The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
In the first of a new series by acclaimed author and Sunday Times bestseller, Ann Cleeves, we are introduced to her most inscrutable detective to date and a new landscape in which the grim events unfold.
DI Matthew Venn stands outside a church. His father’s funeral is taking place and he is watching from a distance. Matthew is estranged from his family, having turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he was raised and, in turn, been shunned by them.
But now he’s back in the North Devon of his childhood, happily married and settled on the shores close to his former home, where the rivers Taw and Torridge meet the sea.
His latest case? A man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, found stabbed to death on the beach. He and his team; the bracing DS Jen Rafferty and the unsympathetic “pacer and shouter” that is DC Ross May, have to find the killer in an investigation which will take him back into the heart of the community he left behind, and force a close examination of those he thought he knew.
Cleeves is a mistress of her craft. She gives us here a police procedural with plenty to keep us guessing, perfectly paced with enough red herrings to fill a barrel, a full and rounded supporting cast, drip-fed clues and secrets and a thrilling race to the finish.
She interweaves country community life, church, artists, outcasts and social do-gooders with her habitual lightness of touch and it is refreshing in the extreme to have female central characters and characters with Downs’ syndrome treated without the slightest hint of condescension.
Gratifyingly familiar for lovers of Cleeves’ other 2 series, is the idea of landscape as character. This is the first in the “Two Rivers” series set in North Devon, where Cleeves spent much of her youth and to which she returned for some time after the death of her husband.
But this is not the Ladybird book Devon of cream teas, twee gift shops and picture-postcard beaches. Like Shetland and Northumberland before it, Cleeves’ Devon is a bleak, precarious backdrop to the events taking place. The towns are peopled with transient figures living half-secret lives. The coast is a land of mists and marshes, shifting sands and tides. Even Venn’s own home risks being stranded by floodwaters.
The “long call” of the title is a term used to describe the cry of the herring gulls that populate the skies in North Devon. To Matthew Venn it always sounds “like an inarticulate howl of pain”. This tells us something of the man we are meeting and the relationship he has with the environment in which he grew up. It can be lonely out there.
Venn is not the stereotypical police officer we see so often in crime fiction. Not a hardened drinker with marital problems or a guilt complex, struggling to keep afloat emotionally. His “outsideness” comes from the exclusion from his family and former community and, in part, the attitude of that community towards the fact that he is gay.
He is inscrutable not only to them but to us too: buttoned-up, conscientious and introspective. His husband, Jonathan, is a counterfoil, relaxed and at ease with himself and we learn much about Matthew through the prism of this relationship. It’s deftly done and Cleeves gives us in Matthew Venn a character to whom we warm as the book progresses.
He, like the landscape to which he has returned, remains something of a mystery to us as the final act plays out. A little frustrating? Certainly. But this is a writer at the top of her game. She leaves us, as the best entertainers do, wanting more. And will no doubt deliver in spades in the next chapter of this exciting new series.