Minette Walters' earliest connection with the mystery genre may be her education at Godolphin -- the same boarding school that Agatha Christie had attended before her. You can't claim much more of a pedigree for being a mystery writer than that, She studied modern languages at the University of Durham. For a number of years she worked for a publisher as an editor of romantic fiction titles. She also wrote novelettes of 35,000 to 40,000 words in her spare time.
In 1977 she became a full-time writer. At first she wrote short stories and romance novels because she knew they would sell easily. It was not until she was 47, married, and had two children at school full-time, that she was able to pursue her main aim -- to write crime novels.
Walters is a "prison visitor" at Winchester Prison where she talks to inmates. She says that she does so solely because she "enjoys it" and not to gather material for her books, which she emphasizes are "fantasies" not meant to reflect the realities of crime and detection. But the knowledge she has gained of how ordinary people can do terrible things to one another has obviously contributed to the depth and realism of her novels. In a country where 75% of murders are domestic, her books focus on domestic murders and the "seething discontent under the respectable facade" of dysfunctional families that can erupt into murder. In her words, "a dysfunctional family is a dangerous family."
Her first mystery novel was The Ice House (1992) and it was a brilliant first effort. The story is set at Streech Grange, where three women live in virtual seclusion, shunned by most of the villagers who believe that the owner, Phoebe Maybury, got away with murder when her husband "disappeared" ten years ago. Furthermore, local gossip reports that the three friends are lesbians and/or witches. When the decomposing body of an unidentifiable man is discovered in their ice house, Inspectors Walsh and McLoughlin, both very hostile to the women, come to investigate. Is the body that of the missing husband? Whoever it is, was he murdered? And if so, by who?
While the novel's setting resembles that of a traditional British "cozy" it does not belong in that category. The plot is much more complex than most cozies. The sexual element is far more intense than that of any cozy, although there is nothing at all pornographic about it. This is a powerful novel in which ferocious passions seethe just beneath a proper surface.
The second Walters novel I read was The Scold's Bridle (19). This novel presents a perverse twist on the traditional English village mystery -- complete with snoopy neighbors and skeleton's in everyone's closets. It tells the story of Mathilda Gillespie, a much-disliked resident of the English village of Fontwell, who is found dead in her bathtub with her wrists slit and a "scold's bridle" -- a medieval torture instrument -- locked on her head. Is it suicide or murder? Mathilda's diaries reveal a previously unsuspected history of child abuse.
Like all of Walters' novels, The Scold's Bridle provides a great deal of insight into her characters and their possible motives. The resolution of one of her novels is seldomn what you expect from a mystery novel. It is more than just a question of whodunnit or how it was done -- neither of which is especially hard to figure out in this novel. In this novels denouement, an abrupt twist reveals much that you have read about Mathilda and those around her in an entirely new light.
The third of her novels that I read was The Shape of Snakes (2002). The protagonist of the story is Mrs. Ranelagh, who had twenty years before found her neighbor "Mad Annie" Butts dying in a gutter. The police took little interest in the fate of a Black women they regarded as "crazy" (she suffered from Tourette's syndrome) and quickly decided that Annie's death was due to a drunken accident. Mrs. Ranelagh, however, was convinced that Annie was murdered. When she tried to tell the police of her suspicions, the investigating officer conspired with her husband, mother, and neighbors to write her off as a neurotic with a persecution complex. She has spent most of the intervening years living in Hong Kong, but now she's back and she intends to learn the truth and maybe get some payback.
This is Minette Walters writing, so it isn't simply a cold case investigation. For one thing, the reader can't be certain of Mrs. Ranelagh's motivations - why is she so committed to learning the truth and what secret is she concealing herself? As she confronts her old neighbors, one by one, we get to know each in greater depth than the typical mystery novel suspects. Some are vicious, violent racists and some others just appear to be. All, including her husband, have secrets that give them powerful reasons to conceal what they know about the events leading to Miss Butts' death. In the end, she uncovers painful truths, not only about her neighbors and her family, but about herself as well and the murderer, while revealed, proves to have been only one of the many people who actually contributed to poor Annie's demise. This is a great read, absorbingly written and with a new twist or puzzle every few pages. It is a sad, even emotionally distressing, tale and its conclusion, while satisfactory, is not a happy one.
Acid Row (2003) came next for me. It presented a surprisingly different sort of storytelling from the preceding novels. It contained the same well-drawn characters and settings I had come to expect but the pace of the story was faster and the emphasis on group dynamics over individual character was far stronger than in the previous novels.
Bassindale Estate (nicknamed "Acid Row" by those who live there) is a rundown council estate (the British term for public housing) overrun by drug dealers, drunks and youth gangs. Its residents are unwed mothers, the unemployed, and ailing pensioners.
One of those residents is Melanie Patterson -- a young mother who is alarmed when she learns that the authorities have moved a convicted pedophile onto the estate. When a young girl goes missing, suspicion immediately falls on two men who have recently moved next door to Melanie. Acid Row's residents hold a protest march around the estate to demand that these men be moved out. Fear fueled by alcohol soon turns the protest into a riot.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sophie Morrison, a dedicated young physician who serves the residents of Acid Row, has been called to the home of the two men, one of whom is having an asthma attack. The patient is the suspected pedophile and the other, his violent father, decides to hold her as insurance against the protesters, who are now outside their door. Sophie is terrorized as she faces acts of violence in the house and is endangered by firebombs thrown by the enraged rioters.
As usual, with a novel by Minette Walters, the story has a great ending with a nice twist. It differs from her usual in being more thriller than mystery and more a study of the madness of crowds than an examination of individual psychology.
The most recent of her novels that I have read is her ninth, Fox Evil (2006). While this novel returns to more familiar territory of the mystery in a classic rural English setting, Ms. Walters gives it a unique twist and builds suspense to a far greater degree than your traditional "village cozy" mystery. In some ways it reminds me of a darker, more contemporary thriller with the sense of threat that characterized Margery Allingham's Sweet Danger (1933). Fox Evil is a study in sadistic manipulation and psychological torture. Like most of Ms. Walters' novels it is more than a mystery although the identity of a murderer is revealed and more than a thriller although it contains perils and thrills aplenty.
Set in Shenstead, a small rural community in the southwest of England, it concerns Col. James Lockyer-Fox who is suspected by his neighbors in the mysterious death of his wife, Ailsa. Since her death he has been the victim of a telephone harassment campaign by unknown persons accusing him not only of the murder but of other heinous crimes as well. Accusations that he refuses to challenge. Because he's guilty? Because those other crimes gave him a motive for murder? His solicitor (lawyer) and his granddaughter struggle to convince the old man to fight against his attackers as the intensity of the harassment intensifies, As usual, the author rounds out the novel with a number of subplots, including confrontations between fox hunters and hunt saboteurs and between the old established residents and their new city-bred neighbors, all of which are tied together in the resolution of the story.
"Fox evil", by the way, is an ancient name for baldness, most particularly applied to a form in which the hair loss occurs in mangy patches. There are two characters named Fox in this novel and it is not clear until the conclusion whether it is one or both that is aptly described as evil.