The Shape of Snakes

Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
When Mad Annie, the one black resident in London's seedy Graham Road, is found dead in the street, the official verdict is that she was struck by a truck. Mrs Ranelagh is sure Annie was murdered, but her attempts to force an investigation are met with a hate campaign that makes her and her husband leave the country. The Shape of Snakes starts with her return twenty years later, determined to uncover the truth and to obtain justice — or perhaps revenge. Her investigation reveals a sorry morass of domestic violence, adultery, delinquency, cat torture, and racism, but with some surprising twists and turns in the way we perceive those involved. This keeps us on our toes, and Walters maintains the suspense throughout while building to a satisfying resolution.

The first-person narrative of The Shape of Snakes is broken up by documents, letters, and statements of various kinds, which provide our only alternative source of information when we start to wonder just how much the narrator's account is concealing. We never learn her first name — she is just M. — and she remains surprisingly distant: she is focused on maintaining control of events and not at all self-reflective, so we have to learn about her though her relationships with others, with her parents and husband as well as the residents of Graham Road. The Shape of Snakes is also a fascinating depiction of a community and change within that community. Walters paints a bleak portrait of 1978 London suburbia, of race and class conflict and police corruption, as well as of changes over the following twenty years, of changing attitudes and the gentrification of suburbs.

The Shape of Snakes is I think my favourite of Minette Walters' novels — and certainly one of the most original and compelling works of crime fiction I have read for some time.

December 2001

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%T The Shape of Snakes
%A Walters, Minette
%I Allen & Unwin
%D 2000
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 1865084697
%P 380pp