08 December 2020


Getting a new character is an exciting development, even if, I suspect for most of us, he or she appears as a one-off, a gift from the Muses, unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Of the three characters I’ve written multiple works about, only one came with thoughts of continuance. I was thoroughly surprised that my first detective Anna Peters was destined for multiple outings, ditto for Madame Selina, who, perhaps wisely, stayed firmly in the short story format.

Francis Bacon, admittedly, came with thoughts of a trilogy, as clear a sign of author hubris as I can imagine. Although eventually published by Otto Penzler, he was an extremely tough sell and never went into either hardback or foreign rights.

So I was interested lately when two authors I’ve enjoyed, Alexander McCall Smith and Ann Cleeves, debuted new characters: Swedish Detective Varg of The Department of Sensitive Crimes, and Detective Venn, North Devon, UK. I imagine that their thought processes were quite different than mine - or indeed most mid list or aspiring authors.
Detective Varg, of

If neither is in the mega-author world, both McCall Smith and Cleeves are well published, with multiple editions and, in Cleeves case, two successful television franchises. Whether the public warms up to Ulf Varg or Matthew Venn means cash for their publishers, possible TV or film rights, and employment for editors, book designers, illustrators and marketers.

Perhaps that is why Cleeves included an introduction to the “Dear Reader”, confessed a certain nervousness about introducing a new character, and described her childhood in the Devon area where her new detective has his stomping ground. Clearly more is at stake than for most of us.

So how do the new entrants stack up? The Cleeves, at least on the first novel, The Long Call, is the more successful, despite, a not-completely plausible resolution. As always with her novels, the sense of place and the natural world is very strong – a particular delight for this birdwatcher. The supporting characters are good, too, especially Lucy, a sparky young woman who is not by any means defined by her Downs Syndrome. Also good – Cleeves women, I think are a shade better than her men – is Venn’s second in command, Jen, a harried single mom but a very good investigator.

About Venn, himself, I am not so sure, although he is ethical, thoughtful and competent. But like Jimmy Perez, her other male detective, he is a bit of a depressive and almost overly subdued. He dresses like an undertaker, second guesses himself, and has major insecurities despite being married to what sounds like the ideal husband. And there may lie some difficulties for the series. Having personally experienced the obstacles to marketing a gay detective, I can only wish Cleeves and Matthew Venn luck.

Detective Varg is another matter with other ambitions. His publisher is marketing the new series for the prolific McCall Smith as Scandi Blanc, an alternative to the increasingly brutal and grotesque direction of  so much Scandinavian Noir. Varg takes on unusual crimes – someone hacked below the knee, an ambiguous disappearance, and a case of lycanthropy that threatens business at a holiday hotel.

Varg himself, is thoughtful, ethically aware, and prone to mull over human reactions and relationships a la McCall Smith’s beloved Precious Ramotswe of The Ladies Number One Detective Agency of Botswana. And that is perhaps the weakness. Varg comes off as a paler version of the Botswanan detective, and the supporting characters, amusing like the literal minded but highly informed Blomquist or Varg’s second in command and secret passion,  the charming Anna Bengtsdotter, are good but also prone to a good deal of rumination.

At least so far, there is no one as friction-promoting ( in a positive way) as Mma Grace Makutsi, lover of fine shoes and possessor of the highest ever score on the secretarial exam, or the matron of the orphan home, whose machinery always needs the attention of Mr. J.L, B Matekoni of Speedy Motors.

Similar characters may arrive in time, and they are needed to counteract the strain of whimsey that runs through Detective Varg’s cases. McCall Smith periodically indulges such flights his other popular series, 44 Scotland Street, but there the whimsical is usually confined to young Bertie Pollock or to Angus, the dog. On the plus side, McCall Smith is a genius plotter and such a thoroughly genial presence that one hopes this series, like his others, will genuinely take off.


  1. Interesting post, Janice. Thanks!

  2. I share your reservations, and I wonder if the writers do, too. I prefer Ann Cleeves' Shetland books, for instance, but I'd follow her to Devon. McCall Smith owns his African landscape; do I lack comfort elsewhere? I think we trust, or not. I hope I do.


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