by Minette Walters
Published by McClelland and Stewart
352 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Drowned and Dirty
There's nothing even remotely cozy about Minette Walters' mysteries. From her debut in The Ice House through her new sixth novel, The Breaker, she has helped to put a fresh coat of grit on British crime fiction, which for too many decades was dominated by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and their fellow purveyors of generally inoffensive suburban puzzlers. Walters prefers her stories full of psychological suspense, her characters fraught with weaknesses, and her murders sordid and violent. Her books would likely send genteel Christie followers into long-term therapy.
"The trauma of violent death releases -- well, from the author's point of view, it allows you to explore almost any emotion," Walters once enthused in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "The event is so traumatic that you're going to get people supporting each other, people tearing each other apart, you're going to get extreme guilt, extreme anxiety. If you look at it purely as a device for creating tension within a story, it's wonderful."
The Breaker is short of neither tension nor surprises. It opens with the discovery of a dead woman's naked, strangled, and raped body washed up onto a quiet beach along England's south coast. Hours later, a confused little blonde girl is found wandering the streets of a town 20 miles away. As coppers investigate, they learn that corpse and toddler are mother and daughter: Kate and Hannah Sumner. But they still have no idea how the pair became separated. Or why Kate Sumner was killed -- apparently on a boat, though she detested sailing -- and then tossed into the English Channel, while her daughter survived unmolested.
Suspicion falls initially on a handsome but feckless young model and actor-wannabe, Steven Harding. He just happened to be on the scene when Kate Sumner's body washed ashore and his sailboat just happened to be moored near where Hannah Sumner turned up. Harding also has a rather shady history (seems he has appeared in and collects pornography, some of it of a homosexual nature), and the police soon realize that he's lying about his relationship with Kate. Not only did Harding know her, but the pair had enjoyed at least a brief fling -- which apparently led to bitter animosity on both sides.
However, Kate's older scientist husband William cannot be ruled out as a suspect, either. Especially when what had looked like his solid alibi -- that he was five hours away at a pharmaceutical conference when Kate breathed her last -- begins to fray. Nor does it help his defense that their daughter Hannah, a clearly troubled child with a disturbing knowledge of sexual practices, throws a fit every time her father tries to get close to her. The question must be asked: Is she frightened by some memory of her dad's involvement in her mother's death?
Walters' detached, third-person voice and her drip-drip exposure of damaging evidence -- some of it drawn from straightforward, yet unexpectedly compelling witness statements interspersed in these pages -- serve her well as she pokes at the raw meat of alibis and prods at the personality flaws of her principal suspects. Simultaneously, she constructs a picture of Kate Sumner that reveals the supposedly innocent victim in this tale as much more manipulative and deceptive than most folks understood. It's obvious that the Sumners' union was a sham. Kate was most interested in the material comforts and respectability that marriage brought. And to hell with love. But, as we learn in this mid-book exchange between William Sumner and a detective inspector named John Galbraith, Kate's spouse knew a thing or two about using people, as well:
`So you're saying that from day one' -- [Galbraith] emphasized the word -- `marriage was like living with a landlady? That's a pretty unattractive proposition, isn't it?'
The whole setup of this yarn is messy, a solution to the central crime all mixed up with talk of sexual inadequacies, the smuggling of "legal" contraband, so-called date-rape drugs, and the elastic limits of human cruelty. It doesn't take long to be disgusted with both Harding and William Sumner. Yet like a gruesome freeway pile-up, it's also impossible to turn away from the carnage of a resolution that you know lies ahead.
It might have relieved The Breaker's grimness somewhat if the reader had been offered one or two characters here with whom he or she could feel a connection, or for whom they could well up some sympathy. But, unlike so many writers in this genre, Walters doesn't carry her sleuths over from book to book; each new title introduces new protagonists -- be they police officials, a magazine writer (as in 1997's The Echo), or a best-selling author (as in The Sculptress). Within the space of a few hundred pages, you either bond with these figures... or, as is equally likely (given Walters' tendency to etch out her bad guys more fully than her good ones), you don't. Bonding with the police in The Breaker is no easy matter. DI Galbraith is a gruff figure who finds some of his own doubts about wedded bliss and parenthood reflected in haunted, mother-coddled William Sumner. A more youthful country constable, Nick Ingram, has his attractions, found mostly in his slow but ardent courtship of Maggie Jenner, a comely woman whose impoverishment by a con artist hubby has left her with a pathological distrust of all men. However, the halting romance between Ingram and Maggie never quite gels with the rest of this tale; Walters (who began her career in fiction penning romances) seems to have included it only to reassure women that all men aren't as duplicitous or dysfunctional as Steven Harding and Sumner.
Fortunately, the dramatic thrust of this novel, abetted by the author's usual taste for gut-clenching realism and her skill at building criminal motivations, moves at such a rapid clip that you haven't much time to ponder whether you can associate with the characters. No sooner do you think you have Kate Sumner's killer pegged and prosecuted, than Walters will toss another bloody stump of a clue into your lap and convince you that it was somebody else entirely. So many times does she sucker you in with a phony solution to this mystery, that even as you're reading The Breaker's final chapter, you're expecting Walters to once more twist the plot 180 degrees. That ability to leave a reader hanging and hungry for answers until the very last page of a book separates the master storyteller from the merely clever plotter.
Minette Walters is one among a growing list of wordsmiths (also including Ian Rankin, Mark Timlin, Val McDermid, and John Milne) who are intent on bringing a harder edge to British crime fiction, more in line with America's Chandlerian legacy. Walters' efforts have certainly been well received: The Ice House was awarded the 1992 British Crime Writers' Association (CWA) John Creasey Award for best first novel; The Sculptress picked up the US Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel published in 1993; and in 1994, The Scold's Bridle won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year. Three of her works so far have been adapted as dramatic series for BBC-TV, to critical and public acclaim.
With a record like that, there's no limit to the violence Walters can commit in the future. Check your squeamishness at the door. | February 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.