eath by misadventure: that's the coroner's verdict in the death of Ann Butts, found dying in a London gutter on a rain-soaked night in the winter of 1978. Case closed. Or is it? "Mad Annie," as she is known to her neighbors, is an unpopular, antisocial person, who drinks, mutters to herself and lives alone with a menagerie of stray cats. She is cruelly ridiculed by her neighbors for her strange behavior. She is also the only black person living in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Ranelagh, our narrator, finds Annie dying in front of her house and for a brief but powerful moment, they make eye contact. The problem is, no one but Mrs. Ranelagh believes that Annie was murdered, and she pays a heavy price for her conviction. At great personal cost, she makes it her mission and eventually her obsession to prove that Annie's death was not accidental. She becomes depressed, agoraphobic and loses her job. While the Ranelagh family eventually leaves England, Mrs. Ranelagh does not leave her obsession behind.

The Shape of Snakes, a powerful tale of justice and redemption, is actually two stories: Annie's and Mrs. Ranelagh's. The author deftly explores not only what type of person would kill Annie, but what type of person would spend 20 years searching for justice. There are no superheroes or over-the-top villains in The Shape of Snakes, just a fascinating cast of deeply flawed, complicated and, at times, downright grim characters. They reveal their sordid lies and sad secrets through sizzling conversations that practically scorch the pages with their intensity.

Writing in the first person, Walters skillfully intersperses her story with personal letters, correspondence, documents, medical records and e-mail. It's a smooth and ingenious way to introduce characters, unravel clues and span a 20-year time period. It's also a bit like following a trail of tantalizing crumbs through the forest. Can Mrs. Ranelagh break through the wall of silence and complicity in her search for justice? With an endless list of suspects, The Shape of Snakes is an intriguing mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end.

C. L. Ross, a life-long mystery lover, reads, writes and reviews in Pismo Beach, California.

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