November 1978. Britain is on strike. The dead lie unburied, rubbish piles in the streets – and somewhere in West London a black woman dies in a rain-soaked gutter.
Her passing would have gone unnoticed, but for the young woman who finds her and who believes - apparently against reason – that Annie was murdered. But whatever the truth about Annie – whether she was as mad as her neighbours claimed, whether she lived in squalor as the police said – something passed between her and Mrs Ranelagh in the moment of death which binds this one woman to her cause for the next twenty years. But why is Mrs Ranelagh so convinced it was murder when by her own account Annie died without speaking? But the past has a habit of unearthing its secrets.
I read this book when first published in 2000 and although twenty years have gone by, this is still a relevant book. Walters was always up for tackling issues within her books. She would take what was gripping the nation at the time and the attitudes and weave it within a crime novel. Here Walters serves up racism and mental health, both issues which have come to the fore during the pandemic year of 2020 and makes this novel even more relevant today. “The Shape of Snakes' shows that despite making progress from the ignorance of mental health and blatant racism of the 1970s, we still have a lot to achieve from news reports in 2020.
With tones of 'Rebecca', we never learn the Christian name of Mrs Ranelagh, still with the injustice of Annie Butts' death firmly between her teeth to the chagrin of those still living in Graham Road, West London. Walters unpeels the happy veneer of these residents and shows the ugliness of racism and the ignorant who will think of nothing to cover their own tawdry secrets. What makes me go back to this particular book time after time is the characters who arrive fully rounded, even the victim, Annie Butts is a presence, one who is misunderstood, rather than to be pitied.
When this book was published, Walters was riding on the crest of a wave. She already had numerous awards to her name and enviable sales figures to boot. Her first five books were adapted for television and Walters was a huge name in a short space of time. Then after 2007, nothing. It was like watching a majestic comet in the sky that beguiled you, only for it to suddenly dip below the horizon and vanish from sight. Walters has published a novella and two Historical novels. I do hope she will again tackle the psychological novel that she was so superb at producing. I know there will be many of us rushing to read it with relish!