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The Shape of Snakes (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) Paperback

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 15 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
(4.5) "She had the courage to stand and fight and I ran away." Feb. 19 2008
By Luan Gaines - Published on
Format: Paperback
Walters pulls no punches in a devastating novel of racism, sexism and misogyny, a young wife witness in 1978 London to the violent death of the only black resident of an all-white, economically barren neighborhood. The police view the battered body and declare the death accidental: Mrs. Ranelagh cries murder. But time and circumstance are against her, neither the authorities nor her husband or mother willing to entertain the possibility. After an outrageous assault on her home and person by incensed neighbors and the rejection of the police (the officer himself a blatant racist), Mrs. Ranelagh and her husband leave London for Hong Kong. Twenty years and two sons later, Mrs. Ranelagh returns, bringing with her years of carefully compiled documents and a private agenda to reopen Annie's case and finally mete out justice to the culprit or culprits responsible. If she harbors a yearning for a bit of revenge as well, who can blame a woman who was treated as an emotional incompetent, ignored by everyone, even her family. Served cold, this dish is piquant.

Walters makes a cogent argument for a woman's place in society in the late 1970s-early 1898s, exacerbated by racial prejudice and male superiority. Given the poverty of Graham Street and the preponderance of council houses, stereotypes abound, Annie an easy target for the bullies anxious to vent. It is Mrs. Ranelagh's evolution that is fascinating, from her delicate mental condition following the murder and the concerted efforts by the locals to make her a victim of the same cruelty they rained on Annie Butts. Her husband's indifference and the local investigating policeman's harassment drive the young wife to the edge, even her overbearing mother contributing to the already burdened woman's nightmare. In spite of everything, Mrs. Ranelagh endures, one of the most interesting relationships with her husband, Sam, who has his own personal guilt to deal with, unable to befriend his wife. That the marriage survives is significant.

Working with a wide array of characters, Walters rebuilds the bleak circumstances of Annie's death, philandering husbands, wife-beaters, child-abusers and other social misfits that inhabit the area. Their parents mired in drink and brutality, the children run the streets, aping their parents for lack of better examples. In this scenario, virtually everyone has a secret, save Mrs. Ranelagh, who bears the weight of neighborhood hostility. Stronger from her ordeal, Mrs. Ranelagh puts everyone to shame with her determination, including Sam, who must take responsibility for his own failings. Literally fearless, the protagonist pursues every avenue, turns over every mud-caked rock and faces the animosity of those involved in a bid to find justice for Annie Butts and respect for herself. Twenty years is a long time to wait to redress the past, but this is an exceptional woman familiar with patience: "If you sit by the river long enough the bodies of all your enemies float by." Luan Gaines/ 2008.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Awesome book! April 2 2010
By Shirley Schwartz - Published on
Format: Paperback
Awesome, but hard to read. Ms. Walters covers all the bases of families in trouble and disfunctional families. We have murder, rape, assault, family violence, robbery and racial hatred. That by no means covers all the things that are uncovered with the death of a mentally handicapped negro woman in 1978 in London. The woman who found Annie Butts is the one whose point of view this book is written from and it shows the terrible price that she paid for pursuing the truth about Annie's story. The woman we know as Mrs. Ranleigh sacrifices everything in her life because of her ardent desire to see justice done for Annie. She spends 20 years, both in and out of the country trying to untangle what happened. It appeared that the police were no longer interested, and weren't even that interested when Annie was found dead. Mrs. Ranleigh suspects police corruption and racism were at play with this death. This book is powerfully and honestly written by an author who is at the top of her game. I have learned to expect the unexpected with Ms. Walters and this book was no different. I absolutely loved this book and it's my favourite so far of all of hers that I've read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
An exceptional story, exceptionally well written April 15 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. That means something - I have been reading 5-10 books a week for thirty-five years.

Central to this book is the murder of a black woman - and the story of the white woman who found her dying in the gutter.

If you have read the other reviews, you have an idea of the story. But none of the reviews seem to have dealt with how the story is told. Basically, this book has to be unpeeled. You read, you think you know what kind of book it is. Then you read another chapter and what you learn causes you to view the book differently. Then you read another chapter and you start to wonder if the woman telling the story can be trusted - there are things she did not tell you earlier. Then you read more...

As Ms Ranleagh digs up the past, you discover it with her. Minette Walters deals out the information piece by piece, letting you slowly, steadily, build a picture of what happened. You will take some wrong turns along the way - you will not be able to help that. But those wrong turns are not distractions - they add layers of understanding and complexity that enrich the ending. The reader just would not understand what happened and why - not as well - without those so-called "dead ends".

I have a shelf where I keep the very special books I have read in the last three decades. This book is on that shelf. This is not an easy book to read - it is complex and it deals with complex, sometimes painful, issues. But it is not depressing - and in ten years, when you can no longer remember the name or plot of lesser books you have read, you will still remember this one. You will still remember Ms Ranleagh, and feel affection and admiration for her. The book is that good.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Her Best Sept. 16 2008
By Keith E. Welsh - Published on
Format: Paperback
Minette Walters always writes gripping, disturbing mysteries. This is her best because it crosses over into a social problem novel that challenges us to think about our own responsibilities towards those less fortunate.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Surprisingly Disappointing June 16 2010
By Clarissa's Blog - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I happen to like Minette Walters's mysteries quite a bit. For this reason, I was very surprised at how much I disliked this novel. It was a painfully slow read because I kept either putting it aside or simply falling asleep while reading. (If you are battling insomnia, though, this book might be a good remedy to try.)

The main impression I got from this book is that Walters decided to base it on some sort of a political message, which is never a good idea for a mystery writer. (For those of you who read Elizabeth George's What Came Before He Shot Her, The Shape of Snakes tries to do something similar but fails even worse.) As a result of this attempt at making a political statement, the characters come out completely fake and it's impossible to care about what happens to any of them. This is very unusual for Walters who usually creates some pretty memorable characters. The writing is stilted and plodding, which is also very surprising for this writer.

The worst thing about the novel, however, was the ending. I am not going to give out any hints about what the ending is, of course, but it was the biggest disappointment of this generally blah book. After struggling through the entire painfully boring novel only to find such a horrible, silly, soppy and unconvincing ending was really frustrating.

If you want to find out what Minette Walters is really like as a mystery writer, read her great The Scold's Bridle: A Novel or The Ice House: A Novel but don't waste your time or money on this boring quasi-political concoction.

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