The title of The Scold's Bridle derives from a medieval torture device, an iron "cage" designed to fit over the head of a nagging woman - a "scold" - and stop the woman from talking (apparently with some sort of attached tongue holder). The bridle referenced in the title has long been owned and not infrequently used, even in modern times, by the perverse family of elderly Mathilda Gillespie, a bright somewhat profane elderly woman found dead in her bath, a la Marat, in the opening scenes of this odd mystery.
Mathilda has not been stabbed like Marat, however. Her wrists are slit, and her coiffure is maimed by the scold's bridle, which sits on her lifeless head, decorated all around with stinging nettles and Michaelmas daisies. Is this an ugly suicide statement by an atheist and iconoclast with chronic severe arthritic pain?...The themes of child abuse, substance abuse, misogyny, and gang rape are woven indelicately into this novel, and the result is a series of subplots that are barely credible at times and that are most certainly too neatly "solved" by the common sense and good intentions of the protagonist, Dr. Blakeney. One gets the impression of a slightly immature P.D. James in that the story is peopled with bizarre, borderline personalities, fascinating and unpredictable, but at times Minette Walters seems to design a weird psychological vision rather than describe a real personality or situation. Depth of characterization and storyline is sometimes lacking where it is most wanted.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the book is difficult to put down, superior to most of its genre, and an excellent read. The majority of characters are in fact well drawn and sympathetic, the primary plot is believable, the tension is constant, the structure - from the individual sentence to the interlacing of the subplots - is tight and talented in execution, and the ending is a surprise, as it should be.