Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Shape of Snakes

I have no idea why Minette Walters (or her publisher) decided to call her 2001 thriller The Shape of Snakes.  Maybe it's a reference to the untrustworthiness of old friends or the surprisingly manipulative behavior of the heroine, or maybe it was simply an eye-catching title.

M. Ranleigh (we never know her first name) and her husband Sam bought a small house in a soon-to-gentrify neighborhood in London in the mid 1970s.  The neighborhood contained a mixture of people - young couples climbing the ladder, families which had spent generations on the dole, the outwardly respectable man carrying on an affair with the prostitute across the street while his wife was dying of cancer, and Annie Butts, a biracial woman whose Tourette's Syndrome made her vulnerable to the neighborhood bullies.  One rainy night, Annie was murdered, although the cursory police investigation deemed it an accidental death.  Mrs. Ranleigh, who discovered the dying woman, refused to accept the verdict and over the next several months spiraled into depression, anorexia, and agoraphobia, eventually leaving the area to follow her husband to an overseas posting in an attempt to salvage her marriage.

Twenty years lager, the Ranleighs return to England, and at first it looks like a coincidence that their new family doctor treated Miss Butts a quarter century earlier, and that they live within a short drive of several of their old neighbors.  As Mrs. Ranleigh casually mentions former acquaintances and as we read the notes of the doctor who treated her for post-partum depression in the early 1980s, we realize that she has spent the past two decades trying to discover who killed Annie.  Her most valuable resource are gossipy letters and e-mails from her friend Libby, the ex-wife of her husband's friend Jock, which mix news of her former neighbors with tales of her rising career and Jock's boom-and-bust lifestyle, which has has gone bust by the time the Ranleighs return to England.  

I've read several of Walters's books, and in some ways she's a darker, more violent Agatha Christie with deeper characters.  Her books center on rather gruesome crimes, and but there's always a happy ending.  Here, Walters hides the identity of the killer well enough that even though I solved the mystery with a few pages left, I was shocked to discover 'whodunnit.'  The happy ending is Ranliegh's sense of peace, and how some of the supporting characters have happier lives in 2000 than one would have expected twenty years earlier.

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