Ann Cleeves’s new police procedural, The Long Call, set in North Devon, is brooding and suspenseful. I raced through it on Labor Day, and found it nearly unputdownable. Cleeves is a quiet but compelling writer: plotting is her main strength, but I also believed in her characters. The gay hero, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, is tough and brooding, not at ease with his past: his parents, members of a fundamentalist quasi-cult, disowned him when he lost his faith and rejected him doubly when he married the love of his life, Jonathan. The novel starts at Matthew”s father’s funeral, at which Matthew is not welcome. A phone call about a murder on the beach draws him away, into a sinister present.
Though there are no identification papers on the corpse, there is an albatross tattoo on the man’s neck. Soon Matthew and Jen, his sergeant, a wild divorcee and guilt-ridden single mother, discover the man was Simon Walden, a homeless alcoholic who volunteered at The Woodyard, a day center which offers services to the disabled, adult education, counseling, and a cafe. And he was living temporarily with Caroline, a social worker at The Woodyard, and Gaby, the artist-in-residence. To complicate matters, Matthew’s husband is the director of The Woodyard.
Simon’s past is convoluted (he fell out of the middle class after he ran over and killed a child), and it takes a long time to unravel his secrets. Somehow he was involved with Lucy, a young woman with Down syndrome who attends the Centre and works at the cafe. Was he altruistic, or a predator?
Since I don’t read many police procedurals, I can only say Cleeves reminds me a bit of Elizabeth George, though she is less complex and perhaps not quite as insightful psychologically. She introduces the missing girl trope, which, from what I’ve heard, is too much done in contemporary mysteries. Near the end, The Long Call gets a little busy: so many villains! But she manages to tie everything neatly together. A thoroughly suspenseful read.