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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Death, Dishonesty, & Disillusionment in Dorset


An ordinary man leaves his wife after several years of marriage, convinced that his happiness may only be found elsewhere. It’s the classic “greener pastures” syndrome--nothing terribly earth-shattering there. But, when the man stabs his wife in their home, then proceeds to throw her off a nearby cliff--before disrobing and sauntering to the water’s edge, calmly following her into the same body of water--that’s the sort of thing that tends to make people sit up and take notice. And, when only one body--hers--is recovered, well, that’s when things become downright interesting.
This is David Whellams’ Walking into the Ocean...
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When semi-retired Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Cammon receives word he’s being sent to Dorset to look into what appears to be a murder-suicide on the Jurassic Coast, he’s unsure what role they’re expecting him to play. Surely the local constabulary are better-equipped to look into the murder of one of their own than he is?
Nevertheless, duty calls, so he dons his uniform--unremarkable black suit, bowler hat, and umbrella--fills a valise with a few travel items, says his goodbyes to his own wife of more than forty years, and hops in the company car that’s been driven down from London HQ to fetch him.
As Cammon’s long-time partner Tommy Verden informs him along the way, Dorset and Devon are already dealing with a huge problem (miraculously, as yet, kept out of the media): trying to catch a serial killer who’s been cutting a bloody swath through the area’s young female population. (Making the situation even more-than-usually urgent, their part of the English Channel just so happens to be in the running to host part of the upcoming London Olympics swimming events... an honor they assuredly won’t be granted if word gets out that a murderous nutjob is on the loose.) That leaves Scotland Yard--with the highly-respected (if notoriously-difficult) Cammon as its public, on-the-scene face--heading the well-publicized spousal murder, thereby temporarily diverting attention from the Task Force working so feverishly on the serial killer case.  
With his purpose thus explained, Cammon sets to work as soon as he arrives. In no time at all, though, he realizes that his single murder will hardly be the walk in the park everyone assumes... namely, because he believes the police have it all wrong following their cursory investigation. 
After venturing out on the cliff from which the wife was thrown and having a good look around, Cammon isn’t at all convinced the husband killed himself; he suspects the fellow planned everything--including a mysterious escape made to look like a suicide--to the letter. (Whether the man succeeded in his plans--or died somewhere in the Channel--is unclear, with neither a sighting of the chap alive nor a body having been found.) The couple’s house--possibly the scene of the murder, but certainly where everything started--offers no conclusive evidence, either. From the particular destruction (what was damaged, and how it was done) to the peculiar blood trails (angry patterns that seem to tell some sort of message, in places), nothing adds up to a clear-cut explanation of what, or how, or why. 
Unsurprisingly, the local police chief is none too thrilled by what he sees as Yard interference in the form of one Peter Cammon--regardless of the diversion his investigation is providing--and does everything he can to hinder Cammon’s efforts. Fortunately, a couple of cops further down the totem pole don’t share in the chief’s animosity, and offer what help they can, from pulling reports for his perusal to putting him in touch with anyone who might know something... and even, as things progress, to filling him in on the hush-hush details of the serial killer case... because the more he looks at everything and ponders the meanings, the more he’s convinced the two cases are, somehow, inextricably linked.
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I find something inherently appealing about a, erm, “well-seasoned” sleuth. The experience he or she brings to a case is nearly-always invaluable, so more often than not it comes down to how “with-it”--how computer-literate and ‘net-savvy, how comfortable with gadgets and gizmos--an older detective is, and to how accurately said detective’s memory serves, whether he or she is able to solve the big mystery. 
In Peter Cammon’s case, there’s certainly no grass growing beneath his feet; he’s technologically-capable and suffers none of those pesky, age-related synaptical problems. That isn’t to say he’s without his own little quirks and foibles, however; Cammon isn’t a “people person”, but is instead quite prickly and awkward. He’s mostly a loner, marching to his own drummer... to a resigned tolerance shown by his long-suffering boss and the (mostly) patient understanding of his wife and two adult children. He is not, as a character, precisely likable, but he is interesting, and that’s fine by me.
The co-mingled cases in Walking into the Ocean are intriguing, as well. Nothing is simple; there are no givens, no easy answers, and nothing so obvious you feel as though the characters should be hit over the heads with bats. Instead, these characters are complex--real people, made more so by occasional, unexpected insights into their lives (including ways not even strictly relevant to the cases)--and their motivations believable, rather than merely convenient for the plot. (Note: A speedy read, this is not; it tends to amble rather than race toward the conclusion, much like its protagonist.)
Walking into the Ocean is the first of three books author Whellams has planned about Peter Cammon’s latter sleuthing career, and if this one’s any indication, the two remaining tales should prove intelligent, challenging diversions, as well. Nicely done, sir.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Well-hidden Mousies (or, worth the time for patient readers :))