The Devil's Feather

The Devil's Feather

3.9 14
by Minette Walters

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A blistering new thriller about the horrors of war and the struggle to survive in the face of pure evil.

Foreign correspondent Connie Burns is hunting a British mercenary that she believes is responsible for the rape and murder of five women in Sierra Leone in 2002. Two years later she finds him training Iraqi police in Baghdad. Connie is determined to expose… See more details below

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A blistering new thriller about the horrors of war and the struggle to survive in the face of pure evil.

Foreign correspondent Connie Burns is hunting a British mercenary that she believes is responsible for the rape and murder of five women in Sierra Leone in 2002. Two years later she finds him training Iraqi police in Baghdad. Connie is determined to expose his crimes, but then she is kidnapped and released after three days of unspeakable torture. Silently, she returns to England and attempts to isolate herself, but it soon becomes apparent that the horrors of the world and her own nightmarish past aren’t so easy to escape from.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
Although Walters has always depicted malicious gossip and abuse of the elderly as serious social evils, by linking this behavior to the methodical savagery committed in wartime, she takes the suspense novel into new territory.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
British author Walters's harrowing 12th psychological chiller spotlights violent suffering and hard-won triumph for Connie Burns, a 36-year-old Reuters war correspondent who crosses a sadistic mercenary alternately identified as John Harwood, Kenneth McConnell and Keith MacKenzie. When she finds MacKenzie training Iraqi policemen in Baghdad in 2004, she links him to serial killings in Sierra Leone two years earlier. An enraged MacKenzie kidnaps, tortures, rapes and releases Connie, who is then too traumatized to coherently divulge details of her abduction. She retreats to a country house in Dorset, where she puzzles over the troubled past of the house ("a place of anguish") and hesitantly befriends her neighbors, the handsome Dr. Peter Coleman and Jess Derbyshire, a reclusive young woman who helps Connie heal from her ordeal. While she gradually recovers, she also lives with the surety that MacKenzie will come after her again. Walters (Disordered Minds) delivers an intense, engrossingly structured tour de force about survival and "the secret of freedom, courage." (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
War correspondent Connie Burns has seen a lot of violence and depravity in her career, but a volatile British mercenary scares her more than assignments in Iraq and Sierra Leone. Suspecting his involvement in the brutal murders of five women, Connie begins an investigation into the hiring of mercenaries. When she senses danger, she tries to flee but is abducted and held hostage for three days before being released. With family, friends, and the authorities concerned about her silence on the kidnapping, Connie retreats to the English countryside to recover from debilitating panic attacks. In Dorset, she fears her abductor will find her again; her abrasive neighbor and the local doctor try to allay her fears, but Connie knows she isn't safe. She keeps encouraging a long-distance investigation into the mercenary; at the same time, she finds a mystery in the past of her rented house. Walters (Disordered Minds) successfully keeps the suspense high, using a complex structure that parsimoniously releases the details of Connie's abduction and eventual confrontation, though readers may still have questions at the end. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Devon Thomas, Chelsea, MI Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Have current events finally caught up with Walters's unremittingly brutal imagination? The latest of her masterful psychological thrillers (Fox Evil, 2003, etc.) examines the effects of terrorism as it ranges from Baghdad to West Dorset. "You'll know not to cross me," soldier-of-fortune John Harwood tells Reuters correspondent Connie Burns when he hears she's accused him of raping and murdering the five Sierra Leone women three teenagers are being blamed for killing. Connie doesn't expect to meet him again, but two years later, while she's covering the Iraq war, she comes face to face with Keith MacKenzie, who's obviously Harwood by another name. The polite insinuations about his past she makes to a spokesperson for MacKenzie's security firm are met with equally polite stonewalling, and she decides it's the better part of valor to retreat to London. But on the way to the airport, she's kidnapped and held captive for three agonizing days before an unexpected release that amounts to a second hell. Because she has no serious visible injuries, she's been let go far sooner than most victims of abduction, and because she refuses to say a word about her captivity, the authorities greet her story with undisguised suspicion. Cut off from everyone but her loving, helpless parents by her panic attacks and inability to come to terms with her violation, she retreats to Barton House, a crumbling rental in Winterbourne Valley. Instead of writing the contracted book about her ordeal, she plumbs the history linking her neighbor, fearsomely gruff farmer/artist Jess Derbyshire, to Lily Wright, the Alzheimer's-stricken owner of the house Jess found collapsed by the side of Lily's fishpond eight monthsago. Though the story of the Wrights and the Derbyshires strangely echoes Connie's own, the real satisfaction here is waiting for that story to conclude with the inevitable return of Keith MacKenzie. Genteel and horrifying as ever, with a particularly unsparing examination of the rage of traumatized victims.
From the Publisher
"Narrator Josephine Bailey, who has won several awards for her distinctive audio performances, perfectly captures all the nuances, fears and emotions of The Devil's Feather." —Sun-Sentinel

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
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Random House
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I don’t know if that story was picked up in the West. I believe some interest was shown in South Africa, but only because rape and murder had been high on that country’s agenda for some time. I was transferred to Asia shortly afterwards, so I never learnt the outcome of the trial. I assumed the teenagers were convicted because justice, like everything else in Sierra Leone, was subject to economic restrictions. Even if the court went to the expense of appointing a public defence lawyer, confessions of guilt, with graphic details of how each victim was murdered, would attract a summary sentence.

I know Alan Collins was troubled by the indictments, but there was little he could do about it when his request for an experienced pathologist was refused. He was in a difficult position—more an observer than an adviser—with less than two weeks of his secondment left at the time of Amie Jonah’s abduction, and the youths’ descriptions of their crimes effectively sealed their fate. Nevertheless, Alan remained sceptical.

“They were in no fit state to be questioned,” he told me. “Amie’s family had reduced them to pulp. They’d have said anything the police wanted them to say rather than face another beating.”

He was also troubled by the crime scenes. “I saw two of the bodies in situ,” he said, “and neither of them looked like a gang attack. Both women were huddled in the corners of the rooms with their heads and shoulders sliced to ribbons and defence wounds to their arms. It looked to me as if they were trying to protect themselves from a single individual who attacked from the front. A gang would have been slashing at them from all sides.”

“What can you do?”

“Very little. No one’s been interested since the youths confessed. I’ve written a report, pointing up the anomalies, but there are precious few doctors in Freetown, let alone forensic pathologists.” He smiled ruefully. “The thinking seems to be that they deserve what they get because there’s no doubt they were trying to abduct young Amie.”

“If you’re right, won’t the killer strike again? Won’t that exonerate the boys?”

“It depends who he is. If he’s a local, then probably . . . but if he’s one of the foreign contingent”—he shrugged—“I’m guessing he’ll export his activities elsewhere.”

It was that conversation which increased my suspicions of John Harwood. When he was first pointed out to me in Paddy’s Bar—Freetown’s equivalent of Stringfellows—I knew I’d seen him before. I wondered if it was in Kinshasa in 1998 when I was covering the civil war in the Congo. I recalled him being in uniform then—almost certainly as a mercenary because the British army wasn’t involved in that conflict—but I didn’t think he’d been calling himself John Harwood.

By the spring of 2002 in Sierra Leone he was dressed in civvies and had a bad reputation. I saw him in three fights while I was there, and heard about others, but he was never on the receiving end of the damage. He had the build of a terrier—middling height, lean muscular frame, strong neck and limbs—and a terrier’s ferocity once he had his teeth into someone. Most of the ex-pats gave him a wide berth, particularly when he was drinking.

At that time Freetown was full of foreigners. The UN was coordinating efforts to put the country back on its feet, and most of the ex-pats worked for the international press, NGOs, religious missions or world charities. A few, like Harwood, had private contracts. He was employed as chauffeur/bodyguard to a Lebanese businessman, who was rumoured to have interests in a diamond mine. Once in a while the pair of them vanished abroad with heavily armoured cases, so the rumours were probably true.

Along with everyone else, I tended to avoid him. Life was too short to get involved with loners with chips on their shoulders. However, I did make one overture during the six months I was there when I asked him to pass on a request for an interview with his boss. Diamonds were a hot topic in the aftermath of the conflict. The question of who owned them and where the money was going had been a bone of contention in Sierra Leone for decades. None of the wealth was fed back into the country and the people’s resentment at their grinding, subsistence-level poverty had been the spark which ignited the civil war.

Predictably, I got nowhere near Harwood’s boss, but I had a brief exchange with Harwood himself. None of the local women would cook or clean for him, so most evenings he could be found eating alone at Paddy’s Bar, which was where I approached him. I said I thought our paths had crossed before, and he acknowledged it with a nod.

“You’re bonnier than I recall, Ms. Burns,” he said in a broad Glaswegian accent. “Last time I saw you you were a little mouse of a thing.”

I was surprised he remembered my name, even more surprised by the backhanded compliment. The one fact everyone knew about Harwood was that he didn’t like women. It poured out of him under the influence of Star beer, and gossip had it that he was in the tertiary stage of syphilis after contracting it from a whore. It was a convenient explanation for his aggressive misogyny, but I didn’t believe it myself. Penicillin was too freely available for any Westerner to progress beyond the primary stage.

I told him what I wanted and placed a list of questions on the table, together with a covering letter explaining the nature of the piece I was planning. “Will you pass these on to your boss and give me his answer?” Access to anyone was difficult except through a third party. The rebel fighters had destroyed most of the communications network and, with everyone living in secure compounds, it was impossible to blag your way past the guards without an appointment.

Harwood prodded the papers back at me. “No to both requests.”

“Why not?”

“He doesn’t talk to journalists.”

“Is that him speaking or you?”

“No comment.”

I smiled slightly. “So how do I get past you, Mr. Harwood?”

“You don’t.” He crossed his arms and stared up at me through narrowed eyes. “Don’t push your luck, Ms. Burns. You’ve had your answer.”

My dismissal, too, I thought wryly. Even with a score of ex-pats within hailing distance, I didn’t have the nerve to press him further. I’d seen the kind of damage he could do, and I didn’t fancy being on the receiving end.

Paddy’s was the favoured watering-hole of the international community because it remained open throughout the eleven-year conflict. It was a large open-sided bar-cum-restaurant, with tables on a concrete veranda, and it was a magnet for local hookers in search of dollars. They learnt very quickly to avoid Harwood after he hurt one so badly that she was hospitalized. He spoke pidgin English, which is the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, and cursed the girls vilely in their own tongue if they tried to approach him. He called them “devil’s feathers” and lashed out with his fists if they came too close.

He was rather more careful around Europeans. The charities and missions had a high percentage of female staff, but if a white woman jogged his arm he always let it go. Perhaps he was intimidated by them—they were a great deal brighter than he was, with strings of letters after their names—or perhaps he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away with it. The less articulate black girls were easier targets for his anger. It persuaded most of us that he was a racist as well as a woman-hater.

There was no telling how old he was. He had a shaven head, tattooed with a winged scimitar at the base of his skull, and the sun had dried his skin to leather. When drunk, he boasted that he’d been in the SAS unit that stormed the Iranian embassy in London in 1980 and the scimitar was his badge of honour. But, if true, that would have put him in his late forties or early fifties, and his devastating punches suggested someone younger. Despite the strong Scottish accent, he claimed to come from London, although no one in the UK ex-pat community believed him, any more than they believed that John Harwood was the name he had been born with.

Nevertheless, if Alan Collins hadn’t made his remark about the foreign contingent, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that there might be more to Harwood’s violence than anyone realized. Even when it did, there was nothing I could do about it. Alan had returned to Manchester by then and the murders of the women had quickly faded from memory.

I ran my suspicions past a few of my colleagues, but they were sceptical. As they pointed out, the killings had stopped with the arrest of the boys, and Harwood’s modus operandi was to use his fists, not a machete. The tenor of their argument seemed to be that, however despicable Harwood was, he wouldn’t have raped the women before murdering them. “He can’t even bring himself to touch a black,” said an Australian cameraman, “so he’s hardly likely to soil himself by dipping his wick into one.”

I gave it up because the only evidence I could cite against Harwood was a particularly brutal attack on a young prostitute in Paddy’s Bar. A good hundred people had witnessed it, but the girl had taken money in lieu of prosecution so there wasn’t even a report of the incident. In any case, my stint in Sierra Leone was almost at an end and I didn’t want to start something that might delay my departure. I persuaded myself it wasn’t my responsibility and confined justice to the dustbin of apathy.

By then I’d spent most of my life in Africa, first as a child, then working for newspapers in Kenya and South Africa, and latterly for Reuters as a newswire correspondent. It was a continent I knew and loved, having grown up in Zimbabwe as the daughter of a white farmer, but by the summer of 2002 I’d had enough. I’d covered too many forgotten conflicts and too many stories of financial corruption. I planned to stay a couple of months in London, where my parents had been living since 2001, before moving on to the Reuters bureau in Singapore to write about Asian affairs.

The night before I left Freetown for good, I was in the middle of packing when Harwood came to my house. He was escorted to my door by Manu, one of the Leonean gate-guards, who knew enough about the man’s reputation to ask if I wanted a chaperone. I shook my head, but protected myself by talking to Harwood on my veranda in full view of the rest of the compound.

He studied my unresponsive expression. “You don’t like me much, do you, Ms. Burns?”

“I don’t like you at all, Mr. Harwood.”

He looked amused. “Because I wouldn’t pass on your request for an interview?”


The one-word response seemed to throw him. “You shouldn’t believe everything people say about me.”

“I don’t have to. I’ve seen you in action.”

A closed expression settled on his face. “Then you’ll know not to cross me,” he murmured.

“I wouldn’t bet on it. What do you want?”

From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher
"Narrator Josephine Bailey, who has won several awards for her distinctive audio performances, perfectly captures all the nuances, fears and emotions of The Devil's Feather." —-Sun-Sentinel

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