Crime fiction has a long tradition of embracing the outsider, largely because those excluded – by their very nature of being able to observe free of oversight – are often in a prime position to recognize troubling behavior and potential issues without exposure. With the launch of her new series, Ann Cleeves introduces another outsider, Matthew Venn, to the crime fiction fold and in doing so, also breaks new ground – both for the genre and for her own personal oeuvre – with The Last Call.
In many ways, Matthew Venn is the ultimate outsider. As a gay man in a leadership position amongst the police in a smaller rural community, Matthew is constantly aware of how others view him. He was raised within the Brethren, an ultra-strict and conservative religious community still active in and around this North Devon region of England. This same brotherhood into which he was born and which embraced him in youth has now turned their back on Matthew, so much so that he was even excluded from his father’s funeral as the novel opens – literally viewing the proceedings from the sidelines. Even on the work front, Matthew is slightly displaced, where his subordinates respect and revere him, but some of those in higher position seems to distrust (or maybe even revile) him.
Ann Cleeves has never been one to shy away from incorporating diversity into her novels, but at a time when the crime fiction community is standing together to demand more, it is a welcome move to put a gay male lead front and center. Even more so a happily married man with a career that counters any stereotypes that might still linger. As a cisgender, straight woman, some might think this was a risky choice for Ann Cleeves, but this talented author shows that when characters are presented authentically, the public – and especially members from those under-represented groups – will champion the effort and celebrate when it is done as successfully as we have in The Long Call.
The first case for this new series is one that will grip readers immediately. When Simon Walden’s body is discovered on Crow Point, Matthew and his team find themselves ensnared in a conspiracy with long held ties within the community. The abduction of two children with Down’s Syndrome further complicates the case. All of the victims have ties to the Woodyard Centre, a community outreach organization that is run by Matthew’s husband, Jonathan. Without spoilers, it is only possible to say that Ann Cleeves once again has her finger on the pulse of current events and readers will glean some subtle recriminations about present-day society – and especially certain groups of people – in how this investigation ultimately unfolds over the course of a week. As far as titles go, The Long Call works so well because it not only harkens to the bird-watching elements that so often play a part in the works of Ann Cleeves, but in this case it also speaks to the long reach of trauma and the toxic legacy of conspiracy and cover-up at the heart of this book.
The official subtitle of this series is Two Rivers and that is actually quite fitting. Naming the series for the two major geographic features of the locale rather than calling it a “Matthew Venn Mystery,” confirms that while Matthew is very much a main character in The Long Call, the overall series is much more of an ensemble piece. Every member of the police force plays an important role, while many of the residents of the various locations are complex and well defined, leaving readers with the hope of returning to their lives in future novels. It is easy to imagine that readers will come to love this unique community in much the same way they have come to cherish Louise Penny’s Three Pines and the residents of that enclave.
Fans of Ann Cleeves will find much to love in The Long Call and readers who are just discovering this author can rest assured that this is a perfect place to start exploring her work. Just as with her other two series, The Long Call has been optioned for television, so it is likely only a matter of time before these characters come to life on screen. Until then, anticipation will be high for a return of Matthew Venn, his team, and the residents of Two Rivers.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.