As Minette Walter's "The Chameleon's Shadow" opens, twenty-six year old British Lieutenant Charles Acland and his men are patrolling the Baghdad to Basra highway in an armored reconnaissance truck. Suddenly, several roadside improvised explosive devices produce a blast that demolishes their vehicle. Charles, the sole survivor, is horribly disfigured and has lost an eye. When he wakes up in the hospital, he has no memory of the tragedy. A psychiatrist named Dr. Robert Willis comforts the devastated soldier and tries to help him come to terms with the calamity that befell him and his men, as well as with his future as a partially blind and mutilated veteran.
Charles's behavior in the hospital is troubling. He refuses to answer simple questions, swears at his nurses, declines the proffered pain medication, and evinces a visceral and generalized anger especially towards women. Although he makes a remarkable recovery physically, his face is damaged beyond repair and he suffers from severe migraines. He is cold to his parents and seems to suffer from deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and guilt. He claims that he is indifferent to his narcissistic ex-fiancée, Jen Morley, with whom he broke up shortly before he shipped out to Iraq. Charles appears to be incapable of normal social interaction; he lives like a "self-denying ascetic," eating little and exercising compulsively.
Meanwhile, a series of killings in London has the police baffled. Three men, all army veterans, aged fifty-eight, fifty-seven, and seventy-one, were robbed and brutally beaten to death by a frenzied attacker. Detective Superintendent Brian Jones, who heads up the investigation, and his second-in-command, Detective Inspector Nick Beale, believe that the victims knew their assailant. After Charles almost kills someone in a pub fight, he is restrained by a huge woman named Jackson, who is built like a Mack truck, with close-cropped hair, bulging muscles and biker boots. Jackson is a gay and a doctor. Her partner, Daisy, runs the pub that they both own. This formidable woman becomes Charles's unlikely friend in spite of his prickliness and ingratitude, and in many ways, she saves his life. She not only gives him a place to stay, but also uses her own peculiar brand of "tough love" to shape him up and earn his trust. "She's incapable of mollycoddling anyone, tells it how it is, refuses to tiptoe around prissy sensibilities, and gains respect as a result." Later, an elderly pensioner named Walter Tutting is viciously assaulted but survives; since he had argued with Tutting earlier at an ATM machine, the police pick Charles up for questioning.
"The Chameleon's Shadow" is a psychological thriller about the dark impulses that drive people to commit heinous acts. Charles Acland is scarred both psychologically and physically, and he harbors profound antagonism, especially towards women. However, is he capable of killing someone in cold blood? Jackson, for one, has her doubts. Walters introduces some additional key characters, both homeless, as the story progresses: One is a sixteen-year-old runaway named Ben Russell and the other is a middle-aged drunk known as Chalky. These two individuals may know more than they're willing to admit about the serial killer who is targeting middle aged and elderly men. The police, with Jackson's help, do everything they can to get to the bottom of a case that is as bizarre as any that they have ever seen.
Minette Walters is a gifted storyteller and she garners sympathy for the emotionally wounded protagonist. Although the first half of the book is gripping and suspenseful, it falters at the end, when it becomes a bit too weighed down with coincidences and psychobabble. A few far-fetched twists and turns enable the author to wrap up her complicated plot a bit too neatly. In spite of its flaws, "The Chameleon's Shadow" is an engrossing and affecting tale of an injured soldier's horrific journey to hell and back.