The English mystery novel has one of the most august pedigrees of any literary genre, dating back to 19th-century greats such as Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A host of modern writers have emerged to uphold this legacy, and the works of authors like John Le Carré are greeted with celebration by mystery fans and literary critics alike.
Like any family tree, however, that of the English detective writers has borne – and continues to bear – its share of rotten fruit. In recent years, in fact, these moldy viands seem to have outstripped the fresher fruits, with the New York Times Bestsellers List often populated by the weakest and worst of British mystery writers.
Count among their number Minette Walters, the internationally lauded hack whose 12th, The Chameleon’s Shadow, has just hit American shelves. Walters’ latest – the story of an angry British soldier returning home from a traumatic injury in Iraq to find himself at the center of a homicide inquiry – clearly marks her as no heir to either Conan Doyle or Le Carré, and mires the reader in a swamp of boredom and overused psychological jargon.
Lt. Charles Acland remembered his enlistment in the British Royal Armoured Corps, his training maneuvers in Oman, his departure for Iraq – but nothing that had happened since. How then had he wound up in a Birmingham, England, hospital, with eight weeks of his life unaccounted for? And what was it that made him react with revulsion every time anyone tried to touch him?
Unfortunately, these burning questions, raised in the first few pages of The Chameleon’s Shadow, are never suitably answered. Acland, with a seemingly unparalleled knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is quickly swept up in the latest tabloid scandal: a string of mysterious attacks on gay men that stirs London into a furor not seen since the height of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare. As the coincidences pile up and Acland just keeps blundering into the investigation, it becomes increasingly clear that he ¬should, by all means, be the murderer – were it only not so glaringly obvious that he’s not. Finally, after about 300 pages of this, the book moves into a rapid dénouement, reaching a conclusion only as unbelievable as it is predictable.
Sherlock Holmes, the greatest of all English detectives, once stated that, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Minette Walters’ The Chameleon’s Shadow, with its myriad coincidences and chance encounters, does bear this one similarity to a Holmes mystery – for it is, if anything, improbable. It is one thing to write a trashy mystery novel, with its inscrutable clues, borderline-miraculous detective work, and the satisfying snap of a solution that may or may not violate Holmes’s rule of impossibility; but it is another thing entirely to write a book that leaves even the most forgiving of readers as angry as Charles Acland at his worst.
Peter Chomko may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.