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I recently had all my shifts changed at work which means that I ended up working 6 weeks of nights - ouch! Knowing that work was going to be quiet and therefore fairly boring, I asked my Dad to recommend me a couple of good books. The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters was one of them.
Minette Walters is often referred to as the 'queen of the psychological thriller' and after reading several of her books, you will see that this is a title she deserves. The Chameleon's Shadow is her 12th psychological thriller. Some of her other books include Acid Row, Fox Evil, The Ice House, The Sculptress and The Dark Room. Some of her stories have been turned into films or TV series.
Lieutenant Charles Acland life is literally turned upside down when a roadside bomb hits his vehicle while they are serving in Iraq. His colleagues are killed and Charles is left with horrific injuries, most of them affecting one side of his face.
As Charles recovers in hospital, he realises that he remembers very little about the last few weeks of his life. Slowly, certain things start to come back to him and he starts trying to piece his life together. He is assessed by a psychologist who is sure that Charles should be in much more pain than he seems to be and is amazed that he doesn't really seem too mentally affected by the trauma he has been through.
Once he is released from hospital, Charles decides to live in London where he pretty much lives the life of a recluse. It soon becomes clear to Charles that his personality has been changed by the accident he was involved in. His friends and colleagues describe him as a 'happy go lucky lad' but the Charles we meet seems very different from this description. One day, while Charles is having a drink, he becomes involved in a fight in the pub and is looked after by a butch weight lifting female doctor who everyone called Jackson.
Meanwhile, the local police are investigating the murders of several homosexuals in the area and Charles name seems to keep popping up. Charles was living in the area when the murders first began and they are continuing now he is back in the area - has the accident totally changed Charles and made him act out of character, is it a coincidence is Charles just pretending that he doesn't remember certain things??
I found myself quickly becoming interested in all the characters we are introduced to in this book. Charles is quite a harsh character, he's rude and arrogant yet as a reader, you still feel some sort of empathy for the guy.
Jackson is another character that I found interesting as she never really gives much away throughout the entire book so you are always left questioning her character and wondering if she has a motive.
You also meet two psychologists throughout the book and although their characters are not major parts in the book, I feel that they bring quite a lot of thought to the book as their ideas and theories on the trauma Charles has suffered opens up all sorts of questions!
When I first flicked through the book, I was a little disappointed to see that it began with a newspaper clipping which was then followed by a medical report on Charles. I have read other books that are written in the style and have found them to be difficult to follow. However, with the Chameleon's Shadow, it actually turned out to be quite effective. The while book does not follow this pattern though and there is plenty of normal pages in-between the various report, emails etc.
This story had me gripped from the very first page so I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who finds it hard to get into a book. I think all the mystery that surrounds Charles at the beginning of the book instantly as the reader gripped as you just want to find out more about him. I must admit that I like books with twists and turns in them and although there are a few of them in this book, I did feel that there could have been more and the ending of the story was not as exciting as I thought it may have been.
Having said that, this book had me gripped from the very beginning and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I kinda lost patience with Minette Walters a few years back. Whereas her first 6 books were psychological thrillers that were enthralling and addictive, she seemed to opt for a more political stance on subsequent books. Nobody can blame the author for wanting to show development, but unfortunately books such as Fox Evil and Disordered Minds sacrificed the quality of the plot for dalliances with racial abuse and the war in Iraq. Thankfully The Chameleon's Shadow is a somewhat return to form.
Of course, Walters hasn't entirely abandoned her political stance with this tale, instead weaving the damage that war can do into the story. Sgt Acland returns home a damaged and disfigured man who has lost his 2 men in a random explosion in Iraq. Holed up in hospital, he rails against the world who left him partially blind and disfigured beyond recognition.
In addition to his pesecution complex, Acland also has an issue with women that seems to stem from a pathological hatred of his ex-fiance and his controlling mother. Initially, he is so gauled by their presence that the nurses worry about the temper he displays when they are around. Eventually, though, he seeks help from a burly lesbian who runs a local bar with her partner.
Meanwhile, on the mean streets of London, three gay men have been murdered. Acland's refusal to volunteer various information, and his seemingly co-incidental link to various aspects of the murder enquiry lead the police straight to him. The combination of his unwillingness to co-operate, and the police's unwillingness to buy into anything he says create a hostility between them that only Jackson (the burly lesbian) is able to cut through.
As the book comes to a close, secrets are revealed that put Acland in a compromising light, and also compromises the newly forged relationship between himself and Jackson. And as the assault on an elderly man who Acland came into contact with leaves even more doubt over his innocence, he has to fight for a freedom that he didn't even know he wanted.
This is a cracking tale that twists and turns from its opening pages. Walters creates a plethra of complicated characters who you dont neccessarily like, but who you end up following with admiration and loyalty. Jackson is a smart mouthed lesbian who takes no nonsense from her pub punters, and who is one of the few characters able for Acland's hostility.
In Acland she creates a uniformly devout believer in the cause against Iraq and terrorism, then in turn a bitter man who is abandoned and discarded by queen and country, with only a backhand wad of cash for his misfortune. Acland shows very little sign of relenting in his path of self distruction, although Walters writes complicated characters well enough for them to show some glimmer of hope.
Walters ably intermingles various walks of life into the story, presenting a society that doesn't neccessarily understand the dynamics of its various personalities. There are also pop culture references throughout the book that might tickle a few. For me, my favourite film "Gattaca" turning up in various points of reference was a bit of a giggle, and the Uma Thurman lookalike sub-plot was an interesting angle for such a thriller to take. Walters ocassionally gets it wrong, and has done more often more recently. In this book though she hits all the spots, and kept me reading til the very last paragraph, and in true thrilling fashion also had me lusting for more.
Lieutenant Charles Acland is serving in Iraq when a roadside bomb shatters the life of him and his colleagues. He is the lucky one - he survives, but with enduring injuries, particularly to the face. When he comes to in hospital, he realises he has lost eight weeks of his life. Things begin to come back to him slowly, but his personality seems to have been changed for good. When he is finally released from hospital, he moves to London where he lives the life of a hermit, until one day when he is involved in a fight in a bar and is rescued by an iron-pumping female doctor called Jackson. But the fight has caught the attention of the police, who are investigating the murders of several homosexuals in the area. Acland was living in the area when the first murders took place and, lo and behold, now his is back, another has occured. Is it a coincidence or does Acland have more to do with the murders than he can remember?
To any fan of crime fiction, Minette Walters is a must-read author. Her earlier books were very much of the traditional crime fiction mould - stories of murder committed in villages and enclosed spaces, where the suspects are limited. Later books though have been set in much larger areas and have involved a much larger sub-section of the population, which gives a different feel to the book. This book is one of the latter types, being set in London, which gives it an exciting feel at the beginning of the book because it is unclear where it is going. But can it sustain the pace?
When I first flicked through the book, I gave a mental groan. It is written in the form of prose (obviously), which is littered with a series of newspaper articles, reports and emails. I generally dislike this form of writing, because I find it disruptive. Minette Walters has used it in at least one other book that I can think of - The Shape of Snakes. However, as I began to read, I actually found it very effective. I really felt as if I was a detective piecing together the evidence, and, rather than being disruptive, it was beneficial to the understanding of Lieutenant Acland's situation.
Another initial negative is that the book begins in Iraq with soldiers being killed. I tend to stay well clear of books that have anything to do with any war - there is enough of it in the news without me having to read about it in fiction too. However, it really is only the first couple of pages that are set in Iraq and it really does add to the story, so I quickly overcame this reluctance.
The characterisation in this book is not the strongest that I have come across in Minette Walters' books. I was hopeful when I started, I really liked the way that we are introduced to Lieutenant Acland, who has suffered so much and still cannot remember quite what happened in the period before the accident. Unfortunately, the mystery is not sustained throughout the book and about half way through, I began to lose interest in him, except for the odd time he annoyed me because he was so deliberately cantankerous. Jackson, his saviour, is also a promising character that did not sustain my interest. She is a bit of a stereotype in that she is a butch lesbian, partner to the much more feminine Daisy, and this annoyed me a little, as did her inclination to poke her nose in where it wasn't wanted. Characters in crime fiction have a tendency to be under-developed, because the emphasis is on the story behind them; however, I still felt that both of this book's main characters could have been better developed.
The story starts off really strongly. I was immediately gripped by the idea of the lieutenant having forgotten what they had done for the previous eight weeks and the suggestion that he may be a murderer. Unfortunately, this feeling didn't last throughout the book. By about a third in, I began to lose interest, and this feeling heightened the more that I read. By the end of the book, I really wasn't that bothered what happened to any of the characters. I finished it because I don't like to leave a book unread, but I really did find the ending disappointing. The book reminds me very much of The Shape of Snakes, which I struggled to get through, but then ended powerfully. Unfortunately, this one didn't have that kick in the guts at then end.
This is not a bad book. It just didn't end on the same powerful note that it started, but I still think that any fans of Minette Walters and crime fiction in general will enjoy it to a certain extent - it isn't one of her best, but it is still better than a lot of the competition. Three stars from me.
The paperback version is apparently not yet out, although it is available for pre-order from play.com. The hardback version is available from play.com for £8.99. Published by Pan Macmillan, it has 400 pages. ISBN: 9780230015661
This review was first published on thebookbag.co.uk and was written by me.