Description by the author / blurb:
A man’s body is found in a small fishing community on the East Coast. First, everyone thinks it’s a heart attack or stroke but then it’s discovered that he was poisoned. Who would do this and why? Finding that out falls to Winston Windflower and his side-kick Eddie Tizzard. Along the way, they discover there are many more secrets hidden in this small community and powerful people who want to keep it that way.
Elias Martin leads a solitary life in the foggy town of Grand Bank. He takes his habitual morning stroll along the Cape. Only that, from this walk, he will not return. First the rumour of a heart attack spreads, but Sergeant Windflower, the police official in charge, quickly realises he is dealing with a murder investigation.
The gripping detective stories of modern times rely on credible and comprehensive personality profiles. And they build suspense by a plot that keeps the reader guessing, either at who committed the crime or why he committed it. Motive is never just an external occurrence. If a man kills another man, it sure always happens for a reason. But the reason is not the motive. The motive is extricated by elucidating why that reason, instead of resulting in any other action, as it did with others, made this particular man become a killer. And the action and standing of police detectives is never explained sufficiently just by ascribing the attributes of the ideal tabloid police official to them.
Mike Martin’s “The Walker on the Cape” fails in both lines that could have made it become an exciting detective story. Neither is the plot intriguing, nor do the figures in the book show recognisable marks of personality.
Certainly it can be quite fastidious if the author makes a point of drawing out the dark aspects of characters, so as to avoid any suspicion of a black-and-white character display. There are, after all, people who are predominantly amiable fellows. That the dove may turn into the predator given the circumstances often is not a clever result of psychological scrutiny, but a truism. Windflower is a good guy and a good cop. I doesn’t seem problematic that the author stops his soul-searching at that. But what is problematic is that also about the good guy Windflower, the reader learns little more than just that: that he’s a good guy. His personality appears anaemic, as even does the one of his energetic helpmate Tizzard, as does the one of his ladyfriend Sheila.
Windflower, of Indian origin, practices his ancestor cult, he has a fondness for classic literature and had to break up with his companion before Sheila because she wouldn’t want to put up with the unsteady life of a cop. The reader learns how Windflower got to become a Sergeant in the first place. The reader learns a lot about what Windflower eats all day long, as the author likes to extol his different meals with detail. In that manner, Mike Martin might have told the reader the entire story of Windflower’s life, but, in total, the reader wouldn’t have been wiser than that: He’s a good guy and a good cop. That’s all that the external facts amount to.
Therefore, in saying that the characters of the novel are psychological lightweights, it’s not to be meant the author should have shown their presumed dark side – or the good side of the dark characters, as for that. No, what is meant is that the author should have worked out some psychological insights about his characters in the first place. As he hasn’t done so, the good as well as the bad guys wander bloodlessly along their way through the novel.
The impression wouldn’t have been that stark if the expression of emotion, reaction and insight in dialogue weren’t so limited. „X said“, „X replied,“ „X asked“, are the authors standard formulas. It’s quite a rare treat when the author actually deviates from these formulas, as in a confrontation between the suspect Brenton and the sergeant: “snarled”, “replied calmly”, “snapped back, his red face fairly glowing”. But it’s clear there is still a lot to gauge, on the psychological plane, from conversations that are less emotionally charged. The author’s writing doesn’t reach that far, and in consequence the figures of the novel are chatting along against the flattening background hum of the omnipresent “he said/she said”. The reader almost starts to believe them incapable of modulation of voice and use of body language.
This paucity of the descriptive part of talks makes hardly believable some turns in conversation. Shortly after divulging family secrets to the Sergeant on the phone, that person snaps back at Windflower that he was only taking advantage of her and working against her family interests – and hangs up. In provoking that reaction, Windflower made just one question: “What about James’ other incident?” Certainly, for his interlocutor to show such a swing in behaviour, this question must have broke loose an emotional turmoil. But, of course, this never is described, and the said interlocutor does not even “snap” back at the sergeant – that’s my own wording. The author levels out that person’s agitation by the standard formulae: ‘she said’.
Apart from the restrictions put on characters and their liberty and variety of expression, another serious grievance about the book is that the plot is not well thought out.
This is noticeable by its very linearity and thus predictability, and by some loose ends the author neglected to follow up in his round-up of the case.
An example of the latter would be the lady’s scarf Windflower found close to the place where the victim trotted his last paces. The scarf reappears at several places; ladyfriend Sheila confirms it’s strange it should have been found in the hills, as women who feature silk scarves usually keep to the town; at one point Windflower concludes that probability rules out the scarf could have belonged to Marge Brenton, a close friend of the victim – he asks himself who it could belong to instead; the scarf is handed over to forensics and grey hair is found on it; a neighbour reports having seen a woman with a matching scarf visiting the victim’s house near the day of his death – the sergeant and his helpmate wonder if that woman might not really have been a disguised man. But then, a hundred pages into the book, the scarf disappears from notice. As incredible as it seems, no mention is made of it again, beside the momentum in tension-building it has gained, as the promise to a possible twist in an else already quite linearly developing plot. The scarf: one loose end left hanging, dangling senselessly from where it has been ripped off somewhere in the middle.
To signal further examples of unfinished shape of the plot:
Windflower rules out two suspects simply because they are telling him they haven’t been to Grand Bank for years, although he acknowledges that they had motive for the crime. He does not question their assertion, he does not try to confirm it, he just takes their word for it, during a telephone call. As if it could never have entered his mind that they simply lied to him. As if he wouldn’t got by police procedure and commons sense on other occasions, when he in fact doubts what people tell him and keeps the truth of their statements suspended until proof should back it up. From that, the reader must conclude that the author just wanted to limit down the number of suspects, and, for whatever reason, chose a curious way to do so.
Another suspect is dismissed because Windflower thinks he wouldn’t go beyond tongue-lashing. It’s difficult to see from where Windflower derives this what must be unshakeable trust in his character judgements. At least, with the suspect in question, he has actually talked to him and seen him act, instead of basing his final estimation on a telephone call. Still it’s surprising that Windflower, who else is short of committing one or two blatant negligences in investigation, can render like judgements on so little evidence with such assurance.
Last example: The victim had a housekeeper, and Windflower sees both means and opportunity given with her, so he does not want rule her out as a suspect before he hasn’t clarified the matter – but the clarification never happens, the housekeeper simply is forgotten.
Such and similar fallacies in plot outline keep the story from spreading into a coherent network of possible paths to the final resolution. Said network could both lure the reader into side tracks, while at the same time keeping open the logical straight-line to the conclusion.
“The Walker on the Cape” is a quick and easy read. However, due to several shortcomings in character and plot development it cannot stimulate the suspense detective stories live and thrive on. Still it is a pleasant book, and it’s a pity to see that so much more could have been done about it. As it stands, it can only superficially engage both the reader’s heart and mind, his emotions and his attention. It is to hope that for consequent novels Mike Martin will start exploring actions and reactions of his characters, and that he will come up with plots that go by twists and open alternatives up to the end.
Rating: 2 of 5 stars