North Devon tourist board must have been rubbing their hands with glee when Ann Cleeves announced that her new series of books featuring DI Matthew Venn was to be set in their neck of the woods – after all, look what the Vera and Shetland novels (and associated TV dramas) had done for tourism in the wilds of the Scottish Isles and the North East of England, with increased visitor numbers and even purpose-built tours in both areas.
However, The Raging Storm opens with a less than picture postcard scene, as TV celebrity and local hero Jem Rosco blows into the fictional little coastal village of Greystone in the midst of an autumn gale. It’s a place with a slightly forbidding name, stuck out on a bit of a limb, unwelcoming and not that attractive for visitors. As Venn and his team soon discover when they have cause to visit Greystone in the aftermath of a raging storm.
Rosco is a man fond of telling stories, some perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he soon settles back into his old home and its routines – until one day, he is nowhere to be seen. The locals aren’t too fussed, after all he kept hinting that he was expecting a visitor any day soon.
Then Greystone’s lifeboat is launched in response to a mayday call from a fishing vessel from Ilfracombe, sheltering beyond Scully Head before the coastguard lost contact. Scully Head is a treacherous spit of land detested by local fishermen, who recount all manner of spooky tales passed down through the generations, so when incomer Mary Ford takes the helm of the Lesley A she can hear her crew members muttering superstitiously as they approach the area where the boat last made contact. But instead of the fishing boat they find a dinghy, anchored up and containing the naked form of Rosco, national treasure and one-time hero to Mary herself.
Cue the arrival of Venn and his team – and the DI has cause to remember Greystone, because it is home to an enclave of the Barum Brethren, the religious group he parted ways with years ago. That mix of profound belief and deep-seated superstition is about to prove toxic for the investigators.
As the weather takes another turn for the worse and Venn and his colleagues DS Jen Rafferty and DC Ross May are stuck in the unwelcoming little village, it’s time for the meticulous plotting skills of Ann Cleeves to come into play. Trapped by the storm, the trio has plenty of time to investigate, cogitate and reflect – and in Venn’s case, dredge up memories from Barum Brethren visits to Greystone with his mother, Dorothy. Fans of the series have met the Brethren before in the previous books, and the insular nature of the fictional religion which tends to shy away from modern-day living fits perfectly into this story.
Eventually, the investigation sends Jen from the scene of the crime and back to a place which holds mixed personal memories for her — she is from Liverpool after all. But as she heads up north to investigate the dead man’s surprising links to the Wirral peninsular, just across the river Mersey from her home city, Jen is about to be confronted with more questions than answers about the private life of Jem Rosco.
Fans of the Two Rivers series, which began with The Long Call in 2019, are going to love The Raging Storm. It’s as steeped in the briny as an old piece of flotsam and features some exciting rescue scenes (the book is dedicated to the staff and volunteers of the Ilfracombe and Cullercoats RNLI — branches of the British charity that dedicates itself to saving lives at sea and provides a 24-hour on-call volunteer lifeboat search and rescue service), forbiddingly beautiful landscapes and a fully formed sense of place. As the death toll grows, the claustrophobia of a small English coastal settlement is melded with a palpable sense of unease: Can anyone be trusted, or are they all in it together?
Add in the spiky relationship between Rafferty and May, plus the fact that Venn’s husband Jonathan appears to have something important on his mind and there are myriad threads for Cleeves to plait, knot, twist and tangle at leisure – and boy, does she have fun here! The Raging Storm sees this series really bedding in and setting into its own rhythm, and it’s clear the author is thoroughly enjoying the ride. So are her fans, and I’m already looking forward to book four – when’s it arriving, exactly?
Read our recent interview with Ann Cleeves here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars