And, of course, her daughter. They all seemed strangely unaffected by the death.

They had to look at the couple at the Coastguard House too. There seemed to be so many links between the two families. And they looked at a close friend who had been there that day. A new widower, a teacher at the daughter’s school …

There was no real action, no real drama, but as the police made their enquiries, Ann Cleeves was able to create detailed character studies, to analyse relationships, and to slowly reveal secrets. And she did it so well that for a long time it didn’t bother me that there wasn’t much of a plot.

The police – Ramsay and two colleagues – their relationships,  the way they worked together, were just as well drawn and just as believable. There may have been subtleties I missed by dropping into the middle of a series, but I really didn’t notice. And because there was no one else I could really warm to, it seemed quite natural to follow them and to see things as they did.

The sense of place was just as good.

The crucial piece of evidence that the police needed came to them purely by chance. through another case. Small boys had been going missing, only to be found some distance away, seemingly unharmed. Suddenly the two cases seemed to be linked.

And that was where things went a little wrong. There was a little too much drama, a little too much going on. The ending was right psychologically, but it didn’t grow out of the story and out of the character as naturally as it should have. And it felt a little rushed.

I’d still say that this was a good book, and I’d still pick up another of the series if I liked the premise. But I’d also say that this book, from 1997, probably isn’t as strong as the books Ann Cleeves has written more recently.

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