Book Review: Midnight Cab by James W. Nichol

Midnight cab Midnight Cab
By James W. Nichol
(Canongate 2005, first published in Canada 2002).

Walker Deveraux is a nineteen-year old man, about to leave his mother, father and six sisters and their house in the small town of Big River, Thunder Bay for an independent life in the big city – Toronto. Walker hasn’t told his parents of his true intention, however, which is to try to find his biological parents.

Walker’s first memory is from when he was three years old. He recalls his mother bending down to him and telling him to hold on to a fence, and not let go. She vanished. Some time later, a passing motorist discovered the boy, all alone, gripping the fence by the side of the road. After living in many foster homes, the Canadian authorities eventually found a family to adopt him, whom Walker has grown to love. But he is desperate to find his birth parents, and to learn why he was abandoned. After calling in to the local social services department, where he’s given his file which contains only the most meagre information, he arrives in Toronto. He finds a small room to rent and starts looking for a job. After some time of fruitless searching, Walker stumbles across a chaotic taxi firm, and inveigles his way to being taken on as a driver on the midnight shift.

Walker has a couple of thin clues to go on, and doggedly follows up every lead he can think of, usually with the help of Krista, a colleague at work. Soon, though, he realises that he’s being followed, by someone who seems very keen to stop him in his search. 

As well as Walker’s story, the novel tells the tale of a boy called Bobby in flashback. It is slowly revealed that Bobby is not a “normal” boy – in fact, he is “different” in a creepy and awful way, wrapped up in a perverse relationship with his remote-seeming father.  How Bobby’s story is relevant to Walker’s past is a big part of the mystery in this novel. The author is very good at spinning out the tension; there’s a jolt of surprise about 200 pages in, after which it becomes clearer to us, if not to Walker, what must have happened. Even so, there are still surprises to come as the details of the past gradually emerge in full.

Midnight Cab is a very attractive novel. The central story of Walker and his seemingly hopeless quest is presented with sensitivity yet not sentimentality. Walker’s evolving relationship with Krista is also unusual and poignant. Although I am not at all keen on “mind of the killer” chapters in novels, I have to say that in this case it is very well done, in a convincing way. Although there is quite a bit of revolting stuff, none of it is gratuitous. And the central mystery, as Walker gradually uncovers layer after layer of his past, thinking he’s discovered something and then finding out that he hasn’t and has to start again, is very compelling. 

This book was recommended to me by Simon Clarke, and I thank him very much.  It is the author’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger award. He based it on his successful radio drama series which was broadcast on Canada’s national radio station. 

There is an interesting article about the author, and this book in particular, at Quill and Quire.