Thursday, March 31, 2016

Haunting Photos, Frightening Tales, in THE STARLINGS, editor Ann Cleeves

There's a certain inevitability to it: When your best friends are crime writers, and everyone gets together around a stack of scary photographs, each picture can easily become the seed of suspense, twisted desire, and murder.

At least, that's what happened when British crime fiction author Ann Cleeves and the group calling itself Murder Squad -- a team of half a dozen writers co-promoting each other's bloody endeavors -- received a stack of photos of Pembrokeshire, Wales, with a proposal to write short stories to accompany the black-and-white-and-spooky images.

Hence: THE STARLINGS. Published in 2015 in Britain and just arriving in the US now (publication date April 1), this elegant and professional photo exhibit calls forth shudders of anticipation before the text starts to unfold. Packed for more than 200 pages with bizarre and calculated crime from a dozen writers (six in Murder Squad and six added partners), the book brings the hard-boiled home for these Britishers, who oddly enough all had connections somehow to the landscape of the photos that David Wilson had taken. And for us in "the States," the images recapitulate our own ghosts: deserted houses, unexpected and inhuman visitations, unfinished desperate circumstances of the past.

I particularly enjoyed Cleeves's own brief twist of plot and characters in the title story, "The Starlings" (and yes, the adjoining photo does call forth Hitchcock's "The Birds"):
She closed her eyes and thought that even an odd snatch of conversation might help.

When she opened them there was a face staring in through the Land Rover window. She was startled. At first she thought it might be the local officers, though the siren had been a long way off and even deep in thought surely she would have heard their car on the track. And the face belonged to an elderly woman. ... The woman was pale and dishevelled with white hair straggling over her face. Vera felt ridiculous. She might be haunted by the past but Forbes' death could be something more commonplace -- a domestic situation that had developed into a tragedy; she could see that this woman might have mental health problems. ... Vera introduced herself.

"You'll have seen that Edward's shot himself. The bloody fool."

"I can see that he's dead. No idea yet how it happened."

The woman blinked as though she'd been slapped.
Though the stories are all impressively compact crime narratives, they have an unexpected result, at least for me: What I wanted to do after reading the book was keep returning to those photos, the way they captured desolation and betrayal and death.

What a collection! From Graffed, brought to the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing.

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