The body of a man is found on the shore of North Devon, a picturesque tourist county in England. The main identifying mark is an albatross tattoo on his neck. With this, The Long Call begins and promptly takes readers through a winding mystery full of secrets, lies and an ever-changing list of suspects.
Best-selling British crime author Ann Cleeves was inspired to write The Long Call after visiting North Devon following the death of her husband, Tim Cleeves. Needing a change of scenery and being back in the place she lived as a teenager swirled memories and prompted conversations, bringing her reflections to the page. The Long Call introduces Detective Inspector Matthew Venn and launches the Two Rivers series, a collection that mystery readers will sink into.
Cleeves, who’s been writing for decades, is best known for her Vera Stanhope and Shetland Island Mystery series — both of which have been turned into popular TV dramas. (And, no surprise to her fans, The Long Call was an instant New York Times best seller and has already been optioned for TV by Silverprint Pictures, the company that produced Vera and Shetland.)
For the author, writing came easy — a small joy she could fit in while she and Tim raised their daughters. Her first book, A Bird in the Hand, was published in 1986 and kicked off a series that followed retired naturalist George Palmer-Jones, who quietly looked into a murder.
“I wrote a mystery because I discovered I wasn’t very good at plotting, and the traditional detective story provides a useful structure!” she says. “Mysteries were also my comfort reading, so I understood the form very well.” A Bird in the Hand wasn’t a standout success, but it boosted her profile and confidence.
“I love doing it, it’s just telling stories,” Cleeves says. “I made enough to be able to take the family on holiday because I built up a small readership, and libraries would stock me. But you would never see any of my books in the main chains. I assumed it was how it was always going to be, and that was fine. I wasn’t doing it for the money — I just loved the ability to tell a story.”
Boredom leads to best sellers
One of the most popular British mystery writers of our time started writing because she was bored. She studied English at the University of Sussex, a “trendy uni because it was close to London,” she says, but that she “didn’t enjoy it at all.” So she dropped out and began working a series of odd jobs, one of them as an assistant cook at the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, where she met Tim Cleeves, a visiting ornithologist. She was instantly infatuated.
“I was very attracted to the bottle of very good malt whiskey, which was poking out of the top of his rucksack when I was showing him to his room in the observatory,” Cleeves says, with a smile. Not too long after they married.
When he was appointed warden of Hilbre Islands, a small tidal nature reserve in the Dee Estuary, they moved there as the sole residents.
“There was no water, no electricity. We had a little generator that we put on occasionally,” she says. While theirs was a bucolic life, access to the mainland was only during low tide. Cleeves, disinterested in bird-watching or natural history, was 25 years old and pregnant with the first of her two daughters. “So, I started writing.”
She went from being paid a stipend for talking at libraries about reading to winning the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (formerly the Gold Dagger) for the best crime novel of the year in 2006 for Raven Black, the first of the Shetland series. She describes that series as the turning point in her career.
“It all changed with the first of the Shetland books. I didn’t get advances — the publisher had to decide whether they would publish it or not,” she says. “I hadn’t planned it, but standard noir was becoming a big thing. It captured reviewers, taking the traditional golden age format of the detective novel but giving it a contemporary twist and setting it somewhere different.” She’d always written with detective-based protagonists and fatalistic overtones, but it had become trendy just as the Shetland series was published. “I was just very lucky — it was great timing, and I won the Gold [Dagger].”
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Inspired by reality, pushed by imagination
Like that of many authors, Cleeves’ fiction is fed from real life. Both characters and settings are built from distinct people and places: an overheard conversation, an encounter with good friends, memories from childhood.
“Vera grew because I wanted a woman who wasn’t good-looking, who wasn’t young. She grew out of the spinsters that I knew when I was growing up,” she says. “There were these single women in the towns or villages who had been allowed to take on roles and responsibilities who decided they’d rather be single than 1950s housewives after the war.”
For The Long Call, the characters of Detective Inspector Matthew Venn and his husband, Jonathan, were created as an honor: “Two of my best friends are a married gay couple, and they scooped me up after my husband died.” They were the ones who made her tea, who brought her wine and who nursed her back to life after her heartbreak.
And the book’s location, North Devon, was always idyllic for Cleeves: “[Moving there] for me, this was like the sun coming out. I could make real friends. It was very close to the beach,” she says. “I’m still great friends with three or four of the people I was friends with.”
Cleeves notes that she writes “like a reader” — starting with setting and letting the characters and plot follow. “I start with the place. I think that people are connected. Setting is much more than an attractive backdrop,” she says. “I look at how place affects who you are. I always start with place. I might have a vague theme or idea, or some idea that I want to explore and then I start writing. I don’t start plotting in advance. Most of the minor characters appear as I write. The characters develop as I write. I write like a reader. I write the first chapter and then I need to know what’s going to happen next.”
In fact, her tiny readership and lack of fame in the very beginning may have been why Cleeves’ stories made such natural mysteries. Because she had no one but herself to impress, she wrote to amuse herself. She didn’t even know how the detective books would end — and was just as surprised as her readers at the outcome.
“It wouldn’t have been much fun if I knew how the book was going to end,” she says, laughing.
Stoking Anticipation for a Slow-Burn Mystery
If you get flashbacks to 19th- and 20th-century serial novels when you read Ann Cleeves’ books, you’re not far from the truth.
Serialization — releasing a book in sequential installments, often in magazines and newspapers — has been used to build suspense for hundreds of years. Between 1836 and 1837, Charles Dickens popularized this form of printing to release his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, in 20 parts. Reception was subdued until the fourth installment, when sales soared to 40,000 in one month.
Dickens subsequently published eight other novels in part-issue format, helming a long list of 19th-century authors such as George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy, who all used serialization to release new work. But contemporary authors are also relying on this form. One popular example is how author Andy Weir used his website to slowly publish The Martian, which later became a blockbuster hit starring Matt Damon as an astronaut trapped alone on Mars.
“It builds suspense in the same way that commercial television builds suspense, putting a mini-cliffhanger before every commercial break,” says Alina Adams, a New York Times best-selling author who is currently writing a dramatic serial novel for Soap Hub Insider, a website for soap opera fans. “Serialized stories are definitely returning.”
For The Long Call, serialization takes advantage of the natural chapter arcs — and helps build the mystery before unraveling it.
“You want to leave the end of the chapter with people wanting to know what’s happening next,” Cleeves says. “You want them to turn the page.” Or in this case, click their cursor. And the timing of this book works out, she adds. “Traditional crime fiction does well at times of disturbance and when we’re unsettled. In Agatha Christie, it was the time of great turbulence. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was another golden age of crime — industry unrest, strikes. It is a form that people turn to because there is some reassurance that things will come together in the end.”