‘The Long Call’ – Two Rivers #1 by Ann Cleeves

In North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his father’s funeral takes place. The day Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his family, too.

Now he’s back, not just to mourn his father at a distance, but to take charge of his first major case in the Two Rivers region; a complex place not quite as idyllic as tourists suppose.

A body has been found on the beach near to Matthew’s new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.

Finding the killer is Venn’s only focus, and his team’s investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind and the deadly secrets that lurk there.

Ann Cleeves has been on my ‘I must read more of her’ list since I read ‘Raven Black’ the first Shetland book, back in 2016. I’ve enjoyed following ‘Shetland’ as a TV series but I haven’t been back to the books. When I saw that Ann Cleeves had started a new series, this time set in Devon, a place not that far from where I live, I decided I had to try it.

‘The Long Call’ is a well-executed, low-key Police Procedural in a distinctive rural setting with a quiet but complex main character, Detective Matthew Venn.

I enjoyed Ann Cleeves’ calm but vivid storytelling style. She builds strong, believable characters and she uses the small clues that we all take in unconsciously to create a nuanced sense of the various ways that we judge other people’s views, behaviours, aspirations and class.

I liked that Matthew Venn is a cliché-free Detective. He doesn’t have a problem with drink. He doesn’t drive a quirky car. He doesn’t prioritise his work over his marriage. He’s not a man who feels the need to be the dominant person in the room. He watches carefully, works methodically and speaks quietly. He’s from the local community. He’s a gay man in stable marriage to a man who runs a local Day Centre for adults with learning difficulties.

So what sets him apart and prevents him from becoming a bland puzzle-solving cypher? Mainly it’s the strained relationship he has with the Christian fundamentalist sect/cult that his parents raised him in and which sees being gay as an abomination. Even then, Matthew doesn’t turn this tension in his life into a toxic drama. The book opens with him observing his father’s funeral from a distance because he doesn’t feel welcome to join the congregation in the chapel but even then, Matthew doesn’t allow his anger to show. He stands with quiet dignity and waits outside.

A body is found on the beach on the morning of Matthew’s father’s funeral and as he works the case, it becomes increasingly personal, with apparent links to his parents’ Christian Fundamentalist sect/cult and to his husband’s Day Centre. This makes life difficult for Matthew but he sits on the difficulty, pushes down the pain and gets on with his job.

There’s a point when Matthew is at home, listening to the noises coming from the beech in front of his house when we get an explanation of the title of the book and also an emblem for the book’s slow, slightly mournful feel:

“…he could hear the surf on the beach and the cry of a herring gull, the sound the naturalists named the long call, the cry which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain.”

The plot revolves around the kind of pain that only has meaning if you believe in and care about the people affected by it. What I liked most about this book was that the people were more than plot devices.

I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Long Call’. It’s narrated by Ben Aldridge, who plays Matthew Venn in the TV series. His narration is wonderfully calm and his regional accents are well crafted. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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