I've enjoyed the dramatizations of British mystery writer Minette Walters' previous novels, and I was, therefore, looking forward to finally reading one; I must say, I was not disappointed. The Shape of Snakes is a well-written and, frankly, unputdownable novel. The story captures the reader's attention and interest right from the start. As it progresses, the characters take shape and the mystery becomes increasingly complex with a good many twists and surprises before the final pieces are in place. The story takes place in the first person. Briefly, and without giving anything away, the narrator (known to us only as M. Ranelagh) had in 1978 discovered the body of her neighbour Annie (a disabled black woman) as Annie lay dying in the gutter in front of M's house. Not satisfied with the coroner's verdict, we find that M has spent the last 20 or so years amassing evidence in support of her belief as to what really happened to Annie. Though the story is told through the less-than-objective eyes of one of the characters, Walters has counterbalanced this obvious bias in a highly effective (and indeed original) manner by including "copies" of letters, newspaper clippings, e-mails, reports, and so on in between most of the chapters. Lest anyone be offended or upset, I ought to mention that there are, unfortunately, fairly graphic descriptions of cruelty to cats which some may find quite distressing (I certainly did and frankly skipped over much of the description). If you are able to withstand the cruelty, however, this is definitely a novel worth reading, for it is an extremely satisfying and masterfully-written mystery. At the core of the story are the related issues of racism, ignorance and intolerance, and Walters succeeds in evoking her readers' emotions and making us think; yet she manages to do so (at least in my opinion) without making us thoroughly depressed in the process. Don't misunderstand me. This novel is somewhat disturbing, not to mention unsettling, and many of the despicable attitudes and actions (toward both humans and cats) can only be described, quite frankly, as evil. Nevertheless, there is still that ever-so-important redeeming element of good that occasionally manages to punctuate the darkness--even if it is only a feeling of remorse or a simple act of kindness. In conclusion, if you enjoy intelligent, realistic, thought-provoking mysteries--if you enjoy the Prime Suspect television series for example--you'll enjoy this novel. It's certainly one of the best mysteries I've read. Highly recommended!Read more ›
I have read all Minette Walthers' mysteries and like some of her books better than others. From my perspective, THE SHAPE OF SNAKES is one of her better books, although not nearly as original or thrilling as THE ICE HOUSE or THE SCULPTRESS. Although some of her readers did not like THE BREAKER, I though it was quite good and liked it better than THE SHAPE OF SNAKES. BREAKER was very original and I learned a great deal about the tides and coastline of Southern England from her research--a plus for an Anglophile like me. SNAKES like BREAKER left me sad, but in one someone dies owing to a huge misunderstanding, while in the other someone dies owing to cruelty and prejudice. I don't know which is worse. Readers of Walter's books will recognize many familar elements in the SHAPE OF SNAKES including her addiction to overly long exchanges of dialogue among and between too many characters. The end result is a somewhat confused denouement (she may have been thinking the screen adaptation but it does not play well in print). Walters uses the same device she used in THE ICE HOUSE and THE SCULPTRESS -- an historical approach which relies on a determined protagonist who is trying to understand and piece together events that occurred many years before which are tied to someone's death. The protagonist's meddling inevitably leads to the uncovering of many old skeltons in many old closets and the threat of personal bodily harm. In SNAKES, the protagonist, known only by the letter "M" (for "mad"??) is married to an apparently long-suffering fellow named Sam who has given her various versions of what he was doing on the night a near neighbor was found dead in the street by "M". I felt as if "M" might say to him at any moment -- "Would you like to run that by me again Sam?" And, Sam isn't the only one who can't get his story straight!!
I believe Walters used to write soap operas. Perhaps that is why she does such a wonderful job of developing exchanges between people with close relationships, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, girlfriends and boyfriends, and friend-friends. Her understanding of the psychology of her fellow human beings is so acute she seldom drops the ball (i.e. characters seldom act out of character) but when she does it is noticible. I am not sure she does "tarts" "whores" and other disreputable types as well as she does vicar's wives and endearing fathers. Probably, she has not had a great deal of experience with the former. Walters has been compared to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. I would say her writing is more akin to the former than the latter. Most of the time James' killers partially redeem themselves (usually they have been wounded by their victims, often they die for their sins). Although James does not create tidy endings or resolve every outstanding moral issue in her books, to my knowledge, she has infrequently created a truly despicable character. Cold-blooded creatures populate Rendell's books, and in SNAKES, Walters succeeds in creating some ghastly individuals herself.Read more ›
"I could never decide where Mad Annie was murdered because she was mad or because she was black." is the cracking first line to Minette Walter's most recent novel. even the author herself admits she is proud of this first line, and i can see why. it says quite a lot about the story. especially if you look at it again once you have completed the book. This book is most certainly a very disturbing book to read. It contains graphic scenes of cruelty to animals, wife beating, drug use, dominant familial relationships, etc.. For this reason many people have criticized this book. they say it is too hard to read, and chills you to the bone. indeed it does. but that is the neauty of Minette Walters. whereas other lesser authors might shya way from writing about such motivational topics, she confronts it head on. With style. she isnt afraid to tackle the issues which make our world the unpleasant place it often is (for example; Child abuse, rape, poverty, racism, sexism, fascism (demonstrated to some extene in The Ice house)). It really impresses me. Admittedly this book is quite different from her normal stuff, much darker, less centring on the psychology of the crime, and more on the aspects and effects of the crime. The narrator, Mrs Ranelagh, the woman who found Annie dying in a gutter in 1978, has made it her quest to discover the truth about the death, even though the police are adamant she was simply knocked down by a car. we never find out her first name. that is significant. it adds even more mystery to her quest. she is simply referred to as "M". she is not a likeable character by any means, definitely flawed, very determined, and you do at time wonder whether she is in fact stable. she is manipulative, at times dishonest, and it is clear she has an undisclosed motive aside from the want of justice, that keeps her going. no other novel has ever had photographs in it. this one does. of several of the main cahracters. i must admit that no, this does nothing for the plot, although is quite a nice device. it doesnt enhance anything, and does seem superfluous. the letters between the characters however, do enhance the plot. they are peppered throuought the novel and each one adds a little bit more information to what you know of the murder. there are a lot of characters, and a lot of suspects, and it is hard sometimes not to get them tangled in your mind, but they are all well drawn, and all equally flawed. you do not feel one drop of sympathy for any one of them by the end of the novel. (even the woman who is frequently beaten by her husband. do not think this is not possible, it most certainly is) some people say that the ending is not clear. they are wrong. it says who killed her plainly, in black and white, several times. you cant miss it. although there is one killer who perpetrated the act, the message of the novel is blindingly clear. obvious for all to see. by the end you know all to well that in reality there is no one killer. and everyone did it. they all, through their torture of Annie Butts during her life, contributed somewhat to her death. and are therefore ALL responsible. on the very last page of the novel you discover "M"'s motivation. it is heartbreaking and will, i guarantee, make you weep. (...)Read more ›