Books: Interview - Chucking out the chintz

Minette Walters splashes Gothic gore around the cosy English whodunnit. Jane Jakeman met her

I am shown into the ideal English sitting-room: light and airy, comfortable chintz-covered chairs, seascapes on the walls. Minette Walters's decor seems to bear little reference to her career as a crime writer. But there on an antique cabinet stands a small china statue, its saturnine white cheeks framed by licks and sideburns of black hair. It's the Edgar.

The Edgar (as in Poe) is America's prestigious award for mystery fiction. "I've always had a sense of the Gothic," she says, and this little piece of grue among the pot-pourri is a reminder that Minette Walters is the skull beneath the English skin. Behind her lies a long inheritance of macabre popular entertainment, reaching right back to the bloody Jacobean stage of John Webster. It is her distinctive achievement to fuse it with the detective story. She is the crime novelist who shows the comfortable middle classes the horrors that lurk just outside the conservatory or under the patio.

And her books revel in those horrors. Not just violent death, but incest, rape, child abuse, drug addiction: Walters has tackled them all, setting constellations of Freudian nasties around the traditional theme of murder. Sexual perversion, casual references to vaginal candle-smuggling, infantile masturbation; everything that was hidden in Agatha Christie's attic comes tumbling out. She breaks further from the tradition by refusing to write a series with a Poirot or Inspector Alleyn repeatedly trotted out to solve the murders. There are resolutions in her books, but not easy answers.

"I always start a book with a body, to say to the reader immediately that I think murder is shocking," says Walters, speaking of those stomach- churning horrors. "I love describing gory deaths; it's a real challenge to get down the smell and the nastiness."

Her early novels were each dominated by a single powerful image: a rotting body in an ice-house, a grossly fat sculptress, a brutal iron "scold's bridle" for women who talked too much. Her latest, The Breaker (Macmillan, pounds 16.99), is a more conventional police story, but it still exposes much more of the nasty, especially sexual, underside of human character than would ever have been found in the traditional crime novel.

Walters has a long acquaintance with the criminal mentality. She talks of it with the casual composure born of years as a prison visitor at an institution that holds some of the country's most violent criminals. She has observed how men can relate to each other in an enclosed environment with no female mediation. "In all honesty", she says, "I would not say that the men I see in prison are materially different from the men I knew when I was working in journalism. Rapists can be very entertaining characters to talk to."

She builds up close relationships with the prisoners: an intense, 40- minute conversation every week, which she has with each of the men she visits, is more interaction than many marriages could sustain. Many men write to her after their release. Nevertheless, Walters's prison-visiting is not research. She began it before her crime-writing career started and is emphatic that she never uses personal stories in her work, though the minor details of dysfunctional family lives can come in handy. Indeed, prison-visiting is actually a family tradition: an ancestor worked with Elizabeth Fry and was an Inspector- General of prisons, the Stephen Tumin of his day.

Walters is fascinated by certain kinds of loneliness. She loves the water and lives near the coast in Hampshire, but when I suggest the swimmer at sea as a paradigm of the solitary writer at work, she disagrees. "To me, the greatest loneliness is suffered by the individual who is isolated in a crowd - that to me is the ultimate solitude and very frightening to watch."

The dichotomy between her tranquil home environment and the prison-visiting; the lack of any interface between the kinds of people she knows: this can explain certain contradictions in her characters. She in good at gentry and psychopaths (and combinations of the two), but unconvincing with raffish types such as artists, or with the "respectable" working-class.

Walters's evident liberalism, her hatred of capital punishment, is an attractive characteristic, although I do wonder how it goes down in the very affluent territory where she resides. And her understanding of the wretched inheritance of brutality in which violent criminals are reared reminds me of Magdalen Nabb's insight in her book The Monster of Florence: that the childhoods of most psychopaths are so painful that, faced with the choice, most of us would opt to be their victims rather than endure the lives of the killers.

Walters's views on rape will render The Breaker controversial. The novel quotes a statement that the rapist, "a man of limited intelligence, limited sensation and limited ability to function is more to be pitied than to be feared". "Women should be encouraged to fight attackers rather than to follow the prevailing police advice of cooperating for fear of worse violence," Waletrs argues. "Rapists are often weak and inadequate men. To demonise the rapist, to make a monster of him, is in fact to empower him."

The Breaker is a journey into the mentality of the rapist, but it exposes other unpleasant hidden secrets: smearing human faeces as an act of revenge or hatred, for example. The "dirty protests" in the Maze prison fascinated her because of her interest in the breaking of taboos. "Our society has a horror of human faeces," she says. "We are such an antiseptic society, and it's interesting how a person can use that to disrupt someone else's psychology."

The ultimate taboo is that against murder, of course. Someone once asked Walters whether she couldn't write a "nice" murder. "I don't believe any murder is nice," she answers. But she seems to combine in an extraordinary degree a horror of death and a fascination with it: "I have a huge problem finding a dead hedgehog."

We walk out through her stripped-pine kitchen, with its plaited corn decorations. There is a vivid red smear across the front of her sweater. She indicates the cause: a bowl of lilies which she has been arranging. The pollen from the stamens has exploded over her. Too obvious a symbol, perhaps, but things are popping out - not only from her own psyche, perhaps, but from the traditional British crime novel as well. There are explosions in the genteel drawing-room. Mind the chintz!

Minette Walters, A Biography

Minette Walters graduated from Durham University and worked as a magazine editor, writing romantic fiction before her marriage and the birth of her two sons. A seven-year gap in her career was followed by her first novel, The Ice House, which won the John Creasey award for the best first crime novel of 1992. The Sculptress, her second book, won the Edgar Allan Poe award for the best crime novel published in America in 1993 and was adapted for television, starring Pauline Quirke. The Scold's Bridle won the Gold Dagger for the best British crime novel in 1994 and was also televised. It was followed by The Dark Room and The Echo. The Breaker, her sixth novel, is published by Macmillan. Minette Walters lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children.

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