This is an unconventional murder mystery in which a black woman, known as ‘Mad Annie’, dies in the gutter outside her west London home in 1978. She is found by a neighbour, Mrs Ranelagh, who disagrees with the coroner’s verdict of death by misadventure. Over the next 20 years Mrs Ranelagh, who has been deeply affected by the death, tries to uncover the truth, to prove to the authorities that Annie was murdered.
The story, which covers all manner of current day issues such as racism, alcoholism, cruelty to animals and mental illness, is a page-turner. There are enough twists and turns to keep the momentum going, but there are some unbelievable elements (the revelation of her friend’s love affair takes on an almost operatic dimension, for example) and there are a few too many coincidences which makes the story feel somewhat contrived. It might be fiction, but it’s important that fiction reads as believable and The Shape of Snakes is not always convincing. Likewise, the ending, which has the potential to be jaw-dropping, is disappointing. An interesting book, but not a highly-recommended one.