Photos: Cornwall storm (Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images); Grey Heron (Andyworks / Getty Images); The Heron's Cry
The Heron’s Cry
Bestselling British mystery writer Ann Cleeves talks about her new Two Rivers series, the TV adaptation of "The Long Call," and what's next for DI Vera Stanhope / BY Nathalie Atkinson / November 4th, 2021
Ann Cleeves is a recipient of the esteemed Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in British crime writing, and the New York Times bestselling author of the Shetland and Vera books, which have sold millions of copies. I spoke to Cleeves in 2019 when she launched The Long Call, the first book in a new mystery series set in North Devon. The author, 67, who appeared at the Toronto International Festival of Authors on Oct. 31, talks about her new book, The Heron’s Cry, shares how The Long Call is making British prime-time television history and offers a hint of what’s in store for Vera.
A Library Patron
On the day of our chat, I point out that there are 489 holds on her latest mystery, The Heron’s Cry, at my local library. I know Cleeves is a vocal advocate for library funding and credits public libraries with building up writers for success, so she loves to hear that the hold numbers are robust. “Firstly, I think everybody has a right to books,” she says in an interview from her home in Whitley Bay on the northeast coast of England. “Because I do worry if the judgment we make about how we are going to publish a book is how much it sells through Amazon, or Waterstones here, or Barnes and Noble in the U.S., we’re very much limiting the ability to publish new authors. Readers deserve variety and libraries can buy books to give new writers a chance.”
“It’s a very ruthless business, publishing,” Cleeves adds. “And mid-list is a euphemism – it’s really the bottom of the pile. No publisher is going to say you’re low-list,” she laughs, “but really that’s what they mean. It was libraries and going out chatting to libraries and their reading groups that made my career. If you can get into libraries and people borrow them, you do start to build up sales in that way.”
After 20 years of writing, the author’s first commercial success was Raven Black, the first novel in her Shetland Island series, in 2006. “I think that was luck – it just caught reviewers’ imaginations and readers’ imaginations, because it was set in Shetland [in Scotland], which is very different,” Cleeves recalls. “Most people didn’t really understand how far north Shetland was!” She credits good timing, too, because Scandi and Nordic noir “was a huge thing – Shetland belonged to Norway for a long time, it’s on the same latitude as bits of Greenland and Alaska, closer to Bergen than it is to Edinburgh. So we did have our own little bit of Scandinavia in the UK.” The continued worldwide popularity of the BBC television adaptation Shetland (which returns with Season 6 on Nov. 9, exclusively on BritBox) has been such a boon to regional tourism that star Douglas Henshall was recently honoured with a plaque marking the fictional home of his character, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.
Swept Away by Fiction
The strong sense of place in Cleeves’ writing is a key pleasure of the books – including the new Two Rivers series, which is set in the southwest coast district of North Devon – and their atmospheric screen versions. After the author tells me about watching the cast shoot a scene on a desolate, windswept, cliff in Harland Quay in Devon, I feel reassured that the magic of The Long Call will translate to the TV screen. It helps that the cast includes esteemed thesps like Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply), Anita Dobson (EastEnders), and Martin Shaw (that’s right: Inspector George Gently himself!). “It’s grey granite cliffs, dark and rocky,” she says. “They were doing a brethren sea baptism and it was freezing and the wind was blowing – I could feel the hairs on my neck stand up!”
The second Two Rivers novel, The Heron’s Cry, further explores the North Devon community introduced in The Long Call. “It’s not only about Matthew Venn,” she says. “I wanted an ensemble of returning characters.” How protective is she of her characters and their stories? “I’m really not – absolutely not,” Cleeves insists, although it helps that the same producers, Silverprint Pictures, made Vera, Shetland, and now The Long Call. “I think they get the books and we have a shared sense of what’s important. And I think at the heart of it there is a sort of kindness. There’s the sense that we want our detectives to have some compassion. It’s like [Belgian writer Georges] Simenon says of [his detective Jules] Maigret,” she continues. “His role is to understand, not to judge. I think there’s some of that in each of my central detectives. And they’ve picked up on that very well – that there’s a humanity, they’re not going out all guns blazing after the baddie.”
A New Detective Debut
Cleeves saw the first episode of The Long Call ahead of its UK premiere (in Canada, Oct. 28, on BritBox). The British press has twigged to the fact that her DI Matthew Venn is the first gay male detective in England’s prime-time history, and the show pointedly cast an actor who is gay – Ben Aldridge from Fleabag – in the role. The series opener doesn’t hide his sexuality, or the fact that it’s central to the story. “I think it’s quite brave – there is a kiss very early on and I watched it and thought that was just right,” Cleeves says. “It taught me a lot about the character,” she continues, “because that kiss is why Matthew came back [to North Devon] – this fierce passion between these men, even though it was so hard for him to come back to this place, to where he felt he’d been rejected, and he felt guilty about being cowardly about facing his parents and hadn’t been able to be free and open about his sexuality for such a long time. And I think it’s very, very brave of them to do it on a channel like ITV.” For anyone unfamiliar with ITV’s place in the culture of the UK’s major networks, she clarifies: “It’s very commercial. It’s very mainstream – it’s Coronation Street, it does safe, middle-of-the-road programming.”
A Community of Reading
The popularity of the Vera and Shetland series has given the author a measure of fame, which provides one of most rewarding aspects of having a public profile: championing causes she cares about. The author’s library advocacy is ongoing and in September she also helped fund and launch a new regional scheme called Reading for Wellness, where trained workers do community outreach through books. “For example, the lonely elderly who have lost contact with people due to the pandemic, or targeting families with children born during lockdown who didn’t get that support and going to the library.” It stems in part from Cleeves’ personal experience of “what it was like caring for someone with a serious illness and what helped me,” she explains, and it’s being done in the northeast part of the country because that’s Vera’s stomping ground. “When my husband [Tim, who died in 2017] was very ill, he was very restless, and later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but at that point all he could do after he’d been very poorly was just walk. We walked and walked and walked. And that’s how Vera came about.” Friends in the community were essential, but so was storytelling. “Fiction is what allowed me to escape.”
What’s Next for Vera
Actor Brenda Blethyn, who plays DI Vera Stanhope, recently mentioned that after reading the latest Vera novel, The Darkest Hour, she would love to see the snowy, holiday-set thriller adapted for television. But it’s hard to make plans with the world in disarray – production on season 11 of Vera was delayed and will air in two batches, for example, due to filming restrictions. But the pandemic has raised themes that Cleeves plans to explore. “The new Vera book that will come out next September – it’s not quite finished yet, but it’s nearly done,” she mentions, “is really about people reaching the end of their lives and how they cope with that.” The novel will be about a group of school friends who had a very intense experience in their teens, and meet up at a reunion every five years. “And they’re now 50 years on – so, in their sixties – and just looking at how people approach the end of life. Which maybe has something to do with that sense of COVID and people feeling slightly more anxious about things, perhaps. But I haven’t written about COVID. I started writing about it in that book, thinking it would work in quite nicely, but it came out as a kind of distraction. So in the end I didn’t put it in.”
On the Author’s Own Reading List
What about State of Terror, Canadian Louise Penny’s new thriller collaboration with Hillary Clinton? (Penny and Cleeves are good friends, as you can see in this onstage Appel Salon conversation I hosted).“Yes, I have read Louise’s new book,” she enthuses. “It’s great because it’s about strong women who fight bad things not with guns and weapons but by being smart. And that’s lovely, because it’s also about female friendship. There’s lots of sort of domestic insight,” she adds, “like what it’s like to be a woman who’s been on a flight for 12 hours and is not feeling at her best, but still somehow has to make her hair look really tidy. I found all those details fascinating.”
Cleeves wrote a blurb for U.S. author Lori Rader-Day’s new book, Death at Greenway, a wartime whodunit set at Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon. “I love her books generally,” she says. “I think every book of hers is really different.” And at the beginning of the lockdown, Cleeves went back to authors from the Golden Age of British mystery writing, like Nicholas Blake and lesser-known writers like Christianna Brand. “Just to get, I suppose, very much escapist stuff, because there always is a reassuring ending.” Bestselling authors: they’re just like us.