Monday, September 6, 2010

In The Spotlight: Minette Walters' The Breaker

Hello, All,

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


  1. Yay, I love your Monday posts. And one I recommended - even better!

    When I read your posts, it really gives me the encouragement to write. It really does. Because you break the stories down to the elements and I remember why I love writing mysteries when I read these elements.

    Actually, reading here about the girl and her life reminded me of my second novel. You start out with an innocent victim and as you piece their lives together you find out some dirty secrets. I love that.

    Thanks, Margot. Now, I have the urge to go write, so I will.


  2. Clarissa - How kind of you : ). I really liked your suggestion, too, thanks for making it. I agree with you that it's particularly interesting when the victim in a murder mystery seems to be innocent, but then you find things out as the novel goes on. That's in fact, part of the plot in my WIP. The victim seems innocent, but it's not long before the reader finds out about a little "dirty laundry."

  3. Thanks Margot, this was great. I do believe I read this one quite a time ago. I adore Minette Walters because she is such a psychologically inclined writer. I CANNOT remember any books I've read in the past several years though which is great as far as mysteries go because I can then read them again...and again.
    In my current mystery wip, I too have a victim that we find out more and more about as the investigation proceeds. He is not a terribly nice man but we are still drawn to his story I think - charismatic in life and death!
    And like Clarissa, this post makes me want to go back at it! (I'm currently revising a literary novel right now...having finished one mystery and shopping it while half way through the next in the same series) yoicks. not enough time...

  4. Jan - I had to laugh when I read what you wrote about forgetting books you've read. It is nice, isn't it, to read a mystery you've forgotten about, and be surprised and caught up in the story all over again.

    I agree that Walters does do a terrific job of character study. In fact, that's one thing that makes her novels so interesting and engaging. It's an important lesson I'm trying to learn from her work.

    I give you so much credit for working on so many different writing projects at once. I wish I multi-tasked that well. I wish you well getting the representation you richly deserve for your series, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out. In the meantime, yes, there is never enough time to do everything we want...

  5. I truly enjoy your spotlight feature. I haven't read this book but now I have it on my 'must find' list. This was great. Can't wait for your next spotlight. Thanks so much for doing these.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Why, thank you : ). That's very kind of you. I'm glad you are enjoying this feature. And I do think you'd like this one. It really explores personalities and psychology, but it is also an absorbing, well-paced mystery, I think, and a solid police procedural.

    Any time there's a book or author you would like me to feature, do leave a comment or send me an Email. Folks, that goes for the rest of you, too.

  7. Not read this book, but it reminded me a lot of the Sholes Key- and if they do not share elements in common, that only shows how far behind I have fallen on reading the story.

    Thank you Margot for another fantastic review. I will put this book on my "look for" list too.

  8. Rayna - That's very kind of you : ). This one does have some things in common with The Sholes Key . Like that novel, we learn only slowly about some of the characters' personalities. There's also the same sense of the police work involved in solving cases. There's a similar network of relationships, too. But there's not the same "thriller" sense of urgency in The Breaker. Still, the action certainly moves along

  9. I love Minette Walters...but she's about as gritty as I'll go! Thanks for the review on a book I haven't read. :)

  10. Elizabeth - I know what you mean. Some crime fiction is gritty; some isn't, and people do have different levels of gritty that they enjoy. I think you'd like this book if you like Minette Walters, but yes, it gets gritty.

  11. Great review and analysis, Margot. It really bought the book home to me, though I read it a while back I can remember not much about it apart from the body on the beach at the start. (And, this has reminded me that this same approach has been used by, eg, Nicola Upson in her second "Josephine Tey" thriller, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir in her second novel. I have an idea that Dorothy Sayers used it in one of hers too - was it the one where Harriet finds the body and is a suspect in the murder?).

    Unfortunately, though your excellent piece reminded me of a lot that I had forgotten about this book, I still can't recall the outcome (like Jan above)! I have so often wished that there is a website somewhere that has the entire plot of books from beginning to end. It would be called the Spoiler Website and people like me could go there when they had forgotten the details of a book and don't have time or inclination to go back and read it all over again. This would also be very useful for series, when a new installment comes out, as you could go there to refresh your memory on what happened in the last (as it was a year ago, usually, I for one have forgotten all the details by then).

  12. Maxine - Why, thank you : ). And you know, you really do have a point. That strategy of having a body found on a beach, and later finding out about the victim bit by bit has been used by other authors. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir does the same sort of thing in My Soul to Take, which I hadn't thought of while I was writing this post (but you're right, of course). Folks, by the way, I recommend My Soul to Take - it's a fine novel. Maxine's excellent review of it is here. And here is a terrific review from Dorte at DJ's Krimiblog.

    Maxine, you're also right about Dorothy Sayers' Have His Carcase. Harriet finds a body on the beach, and after she gives the alarm and the investigation begins, we slowly learn more and more about the victim. It really can be a successful strategy, can't it, when it's done well.

    I think it would be great to have a spoiler website. Those who don't want a plot spoiled needn't visit, and those who want their memories refreshed could. Of course, who knows what that might do to book sales, as people might visit the site and read up on the plot, rather than buy the book. But it would be great to have a place to get one's memory jogged a bit...

  13. I have only read her first few novels but they were brilliant. And one of them was one of the best TV mysteries I ever saw. Wish I could remember the name.

  14. Patti - I agree; Minette Walters has a lot of talent. A few of her books have been adapted for television (I'm glad you remembered which one you were thinking of). I admit I haven't seen it, I'm told The Sculptress was very well-done. Maybe I'll see if I can find it on DVD.

  15. Margot, I have never read Minette Walters but saw The Ice House on TV years ago, and that was very gripping.
    Your review and analysis has encouraged me to read this book especially as I used to know Portsmouth, Lymington and that part of the country very well. In the 1980s we used to regularly drive down from London to Fareham/Gosport via the Meon Valley and visit a then very quiet Jane Austen's house at Chawton. I suspect it might be busier now.

  16. Norman - I must confess, I've never seen that TV production, but I keep hearing good things about adaptations of Minette Walters' novels. Perhaps it is time for me to look into getting some DVDs of her novels.

    I think you would like this novel; not only is it (at least I think) well-written, etc., and with a solid plot and believable characters, but Walters does a fine job placing the reader in Dorset and Hampshire. There are some maps in the foreward material, and throughout the novel, there are all sorts of references to the Poole area and also to Lymington. Since you know that area well, you'd no doubt feel that you were on familiar ground. But you're probably right; it's likely quite busy these days...

  17. Oh, so much to enjoy in one post (plus all the interesting comments!)

    For me, this one is first of all a psychological thriller, and if I *had* known the victim before we found her dead, I don´t think I could have stomached this very strong story. And for once, I can remember the murderer, but I could certainly also use Maxine´s "spoiler website" :D

    NB: I am looking forward to the three next spotlights as well - three novels I really like.

  18. Dorte - Why, thank you : ). You're right, actually. I think the story would be possibly too strong if we had really gotten to know the victim before her body is found. Walters really did an effective job with the way she planned this novel, I think.

    I like that idea of a spoiler website, too. Someone could make a lot of money charging subscription fees for it.. ; )

    And I'm glad you are looking forward to the next three spotlights. To be honest, I thought of you when I chose the one for 27/28 September :).

  19. I haven't read anything by Minette Walters. Looks like I have another author to add to my Must Read List.


  20. Patricia - Sorry to be so late responding to your comment *blush of shame*. I really do think you'll like her work. It's got such a good sense of place, and, in my opinion, very well-written.