Meet Matthew Venn.
He’s the soft-spoken, introspective hero of “The Long Call,” the first in a new series of mysteries from British author Ann Cleeves, who previously gave literary birth to crime solvers Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez (eight books each).
In addition to its new characters, “The Long Call” takes readers in a literal new direction. From Vera’s base in Northumberland to Jimmy’s remote roost in the Shetland Islands, Cleeves comes home to North Devon, where both she and Matthew Venn are rooted.
Readers meet Matthew at his father’s funeral, feeling out of place and hoping not to be seen. He grew up in a restrictive evangelical church, we learn, and was disowned by his family when he left it as a teenager. That was even before he came out as gay, before he married soul mate Jonathan, before he became Detective Inspector Venn, policing his old home territory.
Matthew is immediately engaging. So, especially, is Jonathan, and so are Matthew’s two sidekicks, colorful single mother Jen and straitlaced and ambitious Ross. The mystery of a man found dead on a beach spreads tendrils that force Matthew to engage again with his past, including the mother who shunned him until she needed his help.
The new series is dubbed “Two Rivers” because of the geography of North Devon (part of the county of Devon on England’s southwest coast), where two rivers come together and run to the sea. The setting will be little known to most U.S. readers, but Cleeves knows it well and makes it another and very important character in the novel.
Before her visit to the St. Louis County Library on Monday, Cleeves answered questions by email from England, where she was taking a break between book tour events.
“I decided a while ago that I’d finish writing about Shetland after eight books,” she said. “It’s a small archipelago — only 23,000 people live in all the inhabited islands — and I wanted to stop the series before I, or more importantly my readers, got bored.”
Meanwhile, she was kicking around settings for a new series, one that might have been set in the Falkland Islands or even Estonia.
“It was only after my husband died (in 2017) and I ran away to spend some time with an old school friend that North Devon settled in my mind as a real option,” she said. “I grew up there and have wonderful memories.”
She and her friend remembered a schoolmate who “had grown up in a closed evangelical community, in a family of certain beliefs and rigid principles. She’d inched away from it and become slowly disengaged, but I wondered how it would be to suddenly lose the faith of one’s childhood, to be cast out of family and community at a young age.”
Cleeves invested that sense of disconnection in Matthew Venn. “That’s what happened to (him). He found the sense of belonging, duty and honor that he’d lost by joining the police service, and at the beginning of the series he’s still haunted by a feeling of betrayal.”
As important as characters and plot are, setting is always the foundation of her work, Cleeves said.
“Place always comes first. I need to know where a story is set before I can develop the characters or consider the plot. I think people grow out of the landscape and the community where they spent their formative years, so place is much more than a pretty backdrop to the action.”
Stories in the Shetland books featuring Jimmy Perez “couldn’t have worked if they’d been set on the mainland” rather than on the remote islands north of Scotland, “and I can’t imagine Vera growing up anywhere but the hills of Northumberland with the long horizons and big skies.”
Cleeves met her husband, Tim, an ornithologist, on Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and the couple lived in Northumberland when their daughters were young. Along with the personal links, both settings now feel familiar to many others because of their successful television adaptations, seen on PBS and streaming on BritBox, Acorn and Netflix. Vera, in particular, has become indistinguishable from her portrayer, Brenda Blethyn, who embodies the character indelibly.
“I have been remarkably fortunate with the adaptations,” Cleeves said. “The same company, Silverprint Pictures, makes both shows. If there is a secret, it’s to choose a team of creative people who love to read and who understand the essence of the book.”
For her, “that means understanding the place, too, and being prepared to film there, even if it means dragging cast, crew and equipment on a 13-hour ferry journey to the most northerly place in the UK!”
Then, she added, “I think it’s important for me to step aside and let the script-writers and directors get on with their job without interference. They know much better than I do what makes good television.”
Matthew Venn is likely to make it to the screen as well, as optioned by the same production company. But what about Vera and Jimmy?
“There will be no more Jimmy Perez, except perhaps in an occasional short story,” Cleeves said. (For television, though, new episodes are due next year.)
“But Vera certainly lives on. I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel, a Christmas country house mystery with a contemporary twist, and that should be published in September 2020.”
When • 7 p.m. Monday
Where • St. Louis County Library, 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard
How much • Free
More info • 314-994-3300