War correspondant Connie Burns is accustomed to the horrors humans visit upon one another, but the sadistic killings of five women in Sierra Leone seem to be on another level of cruelty all together. She suspects a British mercenary, well-known for his brutality, of indulging sick impulses under the cover of the chaos of war. Encountering him again in Baghdad two years later, she resolves to expose his crimes and see him prosecuted. She doesn’t get far with the authorities, but she does draw his attention. When it becomes clear he’s targeting her, she tries to flee Iraq, but is kidnapped on her way to the airport. When she’s released, apparently unharmed, three days later, she has nothing to say to anyone about her ordeal–not to the police, not to her news agency, not to her family. She insists there’s nothing to tell, but her every action makes it clear she’s been terrorized. Connie goes into hiding in rural Dorset, obstensibly to work on a book, but really because she’s only barely holding herself together, and wants nothing more than to disappear.
Dorset turns out to be less restful than Connie might have hoped–in no time at all, she’s embroiled in a simmering feud between her landlady and the odd, troubled woman who farms the property, Jess Derbyshire. Connie is reluctant to get involved in a local domestic drama, but Jess, for all her eccentricities, is one of the few people Connie can rely on, and the house she’s living in is one of the main points of contention. She delves into the history of the warring families and the suspicious circumstances around the near-death of a vulnerable, elderly woman. What she discovers is that some psychopaths are much more subtle than war zone butchers–and that her own particular monster has tracked her to her retreat. She and Jess, two traumatized, withdrawn survivors, will have to stand together and find deep reserves of courage to defeat what’s coming for them out of the dark.
Oh, this Minette Walters, how does she carry on with these monsters in her mind? How can she stand to spend enough time with them to write these things? The answer, I suppose, is because the monsters inspire such interesting heroines to stand against them. Not that either Connie or Jess would see themselves as heroic–they’re just trying to hold themselves together, and are finally pushed past the point of fear into fighting back.
The writing in The Devil’s Feather is absolutely compelling–I picked up the 350-page novel at the library Saturday morning and finished it Monday afternoon. Walters is one of the most un-putdown-able authors I’ve come across. This book was full of her trademark mysteries-within-mysteries, which she unravels one careful clue at a time: what exactly happened during Connie’s captivity, and why won’t she tell the police, at least? What happened the November night poor Lily Wright was found lying by the fish pond in a thin nightgown, nearly dead of exposure? Whose version of events in the village can be trusted?
The novel doesn’t quite follow the usual track of thrillers like this, with the big confrontation with the killer right at the end and a few pages of detail-clarification before the survivors and the hard-nosed-but-sympathetic DI head off to the pub for pints. No, the big showdown happens with 100 pages left to go–and creates another tantalizing mystery for us to worry at.
I have to say, I love Minette Walters like almost no other mystery writer out there. She writes some tough stuff, with hideously damaged personalities and revolting crimes–and somehow, she makes it okay by the end. I was so unsettled by the early scenes of the book that I stopped reading it, and had to tell myself, “It’s OK–it’s Minette Walters. You know that SOB is gonna get it right in the neck eventually, and you know you want to be there to see it happen.” And isn’t that just what you want from an RIP read–a book that honestly scares you?
Reviewed for RIP IX.