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Ann Cleeves Returns with 'The Heron's Cry,' the Extraordinary Sequel to 'The Long Call'

New York Times best-selling author brings readers another intricately woven tale with gritty characters

illustration of Ann Cleeves with red house and white barn in background

Author Illustration by Michael Hoeweler (Source: David Hirst); Background: Stan Fellows

Ann Cleeves has become a book-to-TV-series maven.

The New York Times best-selling author’s books have spawned two hit television shows, Shetland, starring Douglas Henshall, and Vera, with Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn playing Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope. Both series are streaming on BritBox in the United States, as will the adaptation of The Long Call, the first book in Cleeves’ Two Rivers series, which will premiere on BritBox in 2022.

The Heron’s Cry is Cleeves’ latest book and the second in the Two Rivers series, following The Long Call. As the book opens, the summer heat has been suffocating, and Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is called to a grisly murder scene at a rural artists home. Inside, a man has been fatally stabbed with a shard from one of his daughter’s exquisite blown-glass vases. The mystery deepens when another victim is killed in the same way. Venn, along with officers Ross May and Jen Rafferty, must tread carefully through the lies that smolder at the heart of this English seaside county, bringing to light dark secrets, including a clandestine suicide club led by a shadowy figure known as The Crow.

Interestingly, Cleeves never set out to write series fiction. In fact, it didn’t occur to her to think beyond her first novel, A Bird in the Hand, which was published in 1986 and features an elderly birdwatcher and his wife, George and Molly Palmer-Jones, who bump into bodies on nature reserves and in other wild places.

“That was a struggle enough,” she says. “But then the book was accepted for publication, and my editor suggested that mystery readers liked series and why didn’t I think of working on another title using the same characters?”

That turned out to be good advice. In the 30-plus years since, Cleeves has made a career of the multibook universe, long before it was downloadable (or binge-watchable). In addition to the eight books in the George and Molly Palmer-Jones series, she has penned six books in the Inspector Ramsay series, nine in the Vera Stanhope series and eight in the Shetland series, among other books, including two stand-alone novels. “I love writing series, which gives the space to develop character over time,” she says. “As a reader, I’ve always loved the chance to return to people and places I’ve come to know, and I enjoy that as a writer, too.”

In The Heron’s Cry, Cleeves returns to North Devon, where she lived as a teenager and which is beloved by surfers and artists as well as tourists, particularly in the summertime. “Think a mini-California, but with a lot more rain!” she says. “Of course, North Devon is more complex than that. There are faded seaside towns, attracting seasonal workers and people with problems, and some areas of high rural poverty further inland. Second-homers and holiday rentals mean that young locals find it hard to find anywhere decent to live. But that complexity makes it very interesting to write about.”

That complexity also provides the perfect backdrop for North Devon’s residents, who are as wonderfully complicated as the county in which they live. Case in point: Cleeves’ Detective Matthew Venn is a buttoned-up, gay, married ex-evangelical, and a blend of compassion and toughness. “I was attracted by the notion of creating a very moral man,” she says. “Venn grew up in a tight, enclosed Christian community, and even though he lost his faith, he retained his morality.”

Yet, while many mystery authors let their main characters helm the mystery solving, Cleeves has built a prism of a world with a diverse spectrum of noteworthy characters. These include Matthew Venn’s laid-back husband, Jonathan; a young woman with Down’s syndrome named Lucy Braddick; and Venn’s colleague Jen Rafferty, who is as different from him as it’s possible to be. “She has married too early, had her children too early, and now, as her kids become more independent, is trying to regain some of the freedom other people enjoy in their late teens and early 20s,” Cleeves says. “She parties very hard!”

Cleeves always intended for the Two Rivers series to be an ensemble piece, with a number of characters who would develop over time. “I’m a great fan of Louise Penny’s work,” she notes, “and while I certainly didn’t consciously steal ideas from her (sorry, Louise!), I do think I was influenced a little by her depiction of a changing community with a number of returning characters.”

Cleeves has spoken publicly about the escape that reading and writing had given her during her husband’s illness, as well as the many connections between reading and health and well-being. In the past, she has set up reading and writing groups in prisons, for men in pubs, and also for bus drivers. Last year, she sponsored two bibliotherapists, or reading coaches, for a pilot program in England called the Reading for Wellbeing project across five jurisdictions in northeast England — in some of the most deprived regions of the country.

“I’m not sure how it works in the U.S., but within the [National Health Service] we already have ‘social prescribing,’” Cleeves says. “Family doctors can prescribe free membership of a gym, or a hiking club, or some other community venture for patients who might be overweight or suffering from anxiety, low-level chronic pain or mild depression. There are often better outcomes than medication, and it’s cost-effective!” Reading for Wellbeing patients can be prescribed introduction to a project worker who will recommend books — “funny books or escapist books or rattling good stories, as well as nonfiction,” Cleeves says — and join them at libraries or special reading groups.

When asked what’s currently on her own bookshelf, Cleeves says she is “rattling through” Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet. “At first, it seems dense, literary, but a few pages in, and it’s accessible and funny and a sharp mix of the political and the personal,” she says. “I’m also reading Michael Nava, whose thrillers are set in Los Angeles at the time of AIDS. For a straight woman writing a gay man, I think it’s important to have an understanding of the real lived experience, and Michael’s books help me to do that. That dreadful history must have an influence still today.”

As for what’s next for Cleeves, who calls herself a morning writer — “I wake up early and drink lots of tea” — it comes as no surprise that she will be returning to series writing. She just submitted a new Vera Stanhope novel to her publisher, and as soon as those edits have been completed, she’ll return to Matthew Venn et al. in North Devon.

We’ll be waiting — and watching.


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