IN a sedate auction room on Cape Cod, a turn-of-the-century oil painting of no great technical merit sells for $18,000. It is a dark rendering of a woman on the deck of an ancient sailing vessel leaning against the rail and staring morosely out into the great black wilderness on shore. Behind the woman a single lantern illumines the scene, and from the shadows a man emerges toward her. The plaque that once identified the man as the ancestor of a prominent Cape Cod family has been pried loose from the pa inting's frame, but the work's title remains: ``Murder on the Mayflower.'' The search for the captain's log, which identifies the man in the shadows, constitutes the core quest of ``Cape Cod,'' a novel by William Martin. The book is a transgenerational mystery story that funnels 370 years of feuding between the Hilyards and the Bigelows, both Mayflower families, into a land-development decision Geoff Hilyard makes in three weeks in the summer of 1990. Geoff's wife is Janice Bigelow, and their spousal incompatibilities reflect the age-old rivalries between their two clans.
Although the personalities of the book's characters are somewhat homogeneous down through the ages - the Bigelows are almost always archdeacons of orthodoxy and the Hilyards are almost always flinty, defiant skirters of the prevailing law - the book is ingeniously schemed. Martin interweaves the exploits of multiple generations to articulate and amplify the mood and tradition of the Cape Cod region.
The bone of contention is Jack's Island, a 60-acre parcel of land, half of which is owned by each family. Janice wants her husband to accept her family's offer of a contract to design the homes for a development on the island, but Geoff, in the tradition of all his ancestors, wants to defy the Bigelow family's control of Cape Cod real estate. He also wants to find the hidden Mayflower log.
Emotionally, however, the novel is somewhat flat. The struggling settlers and their descendants are tricky Yankee tradesmen or clamp-jawed whalers eking out their survival among the Cape's marshes, breakers, fog, and shifting sands. It is as if the author carved all his characters out of the same wood they use for the Gloucester Fisherman souvenirs. Even if there is some validity to these stereotypes, the book is a little thin on the romance side.
Martin is much better at re-opening the dusty history books and revivifying the experiences and the horrors of bygone days. The camera lens of his imagination moves in just close enough to be riveting without revolting.
A day in the Puritan-era stocks, for example, is described in all its aching discomfort. The Revolutionary era practice of tarring and feathering, which has become trivialized down through the centuries, is redramatized in all of its horror in a scene in which an old woman, the secret author of seditious broadsides, is doused with scalding, smothering tar and ridden on a rail to her death in the sea.
With particular sensitivity Martin describes the captain of a 19th-century slaveship conscience-stricken by the face of a little girl staring up at him from among the broil of arms and legs of deceased slaves dumped overboard to the sharks.
If what we expect of historical fiction is plausibility, then Martin obliges us. Within the framework of the known facts he supplies the most dramatic possibilities for what is not generally known about history. James Otis provokes a fight with a saloon full of redcoats. From high on the main mast on a moonless night, a Hilyard teenager cuts the halyards to sabotage the British warship, the Somerset. Out in the dunes, Eugene O'Neil buys his liquor from a local rum-runner. From the halls of Congress, Sen ator Jack Kennedy phones a Cape Cod fisherman to consult on a land-preserve bill.
Also woven into the narrative with smooth familiarity are such notables as Myles Standish, William Bradford, Daniel Webster, and Henry David Thoreau.
This is a book with an aftertaste, especially if a rough genealogical outline is made as the story moves along. When all the pieces are put together - when the whole multi-tiered structure is erected like a three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game - the book leaves the reader with the sensation (however fleeting and however fictional) of historical omniscience. We know what the present-day characters have done and how they were influenced by the past, who their ancestors were and what happened to make them do what they did. We have seen characters as infants and we have seen them die in old age. We know everything that anyone looking through a family album could ever wish to know.