November 1978. Britain is on strike. The dead lie unburied, rubbish piles in the streets and somewhere is West London a black woman dies in a rain-soaked gutter. Her passing would have gone unmourned but for the young woman who finds her and who believes apparently against reason that Annie was murdered. But whatever the truth about Annie whether she was as mad as her neighbours claimed, whether she lived in squalor as the police said something passed between her and Mrs Ranelagh in the moment of death which binds this one woman to her cause for the next twenty years. But why is Mrs Ranelagh so convinced it was murder when by her own account Annie died without speaking? And why would any woman spend twenty painstaking years uncovering the truth unless her reasons are personal ...?
Minette Walters is as much exterminator as novelist. With uncomfortable accuracy, her novels bring to the surface those creepy, crawly parts of the human psyche that most of us would rather keep hidden. Articulate, clever, and acutely observant, she eschews the standard trappings of psychological suspense and presents characters both vulnerable and deeply unpleasant.
Twenty years ago, M. Ranelagh found her Graham Road neighbor dying in a gutter. "Mad Annie" Butts, long persecuted for being black and for suffering from Tourette's syndrome, had had her skull shattered. So deeply did Annie's death--ruled an accident--affect M. that she has spent the last two decades secretly amassing proof that it was murder, and that the murderer lived in Graham Road. Her collection of evidence faithfully teases out the serpentine deceptions--and self-deceptions--woven into Annie's death; husband Sam, neighbors, friends, family, police, all are grist for the mill of M.'s occasionally unscrupulous research:
I suppose everyone has a pet subject that triggers their anger--with me it was my mother's wicked talent for stirring, with Sam it was his fear of Mad Annie and everything her death represented: the mask of respectability that overlaid the hatreds and the lies. He always hoped, I think, in a rather free interpretation of the karma principle, that if he refused to look beneath a surface then the surface was the reality. But he could never rid himself of the fear that he was wrong.
Although M.'s investigations focus on her neighbors (who range from eccentric to downright evil), they reveal just as much about her. Crafty, manipulative, and seething with rage, she carefully constructs her revenge on an unidentified murderer--and, one suspects, on the frustrations and limitations that define her own life.
The Shape of Snakes is both a gripping thriller and a stunning novel. Don't be surprised if it works its way into your library of favorites. --Kelly Flynn