I’ve been a fan of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series for many years now and the TV adaptation is a viewing must for me. I love the sense of place she creates, the history of the islands woven into the stories and of course Jimmy Perez, the tragic widower wedded to his work. I also love his relationship with Duncan, and the two dads working together to bring up their daughter. I watched Vera on TV before reading any of the novels so now she is inextricably linked with Brenda Blethyn. Yet again, on reading, it is the landscape that’s the star of the show. I think, after reading this first novel in her new series, North Devon will always be the territory of Matthew Venn.
The long call is part of a seagull’s repertoire and is usually associated with warning and aggression; ‘the sound naturalists named the long call, the cry which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain’. DI Matthew Venn is a local boy, now working for Barnstaple CID. He picks up his first murder enquiry when a body is found on the sands. The man, who looks to be in his forties, has been stabbed. There is nothing to identify him, except a tattoo of an albatross on his neck. Immediately, my mind went to Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner, a man who is cursed after he kills an albatross. The tattoo hints at a heavy burden and the need for a constant reminder. The victim turns out to be a man called Simon Walden, who once killed a child when drunk driving, and lost everything in his life. Depressed and suffering from alcoholism, Simon had been working as a seasonal chef in a local hotel. As Matthew starts to investigate, the links between the case and his personal life start to emerge. At what point should he step back from the case?
Venn is an interesting character. He is very quiet and thoughtful. His upbringing was in the strict religious environment of the Barum Brethren. Having rejected this strict evangelical faith, he found himself ostracised by both the congregation and his parents. We meet him just as he’s grieving for his father, filled with guilt and regret for not being able to see him before he died. His husband Jonathon is supportive though and has settled with him in the area after finding a job as head of the The Woodyard – a community venture focused on the arts for people with learning disabilities and their families. Unfortunately, connections between The Woodyard and the murder case start to surface. Walden was living with two workers from the hub, Caroline Preece, charity worker and daughter of the local vicar rents out rooms in her home. Along with current lodger and art therapist, Gaby Henry, Chrissie decides to take a chance on Walden when she finds out he is homeless. Another connection comes in the form of a young woman with learning disabilities who talked to Walden on the bus each morning on her way to The Woodyard. Her father is alarmed to find out this stranger has befriended his daughter, and suspects an ulterior motive. What could possibly be the connection between them?
Venn is constantly treading a fine line ethically with this case. His local knowledge and insider information on the Brethren are making a big difference to the case. However, his personal links to the day centre, and particularly his husband’s role as Manager could jeopardise any future legal case should it come to court. He is ably assisted by DS Jen Rafferty though, who works very instinctively and with great empathy. She has left an abusive relationship in Liverpool to lose herself somewhere more rural and I think her own troubles have given her great empathy and insight. I felt this book was very much about establishing these characters for the future, and that created a relatively slower pace to the novel. I enjoyed how the variety of characters allowed Cleeves to explore societal assumptions and prejudices people have about same sex relationships and people with learning disabilities.
The location, as always, is a character in its own right. The community is nestled where two rivers, the Taw and Torridge, meet at the coast. It’s the perfect place for people who want to escape the rat race, for artists attracted by local scenery and wildlife, for tourists and for those wanting to disappear. Towards the end of the novel, as the suspense begins to build and those threads start to come together, the pace picks up and I found myself more engaged. I think this bodes well for the future novels in the series now these characters are established. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the complicated, but intelligent Matthew Venn (although I will always love Jimmy Perez). I also look forward to seeing more of his relationship with Jonathon because I think their differences – Matthew always smart in a suit and Jonathon in shorts and sandals whatever the weather – could create opportunities for the both drama and humour. Cleeves has another hit on her hands and since it’s already been optioned for a TV series I’m already mentally trying to cast the characters.