Monday, September 16, 2019

"The Long Call" by Ann Cleeves

I’ve been looking forward to the publication of The Long Call by Ann Cleeves for months. Cleeves, the author of two popular mystery series – Vera Stanhope, set in Northumberland, and Jimmy Perez, set in the Shetland Islands – was bringing forth a new detective in a new series. 

The promotions for the new Two Rivers series kept to bareboned information – the series would be set in North Devon, the English county that runs from Bristol Bay to the English Channel and separates Cornwall form the rest of England. There was a reference to the police detective – Matthew Venn – having left a religiously conservative family. Other than that, little else was said.

The story begins with a man found stabbed to death on the beach. The body has no identification, so Venn and his team have to find out who the man is before they can move forward. Venn has just come from his own father’s funeral, not as an attendee but as an observer. He is something of a persona non grata with his mother and the members of her church, the so-called Brethren, but it will be some time before we find out why. 

Gradually, we come to learn that the victim worked as a volunteer at the Woodyard, a factory converted to spaces for the arts, community groups, the elderly, and the disabled. The investigation keeps coming back to the Woodyard, the lists of potential suspects keeps growing, and a conflict of interest is mounting for Venn.

Ann Cleeves
The novel has a short introduction by the author, expressing some nervousness with introducing a new character and a new series. Cleeves is one of the best mystery novelists writing today, in the same league as Louise Penny, and it’s a bit odd to begin a new series with what sounds almost like an apology. 

The first two chapters seemed off. The character of Matthew Venn seemed almost one-dimensional, as if Cleeves wasn’t quite sure what kind of character he was. She describes a police detective who, at 40, is tentative, lacks self-confidence, and is still trying to escape his religious upbringing. 

Two supporting characters – Venn’s constable Ross and his sergeant Jen – seem more real. One of the suspects, the Brethren’s retired minister, also seems more real, if played a bit to the stereotyped rigid believer. The third chapter explains more – Venn is married to a man, who happens to be the founder and manager of the Woodyard (and thus the conflict of interest). It’s a surprise, landing without a hint. And the back story has to be worked in, or at least enough of it so that the reader understands. I’m not sure if she’s included enough back story yet, which may be coming in future entries in the series.

Cleeves has published eight mysteries in the Jimmy Perez / Shetland series, including Raven Black (2008), Red Bones (2009), White Nights (2010), Blue Lightning (2011), Dead Water (2014), Thin Air (2015), and Cold Earth (2017), with Wild Fire published in September. She’s also published eight mystery novels in the Vera Stanhope series (also a television series), six Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries, and several others works and short stories. The Jimmy Perez novels are the basis for the BBC television series “Shetland.” Cleeves lives in northeastern England.

It takes some gumption even for an established, popular author to step outside her comfort zone and create a new series. The Long Call is an interesting story, solidly based in the police procedural sub-genre like the Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels. Cleeves is still finding her sea legs with this new detective, but she is experienced enough and a good-enough writer to get there.


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