Minette Walters: The Chameleon’s Shadow

>>When Lieutenant Charles Acland is flown home from Iraq
with serious head injuries, he faces not only permanent
disfigurement but also an apparent change to his previously
outgoing personality. Crippled by migraines, and suspicious
of his psychiatrist, he begins to display sporadic bouts of aggression,
particularly against women, especially his ex-fiancee who seems
unable to accept that the relationship is over. After his injuries
prevent his return to the army, he cuts all ties with his former
life and moves to London. Alone and unmonitored,
he sinks into a private world of guilt and paranoid distrust …until
a customer annoys him in a Bermondsey pub …Out of control
and only prevented from killing the man by the
intervention of a 250-pound female weightlifter
called Jackson, he attracts the attention of police
who are investigating three ‘gay’ murders in the
Bermondsey area which appear to have been motivated
by extreme rage…Under suspicion, Acland is forced
to confront the real issues behind his isolation.
How much control does he have over the dark side
of his personality? Do his migraines contribute to his
rages? Has he always been the duplicitous chameleon
that his ex-fiancee claims? And why if he hates women
does he look to a woman for help?<< (publisher’s blurb).

There is always a problem when approaching one
of Walter’s books as to whether to judge it by
her own standards,or those of the general majority
of Britmysts. It needs to be said at the outset
that in terms of the latter parameters this book,
like all her others, is head and shoulders above
almost any other living British mystery writer – I
except only Hill, though would concede a case for
Rendell. Walters’control of her material, in terms
of both style (in which she is unique) and content
has a weight, depth and seriousness which
establish as a mystery writer of the highest order.

Having said this, by her own standards, I would not rate
Chameleon’s Shadow as one of her best. Walters has become
fascinated by Britain’s wars and her tragic latter-day imperialist
adventures in the Middle East. Each of her last three
books (Disordered Minds, The Devils Feather and now
Chameleon’s Shadow) has in various ways played around
themes which emerge from the new imperialism and wars.
Disordered Minds, one of, if not the, best of her books, took
an especially refractive view and went into the past in an
examination of the way in which people are marginalised
(always an absolutely essential element in Walters). The
Devils Feather and Chameleon’s Shadow on the other hand
are both much more directly connected to events in Iraq,
with their central protagonists both suffering extremely
traumatic events there as the books begin. Both books
see the protagonists fighting off their personal demons
with the help of, typically Walters, outsider figures. It should
be stressed that these demons have a very real nature, but
nonetheless are also, in some ways, peculiar to and a
result of,the protagonist’s psychology.
Walters has always been fascinated by psychology. The loose,
and much abused, term ‘psychological thriller’ can be applied
to some degree to all her books. But it is in many ways unhelpful
because as, generally used, it tends to indicate a writer who is
interested in psycho-pathology; the psychology of the serial
killer, murderer etc.. Walters is much more interested in the
psychology of her protagonists – one might say heroes and heroines.
And she is brilliant at this sort of writing – the mystery becomes
a kind of lengthy analytical session, where the central character
and their psychology are gradually revealed and traced back
to their origins. Which is not to suggest that Walters is a writer
who uses psychology as a justification for action – it is a tool
for explanation but she is very strong on free will (much stronger
than I am). Nor is the individual’s psychology ever divorced from
their objective circumstances, from the sociological side of her books.
But the balance between psychology and sociology does shift
from book to book. Which one prefers is a matter of taste. My
own preference is for the latter, which is why The Shape of Snakes,
Acid Row and Disordered Minds are among my favourite Walters.

In The Chameleon’s Shadow the psychological predominates. This
is not to say that the sociological is absent. The opening chapters, which
in many ways are the strongest, are full of campaigning anger at the
way in which wounded soldiers are treated in the UK. Walters, an
opponent of the war, takes a strong stance on this issue (an article by
her on the subject can be found at her web-site….
But at the core of the book are an exploration of the psychology of
the protagonist, Charles Acland, and, of course, the series of murders
in London which form the books core. The outsider figure – the
saviour figure – in this book is Dr Jackson, the 250 lb lesbian
weightlifter. And it was with her that I think some of the problems
I have with the book reside. I had some vague feeling that,
for all the uniqueness of the external trappings, I had been here
before. Walters seems just a touch too reverential, a bit too
uncritical, of this character. The other set of problems revolve
round the murders themselves and the eventual resolution. While
this works brilliantly in terms of the revelation of Acland’s psyhcological
problems, I am less convinced by it as as mystery plot. Events turn
on a piece of staggering coincidence. I don’t mind staggering coincidences
as much as some readers might,but there are problems with the
murderer who’s own motivations and psychology are left comparatively

All these reservations are in some ways minor. The Chameleon’s Shadow
like all Walter’s books is a must-read. I delight in the fact that she
continues to explore the impact, however obliquely, of Blair’s
disastrous war-mongering imperialism. But in terms of her overall
canon I would be happy if she now switched direction slightly and
turned her attention back to sociological issues.

(December 2007)