The Off-Islander (Mystery) by Peter Colt, 2019
This was the first installment in what is expected, apparently, to become a successful series. (The New York Times recently
published a favourable review of the second installment.) Set in the 1980s, the series stars Andy Roark, a private investigator,
who was formerly a cop and who had earned some recognition for bravery in the Vietnam War.
In this case, he’s asked to track down the missing father of a wealthy California woman. She doesn’t want any
unexpected skeletons from the family closet to jeopardize her husband’s run for the Senate. Her father had come back
to her and her mother as a veteran of the war in Korea, but then walked out and disappeared when she was a young child. The
Pinkerton detective agency has already tried unsuccessfully to find the man, the last traces of whom were on Cape Cod. The
person who gets Andy involved in the case is his childhood friend, Danny Sullivan, an influential, wealthy lawyer who often
works to help mob bosses evade convictions. Danny hopes to ingratiate himself with the powerful California couple by having
Andy solve the mystery about the woman’s dad.
In some ways, it’s refreshing to read a mystery set in the days before the communications technology that litters our
lives today. No cell phones, no internet. This means that Andy has to resort to relatively old-fashioned, down-to-earth gumshoe
work. Tedious driving from here to there – much of it on Nantucket – knocking on doors, making phone calls, exchanging
written messages. In that respect, the reading is rather soothing. However, there’s little in the way of clever sleuthing.
It’s mostly pretty routine. Only once does Andy stumble on a clue that, thanks to his brilliance, gives him the lead
that he needs. A great deal of the text is about what he ate, what he wore and where he walked.
All the same, Andy is a likable character. He’s a bit of a shambles in terms of his demeanour and his wardrobe. He’s
lonely, but not morose, not without a sense of humour about himself. Far be it for me to scoff at a middle-aged man’s
fantasy, but there’s a sexual relationship in the story that strikes me as highly improbable. A young woman throws herself
at Andy with such alacrity that I thought it must be some sort of scam. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t.)
That affair comes as a huge consolation to Andy because his live-in girlfriend recently left him on account of of his bad
moods; he’s suffering from what could be called PTSD as a result of his Vietnam experience. His terrible nightmares
kept waking her up but he wouldn’t talk about his terrors. For my taste, though, the book includes far too much narrative
about the Vietnam stint; it’s almost as if the author couldn’t quite make up his mind about whether he wanted
to write a mystery or a novel about a Vietnam vet. The Vietnam business does have some payoff, though, in that some skills
Andy learned in Vietnam do come to his aid in the course of his solving this mystery.
As for Andy’s other relationship of any significance, the sparring, taunting, off-handed banter with his lawyer buddy
is entertaining. In something of a last-minute twist, the author brings that friendship to a point that you wouldn’t
expect in a novel like this. I salute the author for his daring in that respect.