Ann Cleeves lives in the UK, and is the author of over thirty critically acclaimed novels. She is the creator of popular detectives Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez who can now 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. The first Shetland novel, Raven Black, won the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel; and Ann was awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger, the highest accolade in crime writing in 2017. Her brand new Two Rivers series has been launched recently with the book The Long Call, which introduces Detective Matthew Venn.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her latest book, how the narrative of her books is immensely influenced by the locales where they are set, and her favourite crime fiction writers.
In a recent interview, you said “We are all the sum of how our parents raised us, the friends we played with, the places we played”. How much of you and your roots influence the writer in you?
I’m very much influenced by my childhood. I was brought up in small villages and rural towns. My father was the headteacher in little country primary schools. It’s not easy being the teacher’s kid. Because it was sometimes hard to fit in, I became an observer rather than a participant, listening to adult conversations. I’m still a great eaves-dropper! I’m still also more comfortable living in and writing about the countryside.
And which books or authors were your early formative influences?
I read anything I could get my hands on, but I was drawn to mysteries from an early age. They were always my comfort reading, my secret pleasures. I wasn’t a great Christie fan – I found her too ruthless and cold – but I loved and re-read some of the other Golden Age writers, for example Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.
You have described in numerous interviews about how crime fiction happened to you. But what has made you stick to it all these years?
Crime fiction is a flexible genre. I find I can say everything I want within the structure of the traditional story. For example, The Long Call explores the lives of adults with a learning disability and the sense of entitlement among a group of powerful men. I’ve never been very good at plotting and in my kind of crime fiction the plot almost takes care of itself.
What was your initial inspiration for writing “The Long Call”?
My husband had died very suddenly and I went to stay with my best friend in North Devon where the book is set. I knew the Shetland series of novels had ended (though there will be more of the TV drama) and the place, where I spent my teenage years, provided the inspiration for the story.
How is the Two Rivers series different from the Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez series of crime novels?
I think it will be more of an ensemble piece. Of course Vera and Jimmy have colleagues, but in the new series, I want the focus to be on the whole team. There will be a number of other returning characters too – Matthew’s husband Jonathan and Lucy Braddick, the woman with Down’s Syndrome both appear in the second book – and we find out more about Ross and Jen, the other detectives in the team.
Can you tell us about the genesis and development of Detective Matthew Venn’s character?
That too came from my experience of being a teenager in North Devon. One of my friends grew up in a Christian community, that kept itself rather apart, and had great certainty. She lost her faith, at least in that brand of the religion, very gradually and was able to maintain loose contact with a loving family. But I wondered what it would be like to be cast out, to be ‘unfellowshipped’. It seemed to me that the police service could provide the sense of duty and honour, and of community for an individual. The fact that Matthew is gay makes any reconciliation even more difficult. As a straight woman, I was cautious about writing a gay central character, about appropriating someone else’s experiences. At least five gay men read the book before it went to print.
How do you approach writing a crime thriller? What is your writing process like?
I start with the place always. That roots me and helps the character to develop. So, the Vera book that comes out in September, The Darkest Evening, is set in the wilds of Northumberland, where many of the farming communities still feel very feudal. I have a general idea and theme when I start but no idea of plot. That grows as I write. It’s a scary way of working but much more fun than plotting in advance!
The settings in which the books are set are indeed very important for the narrative. The Jimmy Perez novels have been set in the subarctic Scottish archipelago of Shetland, and the Vera Stanhope series in the Northumberland hills. You have set this series in North Devon, a place where you grew up. What have been your early interpretations of this place, and what do you think of North Devon now, when you return to it often?
North Devon is the place where I became more confident, clearer about who I was. We moved there when I was eleven and I started in secondary school, so my father was no longer my teacher. I made real friends. It has a beautiful coastline of beaches, cliffs and coves, and was a wonderful place to be a teenager. Now when I go back, I study it with a different eye. There are lots of different communities; the faded seaside town of Ilfracombe has problems of unemployment or precarious seasonal employment, there are incomers with holiday homes and artists attracted by the place’s beauty. Kids come for the surfing. I love to explore the way these different people bump into each other and mix.
In the book, the region of North Devon is really is a character in itself. How do you think North Devon plays into Matthew Venn’s character and life?
These counties on the extreme western fringes of England have had a number of restrictive religious communities. Despite a new link road, the Two Rivers region is still a little remote. I think Matthew feels at home there. Something pulled him back.
The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of crime fiction? What do you think of them and why?
I think crime fiction is in a new Golden Age. It encompasses a range of writing from the quiet and domestic to high-powered, very dark thrillers. The biggest change in my career has been the magnificent contribution of translated crime, from the wave of Scandi Noir to the gentler but equally thought-provoking book of Andrea Camilleri set in Sicily.
You have won the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honour in British crime writing. So it is only logical that we and our readers ask for crime thriller book recommendations from you. Please name five of your favourite crime novels and why you like them.
It’s impossible to name my 5 favourite novels, but I’ll give you the names of 5 crime writers I admire. Interestingly, they’re all translated into English from another language.
Georges Simenon’s Maigret books are writing master classes – spare and tight. In one sentence, he can sum up place, character and move the plot on.
Fred Vargas’s are much more recent and were also first written in French. They’re wildly imaginative and hugely entertaining.
Henning Mankell’s Wallander is the perfect detective, haunted and compassionate, and firmly rooted in southern Sweden.
Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books take us to a world of good food and wine, but also of the mafia and political corruption.
Ragnar Jónasson is one of a new set of fine crime writers coming out of Iceland. He takes the traditional rural crime novel, sets it in Iceland and brings it right up to date.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
The new Vera novel, The Darkest Evening, is finished, edited and will come out in September. I’m working on a new Two Rivers novel.
‘The Long Call’ by Ann Cleeves has been published by Pan Macmillan. Read more about the book here and buy it here.