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Wednesday, 21 March 2007 00:00

War can be murder

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Recently, a distressing bit of information surfaced on CNN about the war in Iraq. There has been a significant increase in the number of civilian rapes and murders in Iraq and Iran (and correspondingly in West Africa). New evidence indicates that many of these crimes may be the work serial killers who are using the war as a convenient camouflage.

 

With civil strife rampart and the shame of Abu Grahib still under investigation, combined with the ever-present threat of kidnapping, a resourceful killer might go undetected. What better cover could he have than his “day job” — his service as a mercenary or a “special forces” agent?

Minette Walters recognizes a provocative and chilling idea for a novel when she sees one. The ongoing speculation about serial killers who prey on women in war-torn regions of the Middle East is a chilling one — especially if the killers are military personnel.

Connie Burns, the protagonist of The Devil’s Feather, is a seasoned Reuters journalist. During the past decade in Iraq, she has seen human nature at its worst. Certainly, the experience has left her cynical, but she has also become an excellent judge of character. That is why she is suspicious of a man named William Harwood who seemed to always be around when macabre murders occur. In addition, the victims are always women and the weapon is usually a machete.

On a number of occasions, Connie witnesses several brutal fights involving Harwood — fights that occurred in the taverns and cafes frequented by journalists and army personnel. Invariably, the violence is provoked by a woman’s presence (Harwood is a known woman-hater). Patrons tell Connie that Harwood has seriously injured numerous prostitutes in attacks that are described as “unprovoked.”

With a little investigation, Connie learns that Harwood works as a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman. However, the next time that she sees him, he is training Iraqi police in the use of guard dogs — and his name is now MacKenzie. Connie’s attempt to alert Harwood’s employer not only proves fruitless — it brings Connie to Harwood’s attention. Then, Connie Burns disappears.

At first, it appears that Connie is a victim of a terrorist kidnapping. However, there is no demand for ransom and no terrorist group releases the usual film of their captive journalist. Instead, the bound and blindfolded victim is found after only three days. Connie refuses to grant interviews and immediately takes a leave of absence, returning to England. Eventually, she takes refuge under an assumed name in a remote rental property called Barton House. When she finally begins to deal with her devastating experience, the reader slowly learns that William Harwood has subjected her to an ordeal that nearly defies description. In addition to her rape and torture, Connie must deal with the psychological trauma of a humiliation that has left her on the brink of insanity. In addition, she knows that the ordeal isn’t over.

William Harwood/MacKenzie has promised to kill her.

Eventually, he will find her, regardless of where she hides.

As Connie Burns prepares for her final confrontation with her relentless tormenter, she struggles to adjust to her new surroundings, and a colorful assortment of new personalities. The badly shaken Connie finds herself abruptly thrust into the midst of a community that is permeated with intrigue, deception and hypocrisy. She has to contend with the eccentric Jess Derbyshire (who acts as her landlady), Madeleine Wright, the glamorous (and devious) property owner and the handsome Dr. Peter Coleman (who appears to have amorous ties to both women).

Left with no other choice, Connie decides to enlist the services of her two new friends, Jess and Peter. Connie makes her final stand in an antiquated farmhouse with an undependable telephone and no household security. Her only defense: four genial guard dogs, two well-meaning friends and an axe. It is not enough.

In conclusion, let me say that The Devil’s Feather is a terrifying confrontation with sadism with the suspense building to a near-unbearable point. In addition, Minette Walters is a master of intricate plotting and Cindy Burns shifts from grim and ravaged Iraq to deceptively mundane rural England with admirable finesse. Finally, it is gratifying that she is capable of surviving in both worlds.

I have reviewed several Walters novels, and The Devil’s Feather contains the same admirable mix of terror and social satire as Fox Evil, Acid Row and The Breaker. If you enjoy suspenseful fiction, read this one.

The Devil’s Feather by Minette Walters. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 349 pages.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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