Book Review: The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves

New York Times bestseller Ann Cleeves returns with The Heron's Cry, the extraordinary follow-up to The Long Call, soon to be a major TV series, alongside her two hit TV shows Shetland and Vera.

North Devon is so critical to the plot that the first page of The Heron’s Cry is a map of the area. The Long Call introduced readers to Detective Inspector Matthew Venn and his two subordinates, Jen Rafferty and Ross May.  Matthew’s husband is Jonathan, who manages “the Woodyard, a large and successful community arts centre in Barnstaple.” Jen is a single mother with two teenagers, whilst Ross is married to Mel, his childhood sweetheart. 

Jen, a divorcée, has an active social life: she “couldn’t bear the idea of being lonely for the rest of her life.” She occasionally over-indulges like at her friend Cynthia Prior’s party. An older man, “small and sturdy, built like a troll from a fairy story,” chats her up in the garden and introduces himself as Nigel Yeo. Nigel works “in the health sector,” but says that he’s no longer a doctor, rather “more of a private investigator at the moment.” 

‘In fact, there was something I wanted to discuss, but I’m not sure this is the right place after all.’ He seemed distracted for a moment. ‘Actually, it’s probably time for me to head home, I think.’ Nigel got to his feet, the movement smooth and easy, and wiped a few grass clippings from his bum. It was rather a nice bum too.

 

He hesitated when he was on his feet. ‘Is it okay if I get your number from Cynthia and call you?’

 

‘Yeah,’ Jen said. ‘Sure.’

The evening deteriorates and Jen goes to bed alone. She wakes up fully clothed, with a headache to boot. Her daughter Ella tells her disapprovingly that Matthew Venn has been calling all morning. 

‘Shit.’ Matt Venn was the boss. The best boss she’d ever had, but he wasn’t much into fun either. He was a man of principle, still haunted, Jen thought, by a strict evangelical childhood. He could do disapproval as well as her daughter.

There’s been “an unexplained death.” Matthew needs Jen to join him and Ross in Westacombe, “a group of craft workshops in the grounds of a big house.” The victim was discovered by his daughter, a glass blower, in her studio: “the murder weapon is a shard of one of her broken vases.”  Jen is taken aback when she sees the body—it’s Nigel Yeo. She tells Matthew that she met him the night before. 

‘He wanted to talk to me, but said it could wait.’

 

‘He wanted to talk to you professionally?’

That’s their first clue as to why someone might have wanted Nigel dead. Matthew tells Francis (Frank) Ley, a wealthy man who underwrites much of the commercial activities in the area, that Nigel had been killed. Ley owns the big house adjacent to the farmhouse and craft workshops. ‘Shit!’ says Ley.

‘Dr Yeo was a friend?’

 

‘No.’ A pause. ‘Well. I suppose he was in a way; becoming one at least. Eve came here a couple of years ago after finishing her Master’s degree.’

 

Matthew said nothing. Silence, he’d found, was an ally and a weapon.

 

At last, Ley continued: ‘Nigel worked for North Devon Patients Together, NDPT. It represents patients’ views to the trusts. It’s a small organization but very efficient, I thought. Since Nigel took over as boss, he’s widened the brief to look into anomalies, and to explore patients’ complaints.’

 

Venn nodded. That chimed with what Jen Rafferty had said.

There’s a personal connection. Alexander Mackenzie, a young friend of Ley’s, was brought low by depression, something Ley had personally experienced. The difference was that ‘Mack killed himself.’ Ley can’t understand why a “talented, bright” young man with a loving family would make such a choice. Could the psychiatric hospital where Mack was sectioned be somehow culpable?  

The inter-relationships between the investigators and the investigated are murky. Cynthia tells Jen after the fact that Nigel only came to her party to meet Jen and share with her his concerns. Jonathan is good friends with Eve, the daughter of the first victim and so on and so forth. It’s an insular community. Eve reaches out to her friend Jonathan, after Wes Curnow, her colleague and friend, is found murdered. Jonathan sits with her in her little flat, fetches her a glass of wine, and mops up her tears.

‘It was my glass that killed him,’ she said. ‘Just like with Dad. Why would somebody do that? They had to go into Frank’s part of the house and steal the vase and break it. Then they set me up to find him. Who would hate me that much?’

 

‘I can’t believe that anyone hates you.’

 

‘Why use my glass then? Why try to point the blame at me?’

 

Jonathan didn’t have an answer to that. He sat beside her on the sofa and put his arms around her again, stroking her hair away from her face as if she were a child.

Contrast Jonathan comforting a friend with Matthew’s dismay when he discovers Jen in the farmyard, waiting in the glomming to speak to Eve. 

‘How is she?’

 

‘I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her yet. Jonathan asked for an hour with her, before I started the questions.’

 

Matthew felt a spark of fury. How dare Jonathan interfere with his investigation and order his staff around!

 

‘I was just about to go up.’ Jen seemed awkward, a child caught in the middle of rowing parents. It wasn’t fair, Matthew thought, to have put her in this position, to have compromised her authority. Jonathan had used his relationship with Matthew to get his own way. 

Jen demurs that Jonathan “was just being kind,” but Matthew isn’t having any of that: ‘‘We’re police officers.’ He knew his voice was sharp, hard. ‘Not social workers.’” Who’s right—Jonathan or Matthew? There are often circumstances when police officers choose to use an oblique approach to interrogate witnesses, falling back on the old chestnut that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The two men are unlikely to agree on this matter. Perhaps it’s as simple as opposites attract. 

Jonathan is such a milk-of-kindness man. The Long Call introduced us to Matthew’s overbearing mother Dorothy. She is no prize but Jonathan asks her to have lunch with him and Matthew so they can celebrate her birthday. Surprisingly, she accepts and Jonathan creates a delicious and magical birthday lunch. Jonathan is the connective tissue between two damaged souls: Matthew left North Devon at age nineteen, in flight from the Barum Brethren, a small, harsh religious sect. 

Who is behind the killings? The answer is surprising and complicated. For readers who haven’t yet gotten enough of the Two Rivers series, you can look forward to a four-part major TV series based on the books. It’s already in production!

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