The Long Call
by Ann Cleeves
AMBER LOVE 17-JUNE-2019 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
In North Devon, where two rivers converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his estranged father’s funeral takes place. On the day Matthew left the strict evangelical community he grew up in, he lost his family too.
Now, as he turns and walks away again, he receives a call from one of his team. A body has been found on the beach nearby: a man with a tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.
The case calls Matthew back to the people and places of his past, as deadly secrets hidden at their hearts are revealed, and his new life is forced into a collision course with the world he thought he’d left behind.
From Ann Cleeves, bestselling author of Vera and Shetland, beloved by readers and TV viewers alike, comes a spectacular new series, told with deep compassion and searing insight.
The Long Call was my first Ann Cleeves’ book. I had seen her name in the credits of Shetland and decided to see what her writing was like. As you can expect, I was not disappointed.
First of all, Cleeves gives us a gay male protagonist who has to navigate through the difficult relationships of his past from when and where he grew up as part of a Mennonite-like Christian sect called the Barum Brethren. Somehow, it wasn’t being gay that got him shunned from his family and community. It was questioning them. Questioning the authority of the elders and the church was the more severe misconduct.
Of course the Brethren had been hot on the sin of gambling, a vice on a par with adultery, sodomy, and not wearing hats to meetings.
Secondly, the supporting cast of characters are women with Down’s Syndrome, particularly the one named Lucy who becomes a target for kidnappers, a murderer, and a rapist. Her friend Christine is taken and has to fight against the odds as the North Devon police search for her. There’s a third woman who is named and described, Rosa Holsworthy, who becomes integral in the current cases due to a past crime. It was the way that Cleeves treated each learning disabled character that deserves significant praise. There was no monolith. She gave each woman her own personality, size, maturity, family dynamic, and things they liked. Christine’s parents and her aunt and uncle play pivotal roles in the criminal conspiracy. They’re also tied to Detective Venn’s history with the Brethren and to his husband Jonathan’s work life at the Woodyard Center.
Detective Venn has a lot of the qualities of old noir gumshoes. He’s so dedicated to his job and solving the cases that he has to make the choice to choose the work over being at home with his husband. Fortunately, Cleeves gives readers the character of Jonathan, always forgiving and understanding about Venn’s duties as a cop. Jonathan is a breath of fresh air brought in at the right times when the mood is heavy and dramatic. He is the bright light in Venn’s world.
Cleeves also includes the St. Hubert’s programs for people with mental illness. She handles the situational environmental and the characters who are in roles of social workers, priests, and the clientele with delicacy. Between the people who attend the Woodyard and those who go to St. Hubert’s for therapy and group counseling, there were ample opportunities for Cleeves to slide into stereotypes and myths about mental illness, but she never did. The characters surviving suicides of family members are allowed breathing room to be realistic and flat out honest.
Some of the other people had more severe learning disabilities. They were cared for in a different group. Some couldn’t talk, but made odd noises, squeaks, and squeals. There was a man with a head too small for his body, people with twisted limbs, who couldn’t walk and used wheelchairs. Maurice was embarrassed now at his reaction, his horror, his feeling that this was some kind of freak show and that his Lucy didn’t belong there.
Something I noticed about the way the police in this story address each other was that they use first names. I’ve noticed this on a BBC property, DCI Banks. Perhaps, like other British-isms I had to look up, this is how it really is over there. I think our police are so militaristic especially in larger departments rather than small towns, that they refer to each other by last name or even nicknames.
The elegance of the sentences left me in a trance of pictures dancing through my mind. Her descriptions are lyrical and willowy. They aren’t the kind of poetic metaphors that beat one over the head in annoyance. They’re beautiful even when the subject is horrifying.
He pictured Alice Wozencroft bent double over the keys, dressed entirely in black, hands like claws, a nose like a beak. As close to a crow as a woman could be. She’d been old even when he was a boy.
Detective Venn is confronted with violence against the most vulnerable members of his community. His tenacity keeps him moving on little sleep until he protects the next person from being hurt. Part of him worries that his husband will realize how neglectful it feels being at home cooking and cleaning after work only to get the call that Venn won’t make it back for dinner.
Venn’s colleagues, Ross and Jen are given opportunities to show off their personalities too, though Jen moreso. She’s a single mother who would often prefer staying up all night partying than doing either her job or raising kids.
Jen liked the idea of yoga, but didn’t have the patience for it. The building was deceptively spacious and light. There were posters on the walls, semi-religious imagery of rainbows and doves, slogans about taking power, and loving the inner you. Here it seemed hope and the possibility of redemption abounded. It made Jen feel like punching someone.
In that one fragment of a paragraph, readers are given all they need to understand what kind of person Jen is.
As for the crimes to solve, there were several which intertwined through the conspiracy. Cleeves takes readers on a ride through the people who define themselves as powerful, entitled, and wielding authority in small towns. She allows the reader to hate a character or change their mind about them as they develop. Simon Walden is a central character, a prime suspect who could be just another alcoholic character looking to be saved. Instead, Cleeves sculpts Walden into a man of mystery, one who takes ownership of his mistakes and seeks redemption. Dennis Salter, a leader of the Brethren and the uncle to Christine, shoots out red flags that he is not a nice man. It’s easy to detect Dennis Salter as an evil bastard. That comes out even more in the third act when readers get a better look into his marriage and friendships. Salter never misses the chance to land a digging mocking insult at Detective Venn.
“This is all about conspiracy. Entitled people more worried about their own reputations than the people in their care, losing any sense of humanity along the way. A kind of collective madness. They’re all involved to some degree.”
Besides the Brethren, there are other so-called Christians who don’t seem to have their moral compass pointing due north. Is allowing someone to get away with a crime also a crime itself? Who gets redemption and who doesn’t? Who is worthy of another chance and who isn’t? Does saving reputations for places that are supposed to be safe havens outweigh publicizing any wrong-doings? Maybe the author has had her own battles with Christian churches or maybe she wrote this to hold up a mirror to the real world.
The crimes also include issues of sexual consent. I have to open about this as a Trigger Warning / Content Note more than ever because it does involve women with Down’s Syndrome. The perpetrator, once cornered and forced to confess, goes through all the defenses: “she had a reputation” to promises of “it’ll never happen again.” Among other sensitive subjects, some mentioned already, there’s: self-harm/suicide, depression, sexual violence, gaslighting and domestic violence, and murder. Cleeves handles these situations in ways that I wish other authors would, particularly cis-male authors who don’t seem to understand how to write that content without being exploitative and boring old motivations for the hero characters.* The Long Call gets five stars and a new Ann Cleeves fan.