Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s often difficult to understand a crime, either real or fictional, without understanding the personalities of the people involved in the crime. Very often, those personalities are keys to the motive for a murder as well as clues to the murderer. So I was pleased that Clarissa Draper suggested that I spotlight work by Minette Walters, whose novels often focus on characterization. Let’s take a closer look at The Breaker.
Brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset Coast when they come upon a woman whom they think is sunbathing in the nude. It’s not long, though, before Paul, the older of the two brothers, notices that the woman hasn’t moved and that in fact, she’s dead. They give the alarm, and PC Nick Ingram is soon called to the scene. When he arrives, he meets the Spender boys and Stephen Harding, an actor who’s traveling in the area and who actually reported the death to the police. Also on the scene is Maggie Jenner, a local stable and boarding-facility owner who’s been out riding. When her dog runs off and comes upon Harding and the Spender boys, she gets drawn into the investigation as well.
While Ingram is beginning the process of finding out who the dead woman was, another mystery is unfolding in the nearby town of Poole. A small child, not even three years old, is wandering the streets, apparently unsupervised. A local couple notices the child and takes her to the police station, where WPC Sandra Griffiths puts into motion the process of finding out who the little girl is and what she’s doing wandering around alone. Hannah is strangely unresponsive and an assessment of the child suggests that she has suffered psychological trauma. The police broadcast the child’s photograph on television and by chance, Angela Sumner sees the picture and recognizes the toddler as her granddaughter, Hannah Sumner. She calls her son William, Hannah’s father, and before long, he’s in touch with the police.
When William Sumner arrives at Poole to identify Hannah, the two threads of this case come together. Sumner’s worried about his wife, Kate, who should have been with Hannah, and who seems to have disappeared. His description of Kate matches the description of the dead woman whose case the Dorset police are investigating, and it’s soon established that the body is Kate’s. Somehow, Kate and Hannah got separated and Kate ended up raped, choked, drugged and drowned on the beach near Chapman’s Pool.
Nick Ingram, DI John Galbraith, WPC Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter begin to work together to find out how and why Kate Sumner died. They interview her co-workers, friends and relations to try to piece together what happened, and as they do, three likely suspects emerge. One is her husband, William Sumner, who can’t really account for his time during the murder, who lies about his wife’s private life and who wasn’t as happily married to Kate as it seemed on the surface. Another is Stephen Harding, a sexually-obsessed actor with whom Kate flirted more than once. A third is Harding’s room-mate, teacher Tony Bridges, who knew Kate better than he admits to the police.
Several elements tie this story together. One of them is the painstaking work that is a police investigation. Throughout the novel, the detectives conduct interviews, gather and make sense of forensic and other evidence and slowly build their case. They draw the wrong conclusions at times and when they do find out what really happened, it’s not because of a magical discovery. Rather, it’s the process of sifting through the evidence and clues and tying together various things that witnesses have said. In that sense, this is a police procedural. We follow along with the police as they pursue their leads and work on the case.
We also get to see how the various police departments work together as they solve cases. Kate Sumner’s body is discovered in Dorset, but she and her family live in Lymington, in Hampshire. It turns out that Kate worked in Portsmouth, also in Hampshire, before her marriage. Her husband still does, so both constabularies are involved in the search for her killer.
Another very important element that runs throughout the novel is characterization. So in that sense, this novel is a psychological crime novel. For example, we don’t get to meet Kate Sumner before she dies. The various aspects of her character unfold slowly as the police find out more and more about her. We slowly and gradually learn, for instance, that Kate’s private life was not what it seemed on the surface, and that her personality had a lot to do with what happened to her. Even the details of the way her home is decorated teach us about her little by little.
The same is true of the other characters in the novel. For instance, we gradually learn what kind of men William Sumner, Stephen Harding and Tony Bridges are, and why each of them is tied up in this murder investigation. As the police interview these men and talk to the people in their lives, we see a slowly-developing portrait of each person. Through this process, we also get a dark psychological profile of the kind of person who would commit the rape-and-murder crime that killed Kate Sumner. Finally, we gradually get to know a little about Hannah Sumner and we learn what might be behind her strange behavior.
There’s also a strong element of place and local culture in this novel. The novel takes place on the Isle of Purbeck, on the southeastern side of the Dorset Coast, and throughout the story, there are vivid descriptions of the area. For example, here’s a description of a horse ride that Maggie Jenner takes:
“She turned right at St. Alban’s Quarry, negotiating her way through the gate and into the deep, wide valley that cleaved a grassy downland passage toward the sea between St. Alban’s Head to the south and the high ground above Chapman’s Pool to the north.”
There are maps and ‘photos as well that give the reader a clear picture of the area.
We learn about local history and culture in this novel, too. As we follow Nick Ingram’s part of the murder investigation in particular, we find out about the area. Ingram is a local who knows a good bit about the history of the Isle of Purbeck, and he shares that history in different places in the novel. We also learn about the personal histories of some of the local characters, including Maggie Jenner. In fact, there’s a sub-plot involving Maggie’s disastrous first marriage and the effect it had on her life and the lives of some of the other locals.
The ongoing, sometimes frustrating police investigation and the slowly-unfolding psychological portraits of the characters tie the various strands of this novel together. So do the Dorset and Hampshire settings where most of the action takes place. These elements underlie the story and add important layers of interest and tension as the investigators get closer to the truth about Kate Sumner’s murder. But what’s your view? Have you read The Breaker? If you have, what elements did you notice in it?
Coming up on In The Spotlight:
Monday 13 September/Tuesday 14 September – The Daughters of Cain – Colin Dexter
Monday 20 September/Tuesday 21 September – A Taste For Death – P.D. James
Monday 27 September/Tuesday 28 September - Strong Poison - Dorothy Sayers