The Long Call review – a hefty whodunnit for autumn nights

From the makers of Vera, this new drama brings together a troubled detective and a murder mystery involving a former prisoner to compellingly twisty effect

First Vera, then Shetland – now Ann Cleeves’s crime novel The Long Call has been adapted for television on ITV. Doubtless all are hoping it will give rise to another long-running popular series whose lead character, like Brenda Blethyn’s DCI Vera Stanhope and Douglas Henshall’s DCI Jimmy Perez, can keep pulling in the punters even after the source material is exhausted. On this initial outing (taken from the first of Cleeves’s Two River series), the signs are at least promising.

Our hero is DI Matthew Venn, played by Ben Aldridge, who we meet being sent off by his husband to attend his father’s funeral. This – an affair obviously being conducted by a evangelical sect according to their own rules (and led by preacher Dennis Stephenson, played by Martin Shaw) – he observes from a distance, before being chased off by his estranged mother, Dorothy (Juliet Stevenson). If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of a thousand Vera fans shaking their heads at their dozing spouses and making a key emotional investment in how things are going to turn out. And beneath that, a sign of relief from the commissioning editors.

Then the narrative hook arrives, as Matthew receives a call from his partner DC Jen Rafferty (Pearl Mackie) informing him that a body with a single stab wound has been found on the beach and asking him to get down there pronto. There is a partial footprint in the sand and a – surprisingly dry – letter with an address on it in the dead man’s pocket. Perhaps it was refreshed, as I was, to find itself elsewhere than on a half-naked female corpse.

A little basic policework later and it is established that the victim’s name is Simon Walden (Luke Ireland), that he served two years in prison for killing a child while driving drunk and that he and every other person we care about in Ilfracombe (for that is where we are) has some connection with the Woolyard community centre. There’s the young woman with Down’s syndrome, Lucy (Sarah Gordy), who is deleting her phone history and acting cagey when questioned. Does she have something to hide, or is she simply trying to carve out some independence from her overprotective father? There are all the people who live in the rather lovely townhouse where Simon briefly lodged. Caroline Reasley (Siobhán Cullen), the owner, has a contentious relationship with her own father, Christopher (Neil Morrissey, who we haven’t been able to trust since series one of Line of Duty), who in turn seems to have been suspiciously keen that she turf Simon out of her house before he wound up dead. There’s artist Gaby Chadwell (Aoife Hinds), who seems suspiciously knowledgeable about Simon for a woman who was only briefly a housemate. There are other suspiciousnesses too – a £200,000 transfer to a person or persons unknown by Simon the day before he disappeared. And a connection with the evangelical group, via Woolyard volunteer Rosa, who took Simon to one of their meetings.

Then, at the end, two twists – both perfectly designed to hook your eager mind and pull it along to tomorrow night’s instalment, and allow you the joy of nodding at your spouse again (despite the fact they’re now fully asleep) and saying: “I told you they’d not cast him for no reason! Didn’t I say?”

In short, it’s exactly what you’d hope for on a late October school night. A good story, with its plot parcelled out at just the right rate. A whodunnit with the promise of whydunnit too. A bit of emotional heft (you don’t cast Stevenson as an estranged mother if you’re not planning to get some beautifully modulated grief aired), and the implicit understanding that there will be nothing truly to scare the horses and that matters won’t become so convoluted it will take more than one rewind at any point.

It may or may not become a problem that the central character amounts – so far at least – to little more than a cipher. At the moment he has none of Perez/Henshall’s or Vera/Blethyn’s definition or charisma. His double act with the far more vibrant Rafferty is so far getting him through. If it goes to multiple series, that will be something to build on. In the meantime, it is notch-above-serviceable fare. Impossible to tell yet whodunnit or why, but the majority of us will, I think, stick around to find out.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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