Frequently described as Britain’s queen of crime, Minette Walters often uses the South West as the backdrop for her award-winning novels.She tells Rebecca Gooch about her fascination with people, why she loves Dorset, and recommends her favouritereads for a train journey…
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Daily Express Review by Barry Forshaw
With nary a false step, Minette Walters has been burnishing her reputation as one of the most powerful yet nuanced practitioners of the psychological thriller, and The Devil’s Feather will do her reputation no harm. Actually, Walters’ winning streak has been continuing for an unfeasibly long time, with each succeeding book slightly more ambitious than its predecessor. Walters has been building a total picture of modern Britain that cuts across all social strata, while still using the apparatus of the crime novel. Since pocketing the Creasey Award for her debut novel, The Ice House, in 1992, such books as Fox Evil and Acid Row have demonstrated Walters’ assurance with a variety of social groups (upper middle class or council estate), while Disordered Minds reached into darker areas of the human psyche. And now the unthinkable is being quietly whispered: has Minette Walters hijacked the title of Britain's crime queen from long-time joint holders Ruth Rendell and P D James?
The Devil’s Feather is solid fuel for this argument – not least because Walters has tackled a more ambitious international panoply than before. Five women have been savagely killed in Sierra Leone, and Connie Burns, who works as a correspondent for Reuters, expresses doubts when three youthful rebel soldiers are arraigned for the crimes. But her objections are disregarded – this is, after all, a murderous civil war in which the slaughter has been wholesale, and the fate of three brutalised children forced into phoney confessions is academic. Connie comes to believe that the killer is a foreigner with sadistic sexual predilections, cutting his own bloody swathe under the cover of a war-torn country. But her attempts to track down the killer in Iraq have horrifying results for Connie, and she escapes from her prey-turned-predator back to England, humiliated, her mind and body pushed to their extremes. Burrowing into seclusion in Dorset, Connie knows all too well that her safety is fragile, and that a final, horrific confrontation is inevitable.
All of this couldn’t be further from the cosy Home Counties mystery that gently comforts the reader; Walters is in the business of disturbing us, but not merely out of a desire to shock. As ever, truthful characterisation is paramount (Connie is a fully-rounded, conflicted heroine with whom it’s impossible not to identify), and there are truths spoken here about what war does to societies, and about the English social conscience (Connie is a prime possessor of this attribute).
Most refreshing of all, however, is Minette Walters’ readiness to tackle larger themes than her more parochial English peers. For some time now, American crime writing has been built on a larger scale than that that forged on these shores: the canvases more continent-spanning, the characters more voracious in their appetites, the stakes generally higher. It’s apparent that Walters has decided to strike out into this more demanding arena (and why, after all, should the Yanks have exclusive rights to this territory?). There may be moments when Walters seems to have bitten off more than she can chew, but she always keeps the narrative momentum of The Devil’s Feather cranked up to a fierce degree, and her heroine, the beleaguered Connie, is the perfect conduit for the reader through a dangerous landscape.
Like the other Brit queens of crime, Rendell and James, Walters has always been read by men (other female crime writers often target a female readership only); but with this book, she resolutely joins such American specialists in the extreme as Tess Gerritsen, whose books feature female protagonists in scenarios that are perfectly tough enough for the most astringent male tastes.
Minette Walters is one of this country’s most successful crime writers. Her first three novels – The Ice House, The Sculptress and The Scold’s Bridle – all won major awards, securing her position as the Queen of British crime fiction. She took time out from her busy schedule to talk to CJS Now about murders, motives and mystery.
“My interest in crime started very young – I always used to read the court reports in the paper. One of the earliest cases I remember was James Hanratty’s conviction. I was about 10 and I was fascinated by the motive – what could have made him do this? I also discovered Agatha Christie and from there, have always loved crime fiction; I think it’s my desire to solve the puzzle combined with my interest in real cases that makes crime writing perfect for me.
“I actually wanted to join the police force when I left university but I discovered I was too short – I’m only 5ft1½” and you had to be 5ft4“ in those days! In addition to this – there may be something in my genes – my great great grandfather was Joshua Jebb. Those of you who know HMP Brixton, on Jebb Avenue, will recognise the name. He was the Knight Surveyor General of Convict Prisons and was behind the building of what were then, very modern prisons like Pentonville.
“I’ve become very interested in prison reform and that led to me becoming a prison visitor for 12 years at HMP Winchester – I really did learn a lot from that and found it fascinating to talk to people with such different experiences from myself. And I think prison officers do such a fantastic job. I’m so impressed with the way they control the prisoners and how much respect they command. When you compare them to their American counterparts in towers with search lights and guns, I think our lot are very impressive and deserve more recognition.
“Lots of my readers are police officers. I think they like the fact that I make everyone very human – no-one is all good or all bad and this reflects what they see in their work. Police officers can get angry or traumatised by what they see – why shouldn’t they? The books explore the agony of murder for everybody involved.
“PD James once said that crime drama is popular because it’s about moral certainty – good triumphs over evil. There is an element of this I think, but in my books, where the settings are families and communities which people can relate to, people like getting to know the characters and trying to unravel the mystery. I also think we are attracted to the bad guy and like the thrill of reading things that horrify us – look at Hannibal Lecter!!
“I definitely think we need to improve the public’s understanding of the criminal justice system. Most people only know about it by reading and watching fiction so I think writers have a real responsibility to try and be as accurate as possible.
“I’ve just delivered my eleventh book, The Devil’s Feather, which is due out in the autumn. The expression is Turkish and refers to a woman who arouses a man’s attention without realising it. It got me thinking about the phenomenon of stranger stalkers – people who become completely obsessive about a person but the object of this obsession has no idea. The story takes the reader round the world but you’ll have to wait until the book is published to find out more!”