Minette Walters

Minette Walters

The Shape of Snakes.... Snakes come in a very wide variety of shapes
Jefferson Chase

25 April 2014

Publication: Issue 119

We usually think of the sleuth as someone who goes chasing after the truth, but in fact the top literary sleuths - much like authors - are provocateurs who force the truth out of people reluctant to reveal it. A perfect example is Minette Walter's disturbingly excellent 2000 crime novel The Shape of Snakes.

Snakes is written in the first person, and the sleuth is a middle-aged woman named Mrs Ranelagh, but don't expect Miss Marple. Right from the opening words, Walters pulls no punches:

I could never decide whether 'Mad Annie' was murdered because she was mad or because she was black….I remember my shock when I came home from work one wet November evening to find her collapsed in the gutter outside our house…If I hadn't recognised her old plaid coat I might have ignored her, thinking the bundle in the gutter was a heap of discarded clothes.

The time was 1978. Annie Potts was the only black person living in a street in Southwest London, and she had Tourette's Syndrome as well, making her a double target for her neighbour's cruelty.

Although Annie's injuries clearly point to assault, racist police officials at the time found that she had been hit by a car. Mrs. Ranelagh protested, which only made the authorities, her neighbours and even her own family think that she had gone soft in the head.

Years later she is still enraged at what happened and returns to England from the Far East to set the record straight. That includes confronting the police detective who presided over the miscarriage of justice:

Snakes is a book full of fury - and sadness as the reality of an unfortunate woman's death is revealed.

What none of the novel's protagonists, who would like to keep the past buried, realize is that Mrs. Ranelagh knows for certain that Annie was murdered. The initial impetus in chain of conclusions about what must have actually taken place is her husband's loose tongue in a moment of drunkenness:

Sam had drowned himself in whisky while stomping about the room, lecturing me on my behavior. Most of it…washed over me. Some of it did not, particularly when he started feeling sorry for himself at three o´clock in the morning…Half the bloody road had seen the stupid woman roaring around like a bear. All he did was agree with them.

The tension is the novel comes not from the question of whether a murder has been committed, but what precisely the avenging angel Mrs Ranelagh knows and how she will force the truth out of everyone else.

Unlike most crime writers, Walters does not write series. Each one of her novels is stand-alone, and Snakes is her most intense work, featuring racism, drunkenness, psychological warfare and even torture of animals. In the end it remains open whether Annie was killed because she was black or because she was mad. Questions like that are often very difficult to answer where hate crimes are concerned. But it's clear that snakes come in a very wide variety of shapes indeed.

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