The Shape of Snakes

The Shape of Snakes

by Minette Walters

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A psychological thriller about race, family, and the brutal power of raw emotion.Mrs. Ranelagh has never stopped thinking about the dead body she found in the gutter twenty years ago, during Britain’s Winter of Discontent. “Mad Annie,” as she was known, was the only black resident of her West London neighborhood and openly despised by the community. The police called her death an accident, but Mrs. Ranelagh has always suspected it was murder. However, her pleas for an investigation were met with a vicious hate campaign that drove her and her husband from the country. Now, determined to uncover the truth, Mrs. Ranelagh has returned to England, where she quickly discovers a sordid trail of domestic violence, racism and adultery that shockingly could lead back to her own family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307497840
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/02/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 546,646
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Minette Walters is the author of 11 novels, 2 novellas, and a number of short stories. Her work, which has received several major awards, has been published in more than thirty-five countries, and has been adapted for television to critical acclaim.


Dorchester, Dorset, England

Date of Birth:

September 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Bishop¿s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England


B.A. in French, Dunelm (Durham University), 1971

Read an Excerpt

o n e I could never decide whether “Mad Annie” was murdered because she was mad or because she was black.We were living in southwest London at the time and I remember my shock when I came home from work one wet November evening to find her collapsed in the gutter outside our house. It was 1978-the winter of discontent-when the government lost control of the trade unions, strikes were an everyday occurrence, hospitals ceased to cater to the sick and uncollected rubbish lay in heaps along the pavement. If I hadn't recognized her old plaid coat I might have ignored her, thinking the bundle in the gutter was a heap of discarded clothes. Her real name was Ann Butts and she was the only black person in our road. She was a well-built woman with a closed expression and a strong aversion to social contact, who was known to enjoy a drink, particularly Caribbean rum, and was often to be found sitting on the pavement in the summer singing gospel hymns. She had acquired the “Mad” label because she made strange faces and muttered to herself as she scurried along in a bizarre dot-and-carry trot that suggested a child playing “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross.” Little was known about her circumstances except that she had inherited her house and a small independent income upon her mother's death and, apart from a menagerie of stray cats that had taken up residence with her, she lived alone. It was said that her mother had been madder than she was and that her father had abandoned them both because of it. One of the long-term residents of Graham Road swore blind that Mrs. Butts senior used to shout obscenities at passersby and twirl like a dervish when the mood was on her, but as Mrs. Butts had been dead some time the story had undoubtedly grown in the telling. I didn't believe it any more than I believed the rumors that Annie kept live chickens inside her house, which she killed by boiling, feathers and all, for her own and her cats' supper. It was nonsense-she bought her meat, dead, at the local supermarket like everyone else-but her close neighbors talked about rats in her garden and a terrible smell coming from her kitchen, and the story of live chickens was born. I always said she couldn't have rats and cats, but no one wanted to hear the voice of reason.The same neighbors made life difficult for her by reporting her regularly to the local council, the RSPCA and the police, but nothing came of their complaints because the council couldn't force her out of her own house, the cats were not ill-treated and she wasn't mad enough to be committed to an institution. Had there been family and friends to support her, she might have taken her harassers to court, but she was a solitary person who guarded her privacy jealously. At various times health visitors and social workers made unsuccessful attempts to persuade her into sheltered accommodations, and once a week the local vicar knocked on her door to make sure she was still alive. He was always cursed loudly for his trouble from an upstairs window, but he took it in stride, despite Annie's refusal to go anywhere near his church. I knew her only by sight because we lived at the other end of the road but I never understood why the street took against her so strongly. My husband said it had to do with property values, but I couldn't agree with him. When we moved onto Graham Road in 1976 we had no illusions about why we could afford it. It had a Richmond postcode but it was very definitely “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Built for laborers in the 1880s, it was a double row of two-up, two-down terraced housing off the A316 between Richmond and Mortlake, and no one who bought a house there expected to make a fortune overnight, particularly as council-owned properties were seeded among the privately owned ones. They were easily identified by their uniform yellow doors and were looked down on by those of us who'd bought our houses because at least two of them held problem families. Personally, I thought the way the children treated Annie was a better barometer of the adults' feelings. They teased her mercilessly, calling her names and aping her dot-and-carry trot in a cruel demonstration of their right to feel superior, then ran away with squeals of fear if their pestering irritated her enough to make her raise her head and glare at them. It was a form of bearbaiting. They goaded her because they despised her, but they were also afraid of her.In retrospect, of course, I wish I'd taken up cudgels on her behalf but, like everyone else who stayed silent, I assumed she could take care of herself. Certainly the children weren't alone in finding her intimidating. On the one occasion when I made an attempt to speak to her, she rounded on me angrily, calling me “honky,” and I didn't have the courage to try again. Once in a while afterward I would come out of my front door to find her staring up at our house, but she scampered off the minute she saw me and my husband warned me not to antagonize her any further. I told him I thought she was trying to say “sorry,” but he laughed and said I was naïve.On the night she died a freezing rain was falling. The hunched trees that lined the pavements were black and sodden with water and made the street look very grim as I turned onto it from the main road. On the other side, a couple paused briefly under one of the few lampposts, then separated, the man to walk ahead, the woman to cross on a diagonal in front of me. I pulled up my coat collar to shield my face from the stabbing rain before stepping off the curb to run through sheets of water toward my house.I found Annie lying on the edge of the yellow lamplight in a space between two parked cars and I remember wondering why the couple hadn't noticed her. Or perhaps they had chosen to ignore her, believing, as I did, that she was drunk. I stooped to rock her shoulder but the movement caused her to cry out and I stepped back immediately. She lay with her head cradled in her arms, her knees drawn up tight against her chin and I assumed she was protecting herself from the rain. She smelled powerfully of urine, and I guessed she'd had an accident, but I shrank from the responsibility of cleaning her up and told her instead that I was going home to call for an ambulance.Did she think I wouldn't come back? Is that what persuaded her to uncradle her poor head and lift her pain-filled eyes to mine? I have no idea if that was the moment she died-they said afterward it probably was, because her skull was so badly fractured that any movement would have been dangerous-but I do know I will never experience such an intense intimacy with another human being again. I felt everything she felt-sorrow, anguish, despair, suffering-most poignantly, her complete bewilderment about why anyone would want to kill her. “Was I unlovable?” she seemed to be asking. “Was I unkind? Was I less deserving because I was different?” Many hours later, the police questioned my incoherent ramblings. Did Miss Butts actually say these things? No. Did she accuse someone directly? No. Did she speak at all? No. Did you see anyone run away? No. So there's no evidence to support your assertion of murder other than a puzzled look in her eyes? No. I couldn't blame them for being skeptical. As they pointed out, it was unlikely I could have interpreted Annie's look with any accuracy. Sudden death was always difficult to come to terms with because the emotions surrounding it are complex. They tried to convince me it was heightened imagination following my shock at finding her and offered me post-traumatic stress counseling to get over it. I refused. I was only interested in justice. As far as I was concerned, whatever residual shock I felt would vanish the minute Annie's murderer or murderers were caught and convicted.They never were. The coroner's verdict, based on the postmortem results and witness statements taken during a two-week police investigation, was death by misadventure. He painted a picture of a woman whose hold on reality was poor even when she was sober but who, on the night in question, had been drinking heavily. Her blood showed a high level of alcohol and she was seen staggering around the road by passing motorists and several neighbors. One said he had tried to persuade her to go home but gave up when she started swearing at him. Her injuries-in particular the fractures to her skull and broken left arm-were consistent with a glancing blow from a heavy vehicle, probably a truck, which had thrown her between the stationary cars and against the lamppost as it passed. Due to the heavy rainfall that night, it was unsurprising that no blood, hair or tissue traces were discovered on the lamppost. The fact that no driver had come forward to admit liability was not considered significant either. It was dark, pouring with rain, parked vehicles restricted visibility and the street lighting was inadequate.With a critical reference to council officers who allowed badly lit streets in poorer areas to become rat-runs for heavy traffic, the coroner endorsed the police view that Miss Butts had stumbled off the pavement into the side of a passing truck without, in all probability, the driver being aware of the contact. It was impossible to establish when the accident occurred, although due to the seriousness of Miss Butts's injuries it was doubtful she could have survived more than fifteen to thirty minutes.It was a sad case, the coroner said, which highlighted the need to have an element of compulsion in the treatment of vulnerable people in a modern society. There was clear evidence-the squalid state of her house when the police entered it the day after her death; her alcohol dependency-that she was unable to look after herself properly, and it was his opinion that if social services and health workers had been able to force Miss Butts to accept help, she would still be alive today. The witness who found Miss Butts's body had alleged a racist campaign against Miss Butts by her neighbors, but there was no evidence to support this and the coroner accepted that her neighbors' actions had been prompted only by concern for her welfare. In conclusion and despite the same witness's emotional insistence that Miss Butts had been delib-erately pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle, the coroner's verdict was unequivocal. Death by misadventure. Case closed . . . I fell ill shortly afterward and took to my bed for several days. I told the doctor who came to see me that I had the flu, but he diagnosed depression and prescribed tranquilizers, which I refused to take. I became frightened of the telephone; every sound from the road had me jumping out of my chair. My husband, Sam, was initially sympathetic but soon lost interest when I began sleeping in the spare room and talking about rats in the downstairs lavatory. Thereafter, I developed mild agoraphobia and found it harder and harder to go to work. I was a teacher at a local comprehensive school and my overburdened colleagues were even less sympathetic than Sam when I said I felt stifled by the way the children crowded around me in the corridor. After a few weeks I ceased going in altogether.The whole episode-from Annie's death to the loss of my job-caused a rift between me and Sam, who walked delicately around me for weeks, then took to speaking to my mother for hours on the telephone. He was careful to close the door but I could still hear most of his conversation through the paper-thin walls on the rare occasions when I bothered to listen. The phrases repeated most often were “impossible to live with . . .” “having a nervous breakdown . . .” “got a thing about rats . . .” “stupid fuss over a bloody black woman . . .” and “divorce . . .”Some time in February my parents drove up from Hampshire where they were then living. Sam had moved out three weeks previously to sleep on a friend's sofa, and our marriage was effectively over. Wisely, my father refused to get involved, but my mother couldn't resist taking Sam's part. She comes from that generation of women who believe that marriage is the key to a woman's happiness and she told me in no uncertain terms that if I was determined to reject Sam then I needn't look to her and my father for support. As she pointed out, I'd been deserted by my friends because my behavior was so peculiar. . . . I was rapidly becoming anorexic. . . . I had no job . . . worse, no prospect of a job while I remained firmly closeted in the house. What was I planning to do? Where was I planning to go?I expressed only mild annoyance that she believed everything Sam told her, and suggested she question a man's honesty for once in her life. It was like a red flag to a bull.We couldn't talk about sex-or lack of it, Sam's real bone of contention with me-because it was a taboo subject between us, so instead she lectured me on the way I was letting myself go, my failure to cook proper meals for my hardworking husband, my lackluster approach to cleaning the house and inevitably my absurd obsession with the death of a colored person. “There might be some sense in it if she'd been one of us,” she finished tartly, “but she wasn't even English . . . just another wretched immigrant living off benefit and clogging up the health service with imported diseases. Why we ever let them in, I can't imagine, and for you to jeopardize your marriage-” She broke off abruptly. “Can't you see how ridiculous you're being?” I couldn't, but it wasn't something I was prepared to discuss with her. Predictably, my silence persuaded her she'd won the argument when all she'd really achieved was to prove to me how little I cared about anyone's opinion but my own. In an odd way her complete lack of sympathy was more liberating than distressing because it made me realize that control rests with whomever worries least about being seen to exercise it, and with cold deliberation I agreed to mend fences with my husband if only to keep a roof over my head. Three months later, Sam and I moved abroad.

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Shape of Snakes 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Shape of Snakes is an example of superb writing skills. Not a word or page was wasted with unnecessary filler. The weaving of letters, documents, and clippings in a reverse chonological order throughout the journey is brilliant! The diverse characters are developed in a way to make you interested in each of their personal stories (regardless of their lot in life). And as the story unfolds you find yourself swept into a frenzy of emotions, that force you to read slowly to feel every word. The complexity, duplicity and self serving nature of humans is truly disturbing. I am looking forward to reading my next Ms. Walter's book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One part of me feels cheated, you go through all that just to a suspicion and not a conviction. But another tells me that this is what makes the story unique, a class of its own. It reminds you that life is a continuous evolution and sometimes the bad gets away with it and the good are left with heartaches. I was left with wanting integrity to be restored in the memory of Annie, and for justice to serve its purpose.A searingly articulate psychological tale in which manners and other forms of civility slowly succumb to painful, repulsive emotion. An overwhelming main character consumed with the need for the truth and a tightly coiled plot that whiplashes with brutal effectiveness was handily created by Walters. The conclusion comes to a screeching halt by suddenly shedding the novel in an entirely different illumination that you are left wondering whether lightning had struck you from behind. With this obscure and engrossing story of passion and revenge, Walters proves that she is in her own refinement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Firstly, the book is finely crafted, using various techniques to bring you into the minds of characters without the pretension of the omniscient author. Secondly, besides the primary story, there are several lateral stories using all the characters that is truly masterful. Thirdly, the characters are absolutely fascinating...besides the positively magnetic storyline that brings you along strongly, yet subtlely. It's not a quick read because you don't want it to end, yet you are dying to bring it to conclusion. I bought it at Mysterious Ink on a 'Reader Recommended' shelf, and I was thrilled to discover such a gifted author. I have quickly recommended it to my daughters who also have been excitedly reading it. Kudos to Ms. Walters! from one who one the look out for more!
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1978 England, schoolteacher, M Raneleigh finds her neighbor Ann Butts dying in the street. M believes someone murdered ¿Mad Annie¿, the only black person in the neighborhood. The police insist this was a hit and run in which the driver never knew they hit Mad Annie due to the nasty weather. Though Annie once called her a honky and was often seen talking to herself, M still feels something isn¿t Kosher about Annie¿s death. In her efforts to find out the truth, M becomes agoraphobic, anorexic, and a rift with her husband Sam occurs.

Not long afterward, the Raneleighs reconcile and head overseas for the next two decades. When Sam suffers a heart attack, the Raneleighs, accompanied by their two teenage sons, return home. When M meets Annie¿s former doctor, Sheila Arnold, her interest resurfaces because she still believes that a homicide occurred. Sheila informs her that Ann was a nice person suffering from Tourette¿s Syndrome but kept a neat home with many valuable items inside. This goes against what the police report say about Annie living in squalor-like conditions. The doctor was in America when Ann died. M tries to rekindle interest in a closed case with no one else wanting it open.

THE SHAPE OF SNAKES is a superb mystery that centers on the characters who feel very genuine in 1978 and two decades later. The ignorance towards Tourette's Syndrome and the bias towards blacks are cleverly included in M¿s ¿investigation.¿ which is why Annie¿s disease and race make it easier to whitewash the case. Minette Walters keeps the audience guessing as to whether it was murder or an accident and that is the reason this literary mystery is a one sitting read.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JessLucy More than 1 year ago
Love, love, love it. The Shape of Snakes and the Devil's Feather are my two favorites by Minette Walters. This book is thrilling, original and flawlessly written. Love the premise, the characters and the style of this novel.
I would also recommend Acid Row and Disordered Minds by the same author; as well as Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, anything by Lee Child, End in Tears and Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell, and anything by Barbara Vine.
Romonko on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Awesome, but hard to read. Ms. Walters covers all the bases of families in trouble and disfunctional families. We have murder, rape, assault, family violence, robbery and racial hatred. That by no means covers all the things that are uncovered with the death of a mentally handicapped negro woman in 1978 in London. The woman who found Annie Butts is the one whose point of view this book is written from and it shows the terrible price that she paid for pursuing the truth about Annie's story. The woman we know as Mrs. Ranleigh sacrifices everything in her life because of her ardent desire to see justice done for Annie. She spends 20 years, both in and out of the country trying to untangle what happened. It appeared that the police were no longer interested, and weren't even that interested when Annie was found dead. Mrs. Ranleigh suspects police corruption and racism were at play with this death. This book is powerfully and honestly written by an author who is at the top of her game. I have learned to expect the unexpected with Ms. Walters and this book was no different. I absolutely loved this book and it's my favourite so far of all of hers that I've read.
judithann on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked the alternation of text with letters and emails. I did not like the fact that we never got to know the first name of the main character: what purpose did that serve? Also I thought she was way too obsessed with the accident/murder and if the letter at the end, where Annie writes she wants to be her friend, should explain why she was so obsessed, well, it didn't work for me. Also I found the plot too "fluid", M. gave us all her different interpretations of what had happened, but then at the end it turned out to be quite different again. This was annoying. I also thought the writing was not too good (this could only be partially due to the translation, if at all).All in all, I did want to read to the end, but I was not very impressed by the book.[I read the Nederlandse edition: De vorm van slangen.]
hazelle123 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It made me cry in some parts - it was actually quite distressing, and the ending was so unexpected. The pictures and letters gave it a realistic twist and Iwas rooting for Mad Annie to the end. The comeuppance of all the baddies is very comforting . A most enjoyable read.
catarina1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first book iIhave read by this author. I thought her style was quite good. But I was appalled by the explicit animal cruelty - it was really not necessary to the plot and purposely stopped reading whenever I sensed some horrible description was going to occur. I don't need to have nightmares from my reading. I'll probably read other books by this author since iIsense that she has exhausted this topic - at least I hope she has.
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