CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 9, No. 11
THE CHAMELEON'S SHADOW
A scar-faced suspect,
a lesbian doctor and us
By RON MILLER
One reason I can think of to explain why Minette Walters is now the No. 1 most popular British mystery/crime writer is the fact that when you read one of her novels, you don't get that feeling you've been down this road before.
The lady is original. Nobody walks these roads quite like she does, although the great and ever-resourceful Ruth Rendell may have paved the way for Walters with her many psychological murder mysteries written under the name of her alter ego, Barbara Vine.
Take Walters' latest novel, for instance: "The Chameleon's Shadow" (Knopf, $24.95). Its central character is Lt. Charles Acland, an Iraqi war veteran whose command vehicle was blown to pieces by insurgents, killing two of his best men and leaving him severely mutilated, missing an eye, his face heavily scarred on one side, and suffering from persistent migraine headaches.
This man has so much attitude when he finally returns to society that crowds of people part like the waters did for Moses as soon as they get a glimpse of his hideous scowl. If you should happen to touch him, he might turn on you and throttle you. Cashiered on a pension by the Army, he's a walking time bomb in contemporary London.
He now hates the very sight of his girl friend, Jennifer Morley, to whom he was engaged to be married before shipping out to Iraq. She's a fetching lass who, in the right light, looks almost identical to the movie star Uma Thurman (casting directors please note). She comes to visit him in the hospital before he's fully recovered--and he nearly strangles her in a blinding rage!
He has taken a severe dislike to ALL women, as a matter of fact, and can't even abide the presence of his own mother.
As I guess you can tell, Charles Acland isn't your traditional mystery/suspense hero, especially once the London police begin to connect him with a series of unsolved murders of gay men. Still recuperating, but no longer confined to a hospital, Charles is placed under the supervision of Dr. Jackson, a huge, muscular behemoth of a woman who consults to various agencies, spends much of her time body-building and operates a pub with her girl friend, Daisy.
Only the fertile mind of Minette Walters might conjure up such a team: A scar-faced, one-eyed ex-warrior and a hulking lesbian. Watching Charles and Jackson gain respect for each other is much of the fun of reading "The Chameleon's Shadow," but the fact that you also don't know if Charles is a serial killer or not until the very end of the book is also quite tantalizing.
Is Jackson just the watchdog chaparone for Charles or are they kind of working together to discover who's really behind the brutal murders? Nyah, nyah! I'm not telling. Walters does a marvelous job of keeping you guessing all the way through her extraordinarily twisty and turny story and I'm not about to spoil anybody's fun.
Walters' title is a pretty good clue. A chameleon, of course, is a creature that can fool you into thinking he's something other than what you think he is. We meet a number of chameleons along the way and so we're constantly trying to penetrate psychological disguises to discover the real critter behind the various masks.
We also are taken on quite an adventurous tour of London's sub-cultures, meeting call girls and streetwalkers, dopeheads, homeless veterans, vicious young punks and plodding policemen and such as Charles and Jackson search for the truth behind all the lies that have piled up in police reports.
I won't say more, but if you've loved such classic Walters novels as "The Sculptress," "The Echo," "The Shape of Snakes" and so many more, you won't need to hear anything further to know she's done it again with "The Chameleon's Shadow."
©2008 by Ron Miller. The book cover illustration is courtesy of Knopf. This column first posted March 17, 2008.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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