One of WGBH’s favorite mysteries is back – Shetland returns to WGBX 44 for season four on September 10 at 9pm on WGBX 44. Like many other popular WGBH programs, Shetland is based on a series of bestselling books, penned in this case by Ann Cleeves. What is it like to have your work adapted for television? What does Cleeves think of mystery greats like Agatha Christie? And why write about Shetland in the first place? WGBH had the opportunity to sit down with Cleeves and find out.

Mavis Grind Sunset by David Gifford for Shetland Islands Council
Mavis Grind Sunset by David Gifford for Shetland Islands Council
David Gifford for Shetland Islands Council

Bleaker and Wilder: Shetland as Setting
“I first went to Shetland more than forty years ago,” Cleeves remembers. “I’d dropped out of university and needed work. After a chance meeting in a London pub, I was offered the post of assistant cook in the bird observatory in Fair Isle, the most remote of the inhabited islands. I couldn’t cook and I knew nothing about birds, but I knew it would be an adventure… it was the start of a love affair with Shetland. I met my husband there, and even when we returned to live on the mainland we continued to visit.”

“It is very different from any other British landscape, bleaker and wilder,” she continues. “It might only be a short hop on the plane, but it’s thirteen hours by ferry from Aberdeen. Shetland is a long way north – on the same line of latitude as parts of Greenland and Alaska – so winter is dark and dramatic.

It seemed the perfect location for a mystery novel, especially the traditional mysteries that I loved writing.

"I’d always thought it would be an impertinence to set a book there, because I was still very much an outsider, but the locals encouraged me to try… they were a bit wary about the TV pilot, but now filming in the islands had been welcomed with the same generosity. It’s almost become a part of the cycle of island life.”

Shetland Beach from the Shetland Islands Council
Shetland Beach from the Shetland Islands Council
Shetland Islands Council

Getting Behind the Facade: Ann’s Writing Process
Cleeves muses: “I’m fascinated generally in the narratives people create about themselves. Most of us present a mask to the world, pretend to be more confident, happier, more interesting than we really are. I love getting behind the façade of reputation and image to see what lies beneath.

“I don’t plan the books in advance, or think about structure… my investigation continues at the same pace as Perez’s,” she adds. “And really, I’m not so interested in who the murderer turns out to be, though I do love the cheap thrill of the surprise ending as a reader, and hope to give the same treat as a writer. I’m more interested in relationships heightened by proximity in small communities, getting behind the mask that protects us in everyday encounters. I tell the story the best way I can. My writing is based on curiosity, I think. I explore the places and the characters who interest me in the hope of understanding them better.”

Shetland Waves from the Shetland Islands Council
Shetland Waves from the Shetland Islands Council
The Shetland Islands Council

I Can’t Understand Revenge: On Agatha Christie
“I was never a huge fan of [Agatha] Christie. I always found her cold and ruthless. This is probably mystery-writing blasphemy,” she admits, “but I find And Then There Were None a rather horrible book. I can’t understand revenge, it’s such a destructive emotion. I love other Golden Age authors though, especially Dorothy Sayers. She was always my comfort reading. Now, I’m reading the wonderful younger generation of crime-writers, who are bringing fresh energy and ideas to the genre. I think we’re in a new Golden Age.”

Northern Lights by David Gifford for the Shetland Islands Council
Northern Lights by David Gifford for the Shetland Islands Council
David Gifford for the Shetland Islands Council

I’m Very Lucky: Book to Small Screen
“Television is such a different medium that what works on the page might not always work on the screen. It’s much better to have a fine piece of television, rather than a drama that is faithful to the novel, but clunky and unconvincing,” Cleeves says. “I’m very lucky that the result is such very good television. Besides, I don’t feel the books are mine once they’re in the hands of readers. Reading is much more creative than it’s given credit for.

Each reader brings her own imagination, her own experience and prejudices to the book. That's a collaboration too.

“I’m usually able to separate the characters in the books from the actors in the Shetland series. The TV drama has moved some way now from the novels, although it still captures the atmosphere and tone beautifully. It’s more difficult with Vera. I do hear Brenda Blethyn [the star of Vera]’s voice in my head when I’m writing dialogue.”

The stark landscapes, long-held family secrets, and tightly woven community of Shetland returns to WGBH for Season 4 this week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos credit of The Shetland Islands Council.