Minette Walters’ twelfth crime novel, The Chameleon’s Shadow, has just been published in the US by Knopf. Like its eleven predecessors, it is a stand-alone novel - Walters has never followed the conventional route of creating a series detective. With each book, she creates a fresh set of characters and brand new conflicts for them. And it is a method which has succeeded brilliantly – according to her UK publishers, she is now ‘England’s bestselling female crime writer’.
The Chameleon’s Shadow opens with a brief newspaper account of the killing of an elderly man; this is quickly followed by a roadside bombing in Iraq, which leaves a British soldier, Lieutenant Charles Acland, with head injuries and a severely disfigured face. Acland has recently split from his edgy girlfriend Jen, who discloses to the police his penchant for extreme violence. After he leaves hospital, Acland becomes a suspect in an apparent case of serial killing, possibly with a homophobic motive. As he struggles to adjust to the changes in his life, he becomes acquainted with Jackson, a 250 pound lesbian weightlifter who is a locum doctor by profession and whose partner, the glamorous Daisy, runs a pub called the Bell in Bermondsey, London. A friendship develops between Acland and Jackson; meanwhile, the police net closes in. The seasoned Walters fan may well figure out the solution to the mystery in good time, but the central appeal of the book lies in its depiction of the strange relationship between Jackson and Acland.
Back in 1992, Minette Walters’ life of crime got off to a dazzling start with the publication of The Ice House, which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Memorial Award for the best crime debut of the year. Yet, although she always had a burning ambition to write, her route to fame was circuitous. She studied French at Durham University and, being ‘page-struck’ (rather than ‘stage-struck’), as she neatly describes it, she wrote while working first as a secretary and then as a barmaid, before finding a job as a magazine sub-editor. Soon she was concentrating on ‘Woman’s Weekly Library’, which published romantic novelettes. Her field was ‘hospital romances’ - she had to pick eight stories a month from a couple of hundred submissions. Because it was a struggle to find enough manuscripts of the right quality, she concocted a 30,000 word story herself, to show contributors how to combine romance with the characterisation, suspense and plotting necessary to sustain a piece of fiction of that length. Colleagues were impressed, and the upshot was that she went on to produce about 35 romantic novelettes under about ten different pseudonyms.
‘It was marvellous practice,’ she says today. ‘I looked at the mistakes other writers made, and tried to avoid them. I learned a lot from that. At the back of my mind was the recognition that you can grab the reader at the start of your story, but you also need to continue to work the reader, and come up with constant surprises. If the story tails off into a boring sequence of events, the reader will lose interest.’
Walters turned freelance with considerable success with romantic fiction, but then came marriage and children. She has always had a keen interest in politics, and she stood as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party (now subsumed within the Liberal Democrat Party) in an election for the local council at Richmond. After three recounts, she lost by a mere eleven votes. Following a house move to Romsey, her youngest son started school and at last she had time to return to writing.
When she first embarked on The Ice House, she did not plan to write more than a single crime novel. Once the book was finished, she sent it to an editor at William Heinemann who had, years before, responded encouragingly to a proposal that she’d submitted for a romance. He promptly accepted the book, only to be over-ruled by colleagues (a decision which must rank alongside the poorer publishing judgments of the past twenty years.) When she asked his advice as to what to do with the manuscript, he pointed her towards an agency specialising in crime fiction, and after a couple of years they finally found a home for the book with Macmillan; the advance was the princely sum of £1250. By that time, The Sculptress was finished.
After writing The Ice HouseWalters had, for the one and only time in her career, set out to plot a second novel. She worked out the story-line over a period of three or four months, but once she started writing it up, she found herself bored and frustrated. Preferring not to know in advance how her mysteries will develop, she created Olive Martin, a strange woman nicknamed the Sculptress, who pleaded guilty to two murders, but who might just be innocent. Walters drew on her long experience as a prison visitor in producing a stunning novel with a chilly finale, which to my mind is one of the most accomplished crime novels of the 1990s. It won an Edgar, and was promptly followed by another fascinating novel, The Scold’s Bridle, which received the CWA Gold Dagger, (as did Fox Evil in 2002.)
Walters’ method in writing a book is to focus her attention on character. She seeks to create ‘living and breathing people that I know. They have integrity as characters and therefore any obstacle or crisis that they may face, they will only deal with in one particular way. The story generates itself this way. In the beginning, there is a simple idea, which I can build upon.’
The Chameleon’s Shadow illustrates this approach. She says, ‘I was interested in American research, which suggests that a high proportion of serial killers have suffered frontal lobe damage. An example in Britain is Fred West, who was injured in a motor-bike accident before he started committing murder. It’s as if frontal lobe damage knocks the moral compass. I was also aware of a good many soldiers returning from combat overseas who had suffered injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to put these two ideas together – the wounded soldier and the consequences of frontal lobe damage – and take it from there. I tried to find the soldier’s voice, and introduced other characters associated with him – of course, there had to be a psychiatrist, and another doctor. It was a simple concept, but I felt the character was strong enough to carry the story.’
So Walters does not, unlike some crime novelists, know ‘whodunit’ and ‘howdunit’ right from the start. An almost inevitable drawback of her method is that, ‘I need to throw a good deal away. To come up with a book of, say, 110,000 words, I might need to write 160,000 words, perhaps 180,000. I compare it to making a journey from London to Glasgow. When you start out, there are a hundred different routes you can take. But the number of choices diminishes, the further you get along the road.’ It’s a philosophy she commends to would-be writers, who can easily get stuck, as liberating of the imagination: ‘It’s important not to get bogged down. This is an exciting way to write.’
So far, at least, Minette Walters has always written stand-alone novels. The only character who features in more than one book is Anne Cattrell, who first appeared in The Ice House and who is mentioned (but does not have a physical presence) in a couple of later books as author of a couple of pieces of journalism. ‘When I started out,’ Walters says, ‘my agent assumed I would produce a series, but I didn’t want to do that. I like the idea of doing original things, and the success of the early books meant that I wasn’t put under pressure to do something that I wasn’t keen on. By this time, Ruth Rendell’s books written as Barbara Vine were proving that stand-alone novels of psychological suspense could be commercially as well as artistically successful. And in a very different way, Dick Francis wrote books which usually had different central characters, even if the heroes had a great deal in common with each other.’
Walters is a huge Rendell fan. ‘She’s so prolific, and it’s amazing that she is still so consistently good. She’s head and shoulders above most other crime writers. One of her books which I greatly admire, The Master of the Moor, tends to be overlooked for some reason. But I think it’s really brilliant.’ Nor is Walters one of those modern writers who is dismissive of Agatha Christie: ‘I love her books. Endless Night is excellent, with much better characterisation than she’s usually given credit for. The Pale Horse is very good, too. And don’t forget, she invented Miss Marple – a really strong character. Her work offers real insight into the middle class society of the 1930s.’
Right from the start, Walters adopted a technique which has proved exceptionally effective. The Ice House begins with extracts from three newspaper reports about the disappearance of David Maybury, and a map of Streech village. (The latter might suggest that we are in for a straightforward homage to the Golden Age-style whodunit, but any such notion is wittily subverted on the very first page of chapter one, with mention of Anne Cattrell’s article on ‘Vaginal Orgasm – Fact or Fiction?’) Mixing conventional prose narrative with newspaper reports, police memoranda, witness statements, maps and even pictures (The Shape of Snakes) has become a hallmark of Walters’ work. She is by no means the first crime novelist to have used documents to add texture to the narrative (one thinks of Ed McBain, for instance), but she has taken the technique to a new level.
‘Remember that the original Sherlock Holmes stories had illustrations,’ she says. ‘It was simple economics that caused them to disappear. But if your eye is suddenly challenged by a different layout on the page, or even a different font, it challenges your brain, and your senses. It helps to engage the reader. And besides, with a newspaper report, for instance, you can take the story a long way forward with relatively few words, getting a lot of information across in a digestible way. There’s also the appeal of having different narrative styles, different voices. You can also add an extra dimension to the plot. In a story like The Devil’s Feather, Connie tells lies in her emails, and the reader knows it. In The Scold’s Bridle, Mathilda’s diary works backwards. It is a way of giving the dead person a voice of their own.’
Walters is very knowledgeable about ‘true crime’, admiring modern British practitioners such as Brian Masters and David Canter. If she were studying for a degree all over again, she says she would be tempted by a course in forensics or psychological profiling. Profiling fascinates her, and she makes the interesting suggestion that its success has led to a decline in serial (as opposed to spree) killing. ‘Profiling has helped the police to get on to serial killers more quickly than in the past. On its own, it isn’t enough to solve a case, but used in conjunction with other detective techniques, it can be very effective.’
Minette Walters’ range of interests helps to explain her ability to keep her writing fresh. Her shrewd deployment of literary technique is important too. But above all, it is that abiding interest in people’s motivations which enables her to create characters in whom the reader believes, and about whom we want to learn more. Even when, like Olive Martin, they are characters who inspire not so much affection, but rather anxiety, even awe. And, sometimes, alarm.
(This article first appeared in Mystery Scene.)