The Devil's Feather, by Minette Walters

Why one murder matters in modern killing fields
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The Independent Culture

Recently some powerful novels in the crime mode have demonstrated that genre fiction can extend its range. Henning Mankell has created links between Sweden and South African politics. James Lee Burke's Louisiana murder mysteries are anger-fuelled analyses of the brutality and corruption to which America condemns poor black Southerners.

Minette Walters, whose career started with modern versions of the traditional country-house mystery, has been developing a commitment that takes her to a similar level of seriousness. Acid Row dealt with vigilante groups on a sink estate and attacks on paedophiles. Her latest book sets the country-house theme against the hell of post-invasion Iraq.

Connie Burns is a Reuter's correspondent in Sierra Leone, where, amid mass slaughter, five women are raped and murdered in similar ways. Three boy-soldiers are beaten into confession, but Connie suspects the real killer was a white mercenary working for a private security firm, and determines to track him down.

She next goes to report the conflict in Iraq. The same type of crime surfaces again, with suspicion falling on the same man. This time, when she tries to expose the killer, Connie herself is kidnapped and tortured. Released, she returns home to a Dorset village - and finds England's green and pleasant land offers her scarcely more safety than war-torn Baghdad as she is pursued by a killer.

Walters uses a convincing reportage technique, but also creates some of the bizarre characters for which she is famous. Connie finds an unnerving neighbour - farmer Jess Derbyshire, herself damaged by past suffering - who may or may not offer protection. The journalist unravels a mystery attached to the decaying old house which she has rented and the family who inhabited it. And what exactly is the role of the old-fashioned GP upon whom Connie has to rely for help with panic attacks?

Tension and drive are generated by the overarching theme of the sexual psychopath in pursuit of his prey. This murderer is not confined to mysterious attics and cellars; he finds his métier in war. Walters has succeeded in uniting the traditional crime narrative with a distressing and effective account of the private cruelties that can flourish amid general mayhem. In doing so, she takes the genre to a deeper level.

Jane Jakeman's novel 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan