The Long Call is the first book in a new mystery series by Ann Cleeves, who is best known for the Jimmy Perez mysteries set in the Shetland Islands, the basis for the TV series Shetland, and the Vera Stanhope mysteries, the basis of the TV series Vera. I admit I have never seen either TV series, even though I heard they are excellent, and I've read the first Jimmy Perez mystery and enjoyed it very much. The Long Call is set in the seaside resort area of North Devon, England, and it introduces a new protagonist, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, a gay police officer who lives in a house near the beach with his husband, Jonathan, who runs the local community center, the Woodyard, where an artist, Gaby, teaches art classes, and which also provides programs for adults with learning disabilities.
Matthew grew up in a strict evangelical Christian community called the Brethren, but they rejected him because he lost his faith and because he was gay. He hasn't spoken to his parents in years. At the beginning of the book, he stands outside the church during his father's funeral, afraid to go inside because he still feels the hurt of rejection. Then he receives a call from one of his colleagues, telling him a dead body has been found on the beach. The dead man is Simon Walden, who first showed up in the town as a homeless alcoholic. Caroline, a social worker, took Simon into her house, which she shares with Gaby the artist, who initially resented Simon's presence there, but came to like him better when she realized that Simon was a talented cook. Simon had killed a child in a car accident and carried around an enormous burden of guilt, symbolized by his albatross tattoo.
Recently, Simon had befriended Lucy, a woman with Down's syndrome who has been taking classes at the Woodyard, where he volunteered as a cook. But was he being friendly, or was he stalking her? Lucy's father, Maurice, a man in his eighties whose wife has recently died, is suspicious of Simon's motives, but he has always been very protective of Lucy, and worries about what will happen to her when he dies.
As Matthew and his colleagues investigate Simon's death, they are puzzled because no one seems to have a clear motive to kill him. Then Christine, a woman with Down's syndrome, a friend of Lucy's and the daughter of Matthew's mother's best friend, disappears. Matthew is certain that there is a connection between Simon's death and Christine's disappearance, but he doesn't know what it is, because it seems the only thing they had in common was the Woodyard, and the fact they both knew Lucy. Matthew wonders if he should take himself off the case because his husband, Jonathan, runs the Woodyard and some might view Jonathan as a suspect. Matthew is sure that his husband is innocent, and he decides to find the killer and rescue the kidnapped woman.
The Long Call is an outstanding mystery, and one of its great strengths is its character development. All the characters are complex, and seem like real people. Matthew and Jonathan are wonderful characters, opposites in many ways. Matthew is definitely an introvert, shy around strangers, and often unsure of himself. He is neat and orderly, and usually wears a suit. Jonathan, by contrast, is outgoing and extroverted, often inviting guests to their house, and he is somewhat messy and usually wears a T-shirt and shorts. They complement each other very well. Matthew's colleagues, Jen and Ross, are also very believable characters. Jen is a single mother of two teenagers, who fled an abusive marriage. She misses the social life of the city, and she struggles to balance work and motherhood, often feeling guilty that she has to leave her children on their own. Ross is a young police officer, the favorite of Matthew's boss, and at first he seems spoiled, and a typical boss' pet, but there is much more to him than that. Some of the other fascinating characters include Gaby, an extremely talented artist stuck in a small town, her housemate Caroline, the social worker engaged to a clergyman, and Caroline's father Christopher Preece, a wealthy businessman who is the chair of the board of trustees of the Woodyard. Then there is a couple Matthew has known for years: Dennis Salter, the charismatic leader of the Brethren, the evangelical group Matthew grew up in, and Dennis' emotionally fragile wife Grace. All are suspects in the mystery, and I didn't guess until close to the end, who the murderer was.
Another great strength of The Long Call is the setting. Cleeves spent much of her childhood in North Devon, and she knows the area very well. It sounds like a beautiful place, remote and deserted except during tourist season. The book takes place in March, before the beginning of tourist season, and you can tell why the characters who are used to city life would be bored there, but you can also tell why people who grew up there love it, for the beauty of the place. Cleeves' descriptions of the countryside and, especially, of the birds, is very strong. In fact, the title, The Long Call, comes from the call of the herring gull. I highly recommend The Long Call, and I am looking forward to more mysteries featuring Matthew Venn.
The Long Call is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.