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When one reads Minette Walters' extremely insightful mysteries it is hard to believe that her first fiction writing was in the romance genre. Strange that so many mystery writers -- for example, Tami Hoag, Janet Evanovich, Charlotte Hughes and more than a few others -- dipped their toes in the tide of fiction in that genre.
Waters' first mystery, in 1992, THE ICE HOUSE, garnered for her the John Creasey Award for best first novel, THE SCULPTRESS her second and equally terrifying venture won the Edgar Award a year later. No surprise, then, that THE SCOLDıS BRIDLE took a successful stab at the Gold Dagger. ACID ROW, THE SHAPE OF SNAKES, THE DARK ROOM, THE ECHO, THE BREAKER and more latterly, FOX EVIL completed the tally until DISORDERED MINDS was released last month.
Walters, when visiting Adelaide, remarked on the strange compulsion people have to categorise books. She was amazed, when her early books were released, to discover they had been deemed cosy. No doubt she would be happier with the term psychological thriller. Certainly, her books exhibit a deep understanding of the disordered minds about which she writes. Various psychologists have applauded her insights into abnormal behaviour. A prison visitor for some years, no doubt Walters owes some of her inspiration to the prisoners whom she has encountered within jail walls.
DISORDERED MINDS touches yet again on the topic of paedophilia, although not to the extent of an earlier tale, ACID ROW. This narrative deals more with people attempting to convince others that they are what they are not, hiding their origins in an attempt to reinvent themselves. The book opens approximately 30 years in the past with a pivotal incident about which the entire plot revolves -- the rape of a 13-year-old girl by three 14-year-old boys, a rape witnessed by, and partially incited by, another 13-year-old girl and her ten-year-old brother.
In the present day, author Dr Jonathon Hughes has an appointment to meet Councillor George (short for Georgina) Gardiner. Jon has written a book entitled Disordered Minds in which he postulates, amongst other things, that Howard Stamp, a man imprisoned at about the same time as the rape, for the murder of his grandmother, was innocent. George has taken an interest in the case, being convinced of Stamp's innocence by various circumstances including conversations she had with someone who knew both grandmother, Grace Jefferies, and grandson Howard.
Jon is to meet George at a pub, the Crown and Feathers. It is a bleak day, Hughes has just returned from America where he attended the funeral of one of his students, and has had to put up with more than usual intense questioning at a security-conscious Heathrow which is surrounded by tanks. Jon, who is not very well, is not best pleased at the collection of circumstances promoting his disquiet, not the least the publican referring to him as a wog and black. Jon and
George get off on the wrong foot and it seems there will be no help for either of them from the other -- a happenstance which, fortunately, changes before long.
In an attempt to prove Stamp's innocence -- something which would not help Stamp, since he committed suicide when imprisoned but would rehabilitate his reputation -- Hughes and Gardener encounter characters from the past. They find themselves investigating the rape of Cill Trevelyan and her subsequent disappearance, seeing an involvement with the murder of the unfortunate Grace Jefferies. They are intrigued by the woman who married all three of the rapists (at different times) and wonder if this elusive Cill is the same person who was raped.
Andrew Spicer, Hughes's literary agent, is a delightful invention for this novel. Although unpretentious and unassuming, yet very clever, he, too, has a secret to protect. He acts for both George and Jonathon and does some helpful detecting on his own.
Like all of Walters's novels, this work does not hesitate to touch on unpleasant subjects -- not that murder of itself can ever be described as pleasant -- but prostitution, drug addiction, blackmail, torture and paedophilia are scarcely likely to lighten one's mood. Consistent with her previous works, this book is a stand-alone and in it are some of her most appalling characters. There is action a-plenty and the investigation of the disordered minds of the title is completely involving. The author's sharp eye and mind is able to depict people so that possibilities to be either a goodie or a baddie are evident and only in the resolution of the mystery can one decide.
Is it really necessary that we have to wait an entire year before reading the next of Minette Walters' books? I imagine other readers are as impatient as I for the next title!
Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, December 2003
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