You may already know Ann Cleeves. You may not know that you know her, though, because the unassuming former library worker and camp cook whose brooding crime novels have hit bestseller lists on two continents and been turned into two (and counting) highly successful television series in the United Kingdom is an overnight success story that took decades to write.
Cleeves’s 2006 novel, Raven Black, won the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger for the best crime novel of the year; the prize money of £20,000 allowed Cleeves to quit her day job at a Yorkshire library. That’s the overnight part.
But she’d been publishing a novel a year for twenty years.
Raven Black was the first in a mystery series set in the Shetland islands off the coast of Scotland, featuring detective Jimmy Perez, an unlikely hero who moves the step-daughter he raised back to the small island after the death of her mother. It was Cleeves’s second series. The first featured curmudgeonly Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope.
Cleeves’s success story took a major turn when a TV producer discovered a used copy of a Vera book in a charity shop. Television turned the Vera Stanhope books and then the Shetland books into must-watch favorites for fans of police procedurals — and Cleeves into a star. The shows, “Vera” and “Shetland,” debuted in 2011 and 2013 respectively.
In 2012, she was inducted into the CWA Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame. In 2014, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Sunderland, in recognition of her outstanding achievements as a crime writer. In 2017, Cleeves was presented the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honor in British crime writing.
Last year, Cleeves brought the Shetland books to an end with Wildfire, making room for new projects. This month, she published The Long Call, the first in a new series, featuring a detective once ostracized from his home and family returning home to North Devon, a region in southwest England, to settle in and solve crimes. It has already been optioned for television.
I talked to Cleeves about the closing down of one series, the rise of a new one, and what it’s like to see your fictional characters living on screen.
Will you talk a little about why you decided to start a new series: business reasons, personal reasons, writer-ish reasons, all of the above?
I don’t really think of my writing as a business; I was doing it for so long without any commercial success — even though I published a book a year — that it still feels like a hobby. I decided to stop writing the Shetland books because I didn’t have anything important or new to say about the islands. I wanted to end it before I or my readers became bored with the characters. I would struggle to write just one series. I love the sense of returning to a place I’ve not visited for a while. So I had to find a new character and a new location.
What were your inspirations for this book, for Matthew Venn as detective, as well as the story? Where did The Long Call start for you?
I grew up in North Devon and one of my best friends still lives there. My husband died quite suddenly [in 2017] and I needed to run away from the memories I had of him. North Devon provided a refuge. It was out of that stay, the conversations with friends about our school days and the trips to places that I’d loved, that Matthew Venn was born.
Venn is a homosexual man kicked out of his home church and estranged from his family. Did you have reservations about writing a gay male character, and what did you do to get this character “right”? Why do you think it’s important to write characters who are not like yourself?
I didn’t set out to write something controversial or different. Apart from my school friend in Devon, the people who cared for me most after Tim’s death were Martin and Paul, a gay couple. I spent more time with them than anyone else, so they were in my head. The sexuality also explains perhaps why relations between Matthew and his parents are so strained. But Matthew doesn’t feel very different from me. Of all the central characters I’ve created he’s probably most like me. I was more worried about getting right the young woman with Down syndrome. I did make sure the book was read by four different gay men before the book went to press.
You’re writing about a location you know well from your own life. What were the joys and drawbacks for writing a place you know (and love) so well?
This was quite tricky because, apart from short visits, I haven’t lived in North Devon since I was in my early twenties. My view of the place is already partly fictitious because memory is unreliable. I did go and spend more time there and again a local person read the manuscript. I’m a bit anxious to learn what the reaction from the area will be!
You’ve written (and continue to write) series books that have taken off on television. How do you seed lots of opportunity for sequels and TV into your novels?
I don’t think about television at all when I’m writing the novels. Most of the time I’m inside the heads of my characters and of course television has a very different vision. Occasionally, I write a bit of dialogue for Vera and think: “I do hope the scriptwriter keeps that in because Brenda Blethyn will love saying that.” I do think of the series arc, though. It’s good to have time to explore the characters and allow them to change and grow.
What’s it like to see characters you’ve written on the screen?
They don’t feel like my creations when I see them on screen, though I think the actors have captured the essence of their personalities in both “Vera” and “Shetland.” I’ve been very fortunate and I’m delighted that the company that makes both shows — Silverprint Pictures — has also optioned the Matthew Venn Books.
You finished off your Shetland series. Please tell me you will write Vera Stanhope forever.
Well, maybe not forever but I’m not planning to stop yet. Let’s just say that Vera isn’t aging in real time…
Who do you like to read?
My reading passion is crime in translation. I’m thrilled that the Maigret books by Georges Simenon have all been reprinted. His novels provide a masterclass in crime writing. He’s so spare and tight, but the characterization is brilliant.
The Long Call
By Ann Cleeves
St. Martin’s Minotaur
Published September 3, 2019
Novelist Ann Cleeves was born in Herefordshire, England. She won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (CWA Gold Dagger) for Best Crime Novel in 2006 and the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger, the highest honor in British crime writing, in 2017. Cleeves has sold over 5 million books, written 32 novels, and is translated into as many languages. She is the only living British author with two crime series adapted for television; Vera and Shetland are major dramas starring Brenda Blethyn on ITV and Douglas Henshall on BBC One respectively. The Guardian has named her “the best living evoker of landscape.”
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.