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[782] The Echo – Minette Walters

“We are in terrible trouble as a society if we assume that any man’s life is so worthless that the manner of his death is the only interesting thing about him.” (Ch.21, 330)

The Echo is my second Minette Walters book after The Scold’s Bridle but this book is way more convoluted. A harmless man, Billy Blake, dies of starvation in the garage of a wealthy architect, Amanda Powell, with whom seems to have no connection. But a series of connections manifest as the sinuous plot winds on upon the probing of a journalist named Michael Deacon.

As the investigation thickens, so does the mystery of Billy Blake and the unusual asset of Amanda Powell, formerly Amanda Streeter, whose husband allegedly defrauded the bank and vanished. Billy Blake has a morality that is in conflict with social and legal definitions to right and wrong. His life echoes that of poet William Blake, who was obsessed with God. Blake has lived a life of self-purging, and has mutilated himself to evade identification. What has he done in the past that he has to erase all his traces?

The plot of the book only gets even more complicated, and Amanda is not what she seems. Her in-laws claim she has an affair with another man and together they conspire to defraud the bank and made a scapegoat of her husband by murdering him.

The book can be confusing at certain parts since some characters that are relevant to the plot are not fleshed out. But careful reading would pull you through. The consequence of these “unseen” characters is a sudden drop in dramatic immediacy. The themes of repentance and betrayal are written all over the pages but the course the story takes could stretch credibility.

351 pp. Jove Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[780] The Scold’s Bridle – Minette Walters

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“Confusion. The murderer wanted Mrs. Gillespie dead and confusion to follow. And why would they want confusion to follow? Because it would be much harder to proceed with any kind of normality if the mess surrounding Mrs. Gillespie’s death wasn’t sorted out.” (Ch.18, p.316)

The book deals with whether Mathilda Gillespie, considered by many to be a spiteful, snobbish bitch, was murdered or committed suicide. She is found dead in bathtub with slashed wrists, surrounded by nettles and Michaelmas daisies, and most disturbingly of all, a scold’s bridle on her head. It was an Medieval age instrument of punishment for a gossiping or nagging woman that consists of a cage with a spiked plate inserted in the mouth. When the woman speak the spike will cut the tongue. So whoever killed her must want her tongue curbed—that just shows how universally disliked this old woman was.

Mathilda wasn’t killed in a mad frenzy. It was all done with such meticulous care, even down to the flowers. You said yourself that arrangement was difficult to reproduce without help. (Ch.7, p.117)

Mathilda died in such mysterious circumstances and her GP, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, is the only one who stands to gain by her death. That Gillespie’s final will has superceded all previous ones and designates the doctor to be the sole beneficiary raise questions from Gillespie’s daughter and grand-daughter. Though they are ready to contest the will, but neither is free from suspicion. Joanna is a prostitute on dope and Ruth is a schoolgirl being blackmailed into theft by a rapist lover.

The story is revealed in layers, and entries from the victim’s diary going back in time show how dysfunctional the family all were. The plot itself is highly involved and is played out by an intriguing cast of characters who are no less fleshed out. There are numerous secrets and agendas for the authorities to discover and maneuver around if this case is to be solved. But the root is how tragically Mathilda Gillespie was brought up and traumatized as an adolescent, which has profound impact on her life. She had the intellectual capacity but her social conditioning was such that she allowed herself to be confined in one role she wasn’t suited for, namely marriage and motherhood.

Walters writes in rich literary prose that is rare in the mystery genre. She laces the narrative with references to the works of Shakespeare and drops social commentary along the way. It’s more than a whodunit and the ending is quite shrewd.

365 pp. St. Martin Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Minette Walters

My newest favorite author of English mystery/crime fiction is Minette Walters. She writes psychological suspense stories that keep reader guessing until the last page. But I realize she is not as prolific as the others in this genre, where writers are encouraged to published once or even twice a year. Her work reminds me of Ruth Rendell, and indeed, upon a glance of the oeuvre, reveals the concern of wiring and misfiring of psyche. Crime novels cal also provoke repulsion, especially in the depiction of violence against women, like in The Scold’s Bridle. A scold’s bridle in the middle ages was a metal muzzle straddled in woman’s head in order curb her nagging tongue. The opening scene finds the victim murdered in the bathtub wearing a scold’s bridle.

Her insight into psyches is aided by having been a weekly prison visitor for a long period. She became fascinated by judicial punishment after researching her great-great-great grandfather, Joshua Jebb, who was Britain’s surveyor general of prisons in the mid-19th century. Walters never used her visits as research, but the encounters clearly provided a remarkable insight into criminals’ thinking and speech. That said, her books are dark and female-oriented. A writer who continues the line of Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, Walters thinks that most women are amateur psychiatrists, and thus the phenomenon that English crime fiction is mostly female-led.