Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 September 2021 from MacMillan
My thanks to Pan MacMillan for an advance copy for review
North Devon is enjoying a rare hot summer with tourists flocking to its coastline. Detective Matthew Venn is called out to a rural crime scene at the home of a group of artists. What he finds is an elaborately staged murder – Dr Nigel Yeo has been fatally stabbed. His daughter Eve is a glassblower, and the murder weapon is a shard of one of her broken vases.
Dr Yeo seems an unlikely murder victim. He’s a good man, a public servant, beloved by his daughter. Matthew is unnerved, though, to find that she is a close friend of Jonathan, his husband.
Then another body is found – killed in a similar way. Matthew finds himself treading carefully through the lies that fester at the heart of his community and a case that is dangerously close to home . . .
I do love getting into a new series. That lovely feeling as you begin a slightly deeper dive into your cast of characters and get to know them a little bit better than on the first outing which was The Long Call. The Heron’s Cry does that beautifully. Not only is it a murder mystery, but it lays the groundwork for the police team that is D.I. Matthew Venn, DS Jen Rafferty and DC Ross May. Matthew is a lapsed Evangelical Christian, estranged from the Barum Brethern sect and for that reason also has a distant relationship with his mother. He is married to Jonathan, the manager of an arts facility in Barnstaple. On the face of it, they are polar opposites. Matthew is buttoned up the back; his shoes are always polished and he’s never seen without a tie even in the hottest weather. Jonathan is casual, a relaxed and empathetic man, but yet it all works beautifully between them.
D.S. Jen Rafferty is a Scouser and her flame red hair is an indicator of the way she tackles life. Slightly chaotic, but intuitive, a mother of two teenagers and now we learn, has come out of a difficult and controlling relationship.
D.C. Ross May is a young man in a hurry. He is a bit resentful of Jen and wants his promotion to come fast so that he can ditch what he considers to be the dross of police work – that painstaking trawling through the evidence that so often achieves results, and he is not a huge fan of Matthew, whose approach differs markedly from that of his predecessor, who was Ross’s hero.
It is Jen who is the starting point for this murder mystery. She is quietly getting merry at a party thrown by one of her few friends in the area, Cynthia Prior who is a magistrate. Doctor Nigel Yeo is Director of North Devon Patients Together, an advocacy group which aims to hold North Devon NHS services to account. He wants to have a serious discussion with Jen, but she puts him off to the following day as she’s in no state for that this evening.
But by the following morning, Nigel Yeo is dead, found in his daughter Eve’s glassblowing studio, stabbed with a shard of glass from one of her own creations.
Eve’s studio is part of a small collective, the Westacombe Farm community, supported by local wealthy landowner, economist Francis Ley who lives in a grand house in the grounds of which the studios sit. Also resident are Wes Curnow, an artist who works with reclaimed wood and a bit of a chancer – and coincidentally someone with whom Jen had a one night stand. Wes lived in the grounds but also had studio space in Jonathan’s arts centre, where he was often to be found graciously allowing women to buy him tea and cake.
The other residents are John and Sarah Grieve and their children; distant relatives of Francis Ley who managing Ley’s farm using traditional methods and also have a small dairy.
Venn’s starting point is with the cases that Nigel Yeo had been looking into. One notable case was the suicide of a young man, Alexander McKenzie, who had taken his own life after the NHS mental Health team had allowed him to leave their facility and return home, following pressure of space and resources and given that he had family to look after him. It’s not clear, however, why that case would have caused the kind of urgency on Yeo that made him approach Jen at a party.
As the team find out more about Yeo and his life and work, another murder takes place, this time on Jonathan’s doorstep. There are similarities, but the team has to delve deep to find a connection beyond the obvious method.
An Ann Cleeves mystery is that fascinating blend of character driven narrative and community based problems and she delivers that well in The Heron’s Cry. Her characters are really well drawn and she is great at making people instinctively likeable. I really liked the inclusion of Lucy Braddick, a young woman working in the arts centre and making a life for herself in an independent living facility and whose role is an important one in this story.
Verdict: The Heron’s Cry is a layered and skillfully plotted story with many angles; most notably the very real difficulties faced by a multiplicity of Health and Social Care Services in a rural community. It’s an absorbing and intelligent read with many false leads that makes the reader work through the clues much as Matthew Venn has to do. The beauty and atmosphere of the North Devon coast are well realised and that terrific sense of place adds to the enjoyment. It’s a slow and enjoyable burn and Ann Cleeves leaves you with an appetite for learning more about this small and stretched Barnstaple team.
Ann Cleeves is the author of over thirty critically acclaimed novels and is translated into as many languages. She is the creator of popular detectives Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez who can be found on television in ITV’s Vera and BBC One’s Shetland.
The TV series and the books they are based on have become international sensations, capturing the minds of millions worldwide. Sunday Times number 1 bestseller, THE LONG CALL, was the first in Ann’s Two Rivers series set in Devon, and is now in production for an ITV drama.