Book review – Mind over Murder

2013-02-10 10:00

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Belinda Bauer is a worthy descendant of the grande dames of crime fiction, writes Gayle Edmunds

While their styles might be completely different, you can track the grand tradition of British crime fiction from the ­empress of the genre, Agatha Christie, during its golden age to relative newcomer Belinda Bauer, whose latest novel, Rubbernecker, is a cracker.

I somehow missed Bauer’s ­debut, Blacklands, which won the coveted CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Novel of the Year, but I caught the second, Dark Side, which first made me take notice.

Rubbernecker takes Bauer’s ­exploration of the psychological thriller to a new place, yet firmly links her to the British dames of crime fiction past and present.

Christie was the first crime ­writer to engage with the psychological motives for murder and she reigned supreme from the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920 until her final one in 1976, Sleeping Murder.

There were 66 in all, not ­including short stories and novels in other genres. It’s a tough act to ­follow, though another of British crime fiction’s grande dames, Ruth Rendell, hits the 50 crime fiction novels tally with this year’s publication of No Man’s Nightingale, an Inspector Wexford mystery.

Rendell alternates yearly between Wexford and a stand-alone novel, and has done so since 1964 when her debut, From Doon With Death, was published. She, like Christie before her and Bauer ­after, explores the psychology of crime with precision.

While Christie uses the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot and the village-bred intuition of Miss Marple to solve her crimes, these detectors are as much outsiders as Bauer’s latest protagonist, who has what whodunnit puzzle solvers need most – a unique way of seeing the world.

The protagonist of Rubbernecker is Patrick, a young man with ­Asperger syndrome. He is emotionally detached and much of the book is told in his voice, which ­offers the reader an insight into the way he thinks, but most of all ­allows the reader to see the clues the way he does. With Patrick ­being such a singular person, ­Bauer also makes use of other ­voices to take various strands of the story tapestry ­forward.

There is the man in a coma who is reaching for consciousness, as well as the nurse on his ward who is most interested in snagging the rich husband of one of her patients. There’s also a contribution from Patrick’s mother, a woman who is really hard to like especially as she seems to so despise her own child.

Patrick wants to study anatomy. He doesn’t see it as a means to an end, but merely a way of understanding how the human being works and so unravel how we come to die. His obsession with finding that which extinguishes the flame of life is linked to the freak accident that killed his father in front of his eyes. He can’t reconcile the ­absolute realities of life and death.

He is assigned a ­cadaver, along with a team of other students, all of whom are on their way to becoming doctors and the big reveal at the end of the course is the cause of death of the cadaver. Patrick though can’t wait and spends all his time researching the cause of death, which is when he finds a discrepancy between what the death certificate has ­recorded and what the postmortem ­evidence says.

Rubbernecker, like many of ­Rendell’s stand-alone novels, takes a long time to become about a ­murder. It is about the ­psychology of the people involved. The writer fills out each individual puzzle piece before drawing the pieces ­together to create a whole picture.

Bauer has also managed to ­create a closed group of suspects, not easy in the modern world, when group visits to big country houses aren’t the norm and ­everyone owns a cellphone.

Christie had it easy from that point of view and her best book, according to critics at the time, And Then There Were None, relied on everyone having no means of communication with the outside world. In a time of Google, the cat would have been out of the bag in the first paragraph.

While some critics have had a go at Bauer for not making Rubbernecker pacy enough, I disagree. It’s a slow burner. She builds the suspense, she opens up a window into the mind of a puzzle solver that is too fascinating to turn away from and she feeds on our deepest fears with her exploration of the comatose condition – the fear that we are there, but nobody can hear us.

I think Christie would have ­enjoyed Bauer’s work and appreciated her preoccupation with psychology, even if Patrick has to be told to wonder why someone would lie when he never does.

Christie’s own creations, Poirot and Marple, are absolutely obsessed with the why of lying and it is often the key to solving the mystery.

Personally, I hope to detect with Patrick again because he really does stand out from the ­detective crowd.

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