The Heron’s Cry, by Ann Cleeves – book review

Round here, we’re big fans of Jimmy Perez and Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series. But with a few Shetland titles still to be read, we let the first of Cleeves’ Matthew Venn series – set in Devon – pass by. The Heron’s Cry, number two, has just come out, and it feels like Cleeves is doing something different and ambitious. The Heron’s Cry is a police procedural but it is also an exploration about the links between power, coercion, mental ill-health and personal stagnation. 

Cover of The Heron's Cry by Ann Cleeves

I often take notes when reading a book I’m going to review. This time I drew a diagram about the themes being discussed. Sadly it wasn’t a Venn diagram, but we may as well start with the lead investigator anyway. I liked Matthew Venn. He has had to deal with the rejection of the fundamentalist religious community he grew up in and as a result he thinks deeply about what it is to live a good life, while mainlining more guilt than is good for him. He is clumsy and gets tired and knows when he’s irritable. He has to keep reminding himself that he is a good listener and that he has to make decisions and give people instructions. He has an inner life that is explored in an unusual way, even if in some ways he’s quite similar to Perez. Jen and Ross are the other coppers. Jen tells it straight and is influenced by her instinct, her sense of what should be and, on occasion, her bladder. Ross is exploring what it is to be a grown-up and challenge previous assumptions. All either likeable or with the potential to be likeable in the future, Venn, Jen and Ross live life as lines which depict progress.

But for some of the other characters, life isn’t like that. ‘We go round and round as if we’re on a giant carousel,’ says one, ‘We can’t move on’. Too many people in this book live life as circles. They have been entrapped by addiction, by accident, by psychology or by upbringing. Arty drifter Wesley is a case in point: ‘he made interesting art, but he didn’t believe in it unless somebody told him it was amazing…he was less interested in his work than in the reaction it created.’ I don’t know whether that’s unusual, but in any case we come to the conclusion that Wesley didn’t get to fully develop. Some of the characters try to break out of their circles. Fewer of them succeed.

Some of the circles are byproducts of the land and our relationship with it, and others about our relationships with others. Still others relate to online temptations and the highs that might come from virtual communities and the exertion of control over others (on one hand) or from the dopamine released through gaming. I am not always sure that Cleeves is especially generous towards her characters: I’ve never known an author describe so many of her own creations as ‘entitled’. But she is not mean about those with mental illness, just those who prey on them. 

With moments of tension and a fine chase at the end, but with enough of the languid heat and humid closeness of summer, the pacing is excellent with a ‘I‘ll just read one more chapter’ feel to it. (How’s that for dopamine?) The only bad thing about the Matthew Venn series is the potential for punning headlines. I’ll end this review before I give in to the temptation. You should be tempted by this fine new series.

Thanks to Macmillan for the review copy.

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