If this little girl is a special case, what about all the others?

Independent on Sunday, 23 January 2011

Fifteen months ago, I chaired a meeting at the House of Commons for families with severely disabled children. Most were single parents, all were anxious, and some of their stories were horrendous. Lack of support and competition for scarce resources were common; one mother had become so desperate that she’d thrown herself from a bridge and, amazingly, survived.

I have a goddaughter who has Down’s syndrome. I’ve seen at first hand how hard it is to get support and protection for girls who are vulnerable, to sexual abuse among other things. I don’t think David Cameron is an uncaring man, especially after his own experience of looking after a severely disabled child, but I doubt if he realises just how hard life is for the vast majority in this situation.

In the past, the Prime Minister has spoken movingly about his own son, Ivan, who died suddenly in 2009. Last week, he responded swiftly when the mother of a severely disabled six-year-old posted a heart-rending message on a website and accused the Government of failing to support families like hers. Riven Vincent’s daughter Celyn is blind, quadriplegic, epileptic, and has cerebral palsy; in a visit to her home, as part of his election campaign, Mr Cameron promised to take a personal interest in Celyn’s case. So when Ms Riven reached breaking point last week and asked social services to take her daughter into care, it prompted an outcry.

It wasn’t actually clear if the cause of Ms Vincent’s distress was government-imposed cuts or financial decisions made by her local council. Ms Vincent said she’d been refused an increase in the modest respite care her family currently gets, even though this Government and its predecessor have increased funds for that purpose. Campaigners point out that the money isn’t ring-fenced; local authorities are free to use it for other services. What is clear is that Ms Vincent, who has a partner and three other children, has been driven to despair. But her situation isn’t unique.

This is where we get to the heart of the problem facing Mr Cameron. Those families I met in 2009 were already struggling, and that was before George Osborne announced savage public-sector cuts. The coalition’s cuts agenda might be perceived as fair in a society in which resources are equally distributed to begin with, but they are not. Worse, Mr Cameron leads a party committed to lower taxes and less state intervention.

His ‘big society’ isn’t going to produce hundreds of thousands of suitably qualified volunteers who can take some of the burden off these families. Nor are they, in most cases, able to pay for help themselves. Contact a Family, a charity that supports parents with disabled children, has carried out research: the families it looked at had an average income of only £15,270, well below the UK mean, but the cost of raising a disabled child is three times higher. Few mothers of disabled children can work outside the home, and, unsurprisingly, many families are in debt.

Many families with severely disabled children were in financial and emotional crisis before Mr Cameron became Prime Minister. There are 770,000 disabled children under the age of 16 in the UK and most already live in poverty. What does the Government have to offer their families? If it’s nothing more than the empty rhetoric of the ‘big society’, Mr Cameron will find himself writing a lot more letters to distraught parents.

Shops: do we get the service we deserve?

Independent, Friday 14 January 2011

State of the British high street? It’s rubbish. Don’t take my word for it: some of the best-known names in retailing have reported poor results over the Christmas period, and they can’t blame it all on shoppers staying at home because of the snow. The companies that own Argos, Homebase, PC World and Currys recorded a decline in like-for-like sales, with the electrical retailer Dixons reporting a 4 per cent fall in the UK and Ireland. Even chocolate sales are down on the high street, with the chocolate maker Thorntons suffering a decline of almost 6 per cent.

In a recession, we should be scoffing chocolate truffles like there’s no tomorrow. But something has gone wrong with our service industries and even I, an inveterate shopper, have to admit that it’s become an unpredictable and irritating experience.

I walked out of a branch of the underwear shop Intimissimi the other day because an officious assistant kept asking my size and what I was looking for, refusing to let me browse. I don’t want to be followed round stores like a suspected shoplifter.

At the other end of the scale, I was dismayed to discover recently that most of the tills in my local Sainsbury’s have been replaced by self-service checkouts where you have to scan everything to a robotic chorus of “unidentified object in the bagging area”. “I hate these things”, I told the manager, and he immediately started to tell me how popular they are with his other customers. “No, they’re not,” declared a middle-aged man, and other customers joined in the protest.

The trend towards eliminating staff altogether is a symbol of the contempt felt by too many retailers for the very notion of “service”, and I can’t entirely blame poorly paid shop assistants for responding in kind.

At the same time, it’s hard not to get irritated when you stand in a queue, watching someone struggle to use a checkout they’re obviously unfamiliar with, or have to sort through dozens of single boots on the floor to find a pair that matches. That happened to me in Zara the other day, and the quest took so long I began to feel as though I was working there.

It’s not as if the widespread dissatisfaction of customers is unknown in the service industries, but what is in question is whether companies are prepared to do anything about it. This month, two TV programmes are highlighting the problems in British shops and restaurants, challenging the notion that poor service is inevitable. Mary Portas: Secret Shopper goes into high street shops and discovers untidy shop floors and apathetic staff, while Michel Roux’s Service follows new recruits who are learning to be top-class waiters and front-of-house staff in restaurants.

Some retailers, I suspect, take the view that apparently endless consumer demands for cheap food and clothes aren’t compatible with reasonable standards of service; staff get the bare minimum of training and have little or no experience of how to deal with queries or complaints.

Portas was right when she observed in a recent interview that “we are buying so much so quickly that we just have sales teams stacking, not serving”. We get what we pay for, a point that’s obvious when you compare the service in Tesco’s and Waitrose; if we’re willing to pay more, we have more grounds to complain.

I feel uneasy in some well-known chains, not just because the staff look miserable but because I’m aware of the invisible people, usually women in developing countries, who work for a pittance to produce skirts and tops that may be worn only a couple of times.

Our throwaway culture is bad for humans and animals, but it’s only now that the effects are being felt by retailers and consumers that something might finally be done.

The war of words claims terrible casualties

Independent on Sunday, 16 January 2011

Someone turns on the TV and sees a politician being interviewed. He’s never voted for her party, he disagrees with what she’s saying and he doesn’t like her hair. What does he do? He discovers her email address and lets her know what he’d like to do to a bitch like her.

Not long afterwards, the same man reads something that annoys him in a newspaper or more likely (as he doesn’t see why he should pay to read this stuff) on its website. In no time he’s emailing again, casting slurs on the columnist’s ethnicity, appearance and sexual performance.

Sadly, these are everyday occurrences in Britain and the US, where public discourse has been poisoned by rage, hate and envy. Public figures have been dehumanised to a point where abuse is routine, death threats far from uncommon, and a handful of people occasionally try to carry them out.

I’m not just thinking about poor Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman shot in Arizona last weekend, along with several constituents queuing to talk to her. In this country, a young Muslim woman is serving a life sentence for stabbing a Labour MP, Stephen Timms, after she read hate-filled material on the web from an Islamist cleric. After last year’s attack on Timms, a Lib Dem peer and former MP called on serving MPs to improve their security; Nigel Jones, as he then was, was attacked 11 years ago by a man with a samurai sword during a constituency surgery in Cheltenham. His aide, Andrew Pennington, was killed.

Like most columnists, I get hate mail and occasional threats, and I’ve read some of the abuse that’s regularly sent to MPs. It’s part of a wider phenomenon which Barack Obama addressed in a measured speech last week, talking about living in “a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do”.

It was in some ways a brilliant speech, capturing the sombre mood. But I fear that the President’s call to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully” went over the heads of people whose vision of public life is akin to a gore-stained gladiatorial arena. (Yes, I do mean Sarah Palin.)

Obama praised a concept I’m very keen on but haven’t heard much in recent years: civility. One of its meanings is politeness, but it also indicates a state of mind in which we’re all members of society and have obligations to each other – a far cry from what we’ve got at the moment.

When, I wonder, did people arrive at the conclusion that disagreeing with someone is synonymous with hating them? It exists alongside another vile assumption, the idea that all ideological opponents are liars, cheats and thieves. Among the online-abuse community, it’s beyond question that Julian Assange’s accusers are lying feminist slags.

I’m not arguing for legal restrictions on free speech, which has to include the possibility of saying things other people find offensive; the distinction I’m making is between robust public debate and personal abuse. The latter creates an atmosphere of cynicism and distrust which undermines the legitimacy of democratic politics.

“We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us,” Obama declared. It’s a long-overdue challenge to all the bloggers, shock jocks and ranters whose sole purpose is to humiliate and wound.

Gender inequality, not race, fosters abuse

Attitudes to women, rather than skin colour, are to blame for the behaviour of those who groomed girls with drink and drugs

Independent on Sunday, 9 January 2011

Two days ago, the ringleaders of an Asian gang from Derby who groomed girls as young as 12 for sex were jailed at Nottingham Crown Court. The indefinite sentences passed on Abid Saddique, 27, and 28-year-old Mohammed Liaqat, were the final act in a case that exposed horrific sexual offences against 27 girls, most of them aged between 12 and 16. The judge described Saddique as an evil predator with a voracious sexual appetite, and told him he would spend at least 11 years in prison.

The sentencing of the two men came at the end of a week in which the grooming of very young girls by Asian men in northern towns and cities has become an explosive political issue. Earlier in the week, The Times analysed 17 prosecutions since 1997, and reported that 53 of the 56 convicted men were Asian, 50 were Muslim, and most came from a British Pakistani background. Internal trafficking – gangs targeting vulnerable girls and passing them round other men for sex – has been highlighted before, including an interview in The Independent on Sunday in August with the mother of a white girl who was groomed by an Asian gang.

But the events of the last week have created a political storm. After the Derby case, a former home secretary, Jack Straw, suggested that Asian men were targeting white girls because they perceived them as more easily available than girls from their own background. Straw’s Blackburn constituency is one of a dozen northern towns in which men have been convicted of sexual offences against very young girls. In 2007, two Asian men were convicted in a case involving two 14-year-olds; they gave them alcohol and drugs, had sex with them and then passed them on to brothers, uncles and older males. In 2009, two more Asian men were convicted of offences against children, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl. But it’s worth noting that in November 2008, two other men from Blackburn were convicted of sexual offences against 14-year-old girls; both are white and members of the BNP.

The accusations that have flown in the last few days include furious claims of racism on one side, and allegations of a conspiracy of silence on the other; there have been claims that Asian and Muslim men are being unfairly stigmatised, along with triumphalism about Asian “perverts” on extremist websites. The truth is more prosaic, in that these horrific crimes against children are not racially-motivated in the obvious sense; bluntly, they are about a business opportunity. Gangs are making money out of a demand for very young girls, and Straw is right to suggest that the victims who are most easily available tend to be white.

In November, another dreadful case was heard at Sheffield Crown Court, where five Asian men from Rotherham were convicted of rape and several counts of sexual activity with a child. Mohsin Khan, a 21-year-old mortgage adviser, initially treated a 13-year-old “like a princess”, but the men’s behaviour soon changed. Umar Razaq, 24, pulled the hair of one of the victims and abused her as a “white bitch” when she resisted his attempts to strip her. All three victims were under social services supervision at the time.

It’s an undeniable fact that many of the defendants in these cases are from a Pakistani background. But there’s no evidence that men from one ethnic origin are more likely to abuse girls than any other. External trafficking to the UK often involves gangs from Eastern Europe, but that isn’t to say there’s something in the genetic make-up of Russian or Ukrainian men that makes them more likely to turn young women into sex slaves. Former Soviet states have high levels of unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence, conditions in which sexual abuse and trafficking flourish.

In that sense, patterns of offending reveal the importance not of race but of culture. It has become much more acceptable in the UK to visit “massage parlours” or buy sex on the street, encouraging an unpleasant trade that was fleetingly exposed to public view during the trials of the serial killers Stephen Griffiths and Steve Wright. Another pattern is emerging from the trials of Asian men convicted of grooming teenage girls for sex – to be precise, running prostitution rings where the victims are children who do not realise what’s happening until too late.

Most of the defendants have roots in rural areas of Pakistan, where family structure remains tribal and patriarchal. In such cultures, extra-marital sex is forbidden and girls and women become a potent focus of fear and desire, a circumstance that pimps in this country have skilfully exploited.

None of last week’s reports of the sexual abuse of mostly white teenage girls mentioned a related phenomenon – so-called “honour” killings within Asian families. Yet one trial after another has exposed brutal murders of Asian women (and, occasionally, Asian men) in this country; two years ago, the IoS reported that every year up to 17,000 women in Britain were being subjected to “honour”- related violence.

Some community leaders have condemned sexual exploitation of girls by Asian men, but it’s evident that they too have failed to understand the essentially commercial nature of the transactions. That’s not surprising, given that many imams come from a rural background where such crimes are almost unknown, while their own view of male-female relations tends to be hopelessly out of date.

What these trials have exposed is a particularly nasty development in the commercial sex industry. Dozens of foreign sex-traffickers are serving sentences in British prisons for crimes against women from Eastern Europe, South-east Asia and Africa, and the spotlight on their crimes has diverted attention from internal traffickers. Now their activities have been exposed and the common factor is a misogyny that dehumanises women and very young girls.

Despite the protestations yesterday of Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, cultural factors are hugely significant in such cases. Gender inequality facilitates abuse and that’s what we need to focus on, not the irrelevant matter of race.

Crime round-up

Gruesome murders in the Paris suburbs, a Somerset village and Oslo grip Joan Smith in her pick of the latest crime novels

Sunday Times, 9 January 2011

Scandinavian crime has been so successful in recent years that it’s no surprise that the first big detective novel of 2011 comes from the Norwegian Jo Nesbo. In a crowded field, Nesbo’s detective Harry Hole has always been a contender for the title of most lugubrious character in contemporary crime fiction, and his latest outing plumbs new depths of alienation and despair.

The Leopard (translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £13.27) opens with Hole trying to forget his sorrows in Hong Kong’s opium dens. Still traumatised by his confrontation with a serial killer known as The Snowman, he returns to Oslo to visit his father in hospital and is drawn into investigating a bizarre series of murders. The victims are young women who have drowned in their own blood, and in each case the pathologist finds 24 puncture wounds in their mouths.

The device that caused the wounds is one of the most fiendish to feature in a modern crime novel, and the only thing the victims have in common is the fact that they spent a night in an isolated mountain hostel. The plot of The Leopard is intriguing, and Nesbo’s writing is as taut as ever. But the combination of slow torture and Hole’s nihilism makes the book a distasteful read, crossing a line into almost wanton horror.

Belinda Bauer won the CWA Gold Dagger for her first crime novel, Blacklands, and she’s produced a barnstorming follow-up with Darkside (Bantam £12.99). Jonas Holly is the local bobby in Shipcott, the Somerset village where Blacklands was set, and he feels a heavy responsibility for the safety of its inhabitants. He is already dealing with a personal tragedy, the decline of his wife Lucy who suffers from MS, when someone starts killing vulnerable people in the village. The first victim is a woman paralysed from the neck down after a riding accident, while the second suffers from dementia.

Holly has known the victims all his life and he resents having to hand over the investigation to Marvel, a boorish detective chief inspector from Taunton. Marvel treats Holly as an idiot, but that isn’t the only insult the tortured young PC has to put up with; anonymous notes start turning up, taunting Holly about his failure to stop the killer and forcing him to take desperate measures. Bold, mordant and compassionate, Darkside confirms Bauer’s reputation as a significant new talent.

The Facility (Mantle £12.99) is a second novel by Simon Lelic, following his highly praised debut, Rupture. Arthur is an unremarkable man, a dentist who’s separated from his wife, so he can’t understand what he’s doing in a top-secret facility where most of the other inmates seem to be infected with a virulent disease. His wife convinces a reporter to look into his disappearance, but this classic race against time – and two people trying to expose an official cover-up – falls curiously flat.

That certainly isn’t the case with Faïza Guène’s Bar Balto (translated by Sarah Ardizzone, Chatto £11.99/ebook £12.25), which opens with a chatty corpse describing his own demise. Until his violent death, Joel Morvier owned a bar in a village at the end of the Paris RER line, and he had so many enemies the police certainly don’t lack suspects. The characters in this unconventional crime novel tell the story in their own words, leading to a sly and unexpected denouement. Guène, a rising star of French fiction, with Algerian parents, is brilliantly attuned to the idioms of the banlieue.

How about telling men, not women, to stay indoors?

In the wake of Joanna Yeates’s murder, why is the onus placed on only one half of the population to make radical changes in their daily routine?

Independent, Wednesday 5 January 2011

Imagine the scene: thousands of students are about to return to a university city where a young woman has been brutally murdered. The police do not know where or when she died but they announce that her killer “remains at large”. They call on men not to go out after dark until the killer is caught. “We ask men to go out in the evening only if their journey is really necessary, and to make sure they’re accompanied by a woman,” says the senior investigating officer.

Well, that’s my fantasy. What the police have actually done in Bristol, where they’re under huge pressure to identify the killer (or killers) of a young landscape architect, is issue an appeal to women not to walk home alone after dark. They’ve issued this alarming edict even though there’s a glaring hole in their logic: detectives say they’re “satisfied” that 25-year-old Joanna Yeates arrived at her flat in Clifton on 17 December, the night she disappeared, which suggests that home isn’t a particularly safe option for local women either.

That message has been reinforced by police advice to “householders” to make sure that their premises are secure and take care when answering the door to strangers. But the specific advice to women to avoid walking home alone after dark means that the onus is once again on one half of the population to make radical changes in their daily routine. How on earth are women and girls in Bristol supposed to avoid going home alone in the dark when the sun sets at around 4.15 in the afternoon? Do Avon and Somerset police seriously expect the city’s female population to observe an unofficial 16-hour curfew?

Just think of the chaos on public transport if women teachers, supermarket cashiers, office workers and indeed female police officers – there must be one or two, even if the top brass haven’t noticed – rush home before it gets dark. Then there are the cleaners and bar staff whose jobs require them to work unsocial hours; some of them are bound to be students or single mothers, and unable to afford taxis home at the end of a shift.

I was going to write that it’s incredible, in the 21st century, that the police are still issuing this thoughtless and insulting advice to women. Sadly, it isn’t: it’s easier to impose an unofficial curfew than to think about how the streets can be made safer, even if that means accepting the astonishing proposition that our cities and towns are no-go areas for women during the hours of darkness. Could there be a more damning indictment of the police in this country?

Everyone wants more officers on the streets but they’re especially needed at night when women are leaving restaurants, waiting for buses and walking home from bus stops. Last year, when I reported a spate of car crime in my street, a PC let slip that there are no routine patrols after 6pm, even though it’s a popular late-night cut-through for pedestrians from one main road to another.

It isn’t just girls and women who should be angry about this cavalier attitude to public safety. I wonder how men would feel if the entire male population was periodically advised to stay home between dusk and dawn if they want to avoid being murdered? Such advice is more than an imposition; it’s an outrage.

It isn’t a big step from telling women to stay indoors at night to questioning why we have to go out at all during the hours of darkness when a murderer is “at large”. I mean, are we stupid? Guilty of “contributory negligence”? In Bristol, women are already telling reporters how frightened they are in their own homes, let alone on the streets; they don’t know what to do and the situation has been exacerbated by confusing and contradictory messages from senior officers on the Yeates investigation. A “suspect” has been released on bail and suddenly there is talk of more than one killer; it still isn’t clear whether Ms Yeates was followed home by a stranger, let someone known to her into the building where she lived, or confronted the killer inside her flat.

What’s particularly distressing about this case is that the victim was a modern young woman, doing a job she loved in a vibrant city. On the night she disappeared, she did perfectly ordinary things like stopping on the way home for a pizza; if this could happen to her, it could happen to anybody.

Against this background, making local women feel even more vulnerable isn’t helpful, especially when the advice they’re being offered is next to useless. What’s needed is the reassurance of extra patrols, police travelling on buses at night, and a much greater readiness on the part of officers to look out for and challenge men on dark streets. And if you think that’s a breach of civil liberties, it’s no more so than expecting half the population to stay at home after dark.

A similar edict was given in the 1970s, as the number of women murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper continued to climb. Ripper squad detectives warned women not to go out alone after dark – a fat lot of good to me, since I often had to work night shifts on a radio station in Manchester, a city where the Ripper had already killed two women. Long before Peter Sutcliffe was caught, I realised that the police were making a terrible mess of the investigation, largely because of their outdated and misogynist attitudes to women’s lives.

Now senior officers in Bristol appear to be treating local women like Victorian ladies who are accustomed to needing chaperones. In 1977, women students in Leeds responded by organising the first Reclaim the Night march in this country, and similar demonstrations were soon taking place in other towns and cities. The message – that women would not be terrorised off the streets either by the Ripper or the police failing to do their job properly – was unambiguous.

I understand why the murder of Joanna Yeates has gripped the nation, and I want her killer or killers to be caught. In the meantime, local women are right to be anxious – and entitled to advice that recognises how they live and work. If Avon and Somerset police can’t provide that, I hope women in Bristol will come on to the streets and once again Reclaim the Night.

Bobby Farrell was the Original Daddy Cool

Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2010

It was the era of glitter balls, Saturday Night Fever, girls dancing round handbags – and Boney M. When I heard about the sudden death last week of the band’s frontman, Bobby Farrell, it took me back to 1978 and one of their biggest hits; it’s hard to believe now, but Boney M really did perform in mini cossack costumes and sing hypnotically about the murder of Rasputin, the last tsarina’s notorious confidant.

Farrell died in a hotel in St Petersburg, still touring at the age of 61. Boney M weren’t allowed to perform ‘Rasputin’ when they visited the USSR in 1978, presumably because the divinely camp lyrics – ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine/It was a shame how he carried on’ – were considered too sensitive. (Eerily, the last two syllables of Rasputin form the name of Russia’s current prime minister, judo expert and all-round love machine, Vladimir Putin. How prescient is that?)

I’ve danced to Boney M many times and I know most of their lyrics by heart, along with all the words to Saturday Night Fever and every single one of Abba’s hits. Pop songs took the place of poetry for my generation, and the words of hundreds of Seventies disco tracks are firmly lodged in my head. I’m not the only one, judging by the popularity of sing-along screenings of Mamma Mia!

Disco, and Boney M, were in their heyday in the late Seventies. It was cooler to admire the Sex Pistols, but I love dancing and I retained my passion for Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Sister Sledge and even Gloria Gaynor. I was going through a difficult time with men and I liked ‘I Will Survive’ the first thousand or so times I heard it, although I’d gone right off it by the time it came to be weepily associated with Princess Diana.

Boney M were as much performance art as a pop group, and that’s something they have in common with contemporary stars such as Lady GaGa. Farrell didn’t actually sing on their records but he had been a DJ before fronting the band, and he threw himself into stage performances with utter conviction. Boney M were the creation of a German record producer, Frank Farian, who chose Farrell and three other performers from Caribbean backgrounds to front songs he recorded himself in the studio. Farian dressed them in fabulous outfits, provided them with songs based on everything from Biblical psalms to Russian history, and a string of top ten hits followed. Boney M’s version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, originally sung by Harry Belafonte, was number one in the UK at Christmas in 1978.

Disco was always a theatrical medium, cramming intense feeling into short lyrics, and in the Seventies it perfectly expressed the yearning of women and gay men for sexual freedom; one critic described the 1975 disco hit ‘Love to Love You Baby’ as ‘little more than Donna Summer simulating an orgasm or twenty’. Summer performed on stage with a troupe of male and female dancers in skin-tight glittery costumes, while all four members of Boney M camped it up on video like divas in extravagant (and pre-animal-rights) furs.

Curiously, given how overtly sexual Seventies disco was, those videos now seem to belong to a more innocent age. Disco broke taboos all over the place, mixing up culture, race and sexuality, and Boney M’s fusion of European, Caribbean and Eastern influences still has the power to amaze.

Indeed the only thing wrong with Seventies disco, in my view, is that it’s tricky to dance to in the five-inch heels I’ve just bought in the sales. But just let me kick them off and I’ll be on the dance floor in no time. All together now, arms above our heads: ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen…’

She’s a Thriller Queen

Sunday Times, 2 January 2010

Belinda Bauer is taking on the Scandinavians at the crime-writing game with her dark English novels — and it’s all thanks to Jaws

She isn’t a world-famous Swede or an edgy Norwegian. Her novels are set in an English village and her characters rarely encounter spies or computer hackers. But the British novelist Belinda Bauer has already won the biggest prize in crime writing, and she’s being hailed as the woman most likely to lead the fight-back against the Scandinavian crime wave. So who exactly is the unassuming author who’s taking on international best-sellers such as Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo?

Bauer lives in a modest former council house just outside Cardiff. She is down-to-earth, with shoulder-length red hair and a fondness for fast cars and small dogs; her boyfriend, who owns cats, has his own place nearby. Bauer was on the CWA Debut Dagger shortlist in 2008 and won the 2010 Gold Dagger for her first novel Blacklands, catapulting her from relative obscurity – she wrote screenplays for years with a ‘soul-destroying’ lack of success – to the front rank of the world’s crime writers. Her second, the eagerly-anticipated Darkside, is out this month and it cocks a snook at the traditional English crime novel; there’s no big house, the detective leading the investigation is decidedly uncouth and most of the locals struggle to make ends meet.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing in which a Somerset village becomes the setting for a bloodbath, with an absolutely stunning denouement. None of that should come as a surprise to anyone who’s readBlacklands, which broke taboos with its central relationship between a pubescent boy and a convicted paedophile killer. ‘Some people absolutely hated my first book’, Bauer admits as we share tea and chocolate brownies over her kitchen table in Wales. There’s a pause and she confides: ‘Fifty per cent of my sisters hated it!’

Bauer has four sisters, three of them writers – a journalist and an author in South Africa, plus a teacher who once won a writing competition – while the fourth is a jazz singer. She doesn’t seem unduly upset by a less-than-positive reaction from half her siblings, but perhaps that isn’t surprising when you learn that her mother once gave her a plaque inscribed with the improving message, ‘never be boastful’. Bauer was born in Bromley but moved to South Africa for ten years before returning to live in Devon; the Cardiff connection came about when she went to university there, started working as a journalist and liked the area so much that she never left. Her late father was a dentist and her mother a dental nurse, although she now works as a barmaid in Devon; Bauer’s observations of rural life in Devon shaped her fictional village of Shipcott, which is set on Exmoor in Somerset and is the setting for both her novels.

Next year there’ll be a third and Bauer’s publishers, who were insistent that Darkside should have the same setting as the hugely successful Blacklands, may already be rubbing their hands at the prospect of a Shipcott trilogy. Bauer hints darkly that such cataclysmic events happen in the third novel that she’ll soon be done with Shipcott for good, but for the moment she’s still getting used to thinking about herself as a crime writer. ‘I’m very nervous about reading crime fiction’, she says. ‘I’m not very clever as far as crime stuff goes. I can never work out whodunit and I’m always shocked by the denouement of any film’.

She didn’t read Agatha Christie as a child: ‘I read the Secret Seven, that’s the last crime story I read’. What about Stieg Larsson, whom she can’t have avoided noticing is now the second best-selling author in the world? Bauer admits to buying a copy of the first volume of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but she didn’t get on with it at all. It needs editing, she says crisply, and goes on to tell me that Sweden was one of the last countries to buy rights to Blacklands. This seems to have caused a little soul-searching: ‘Why doesn’t Sweden love me?’ she demands comically. ‘It’s probably why I’m a bit churlish about Stieg’.

Larsson famously collapsed and died at the age of 50, before his Millennium trilogy became a worldwide phenomenon. At 47, Bauer is three years younger and has no intention of following in his footsteps. ‘I specially don’t want to be dead’, she says with a shudder. She gets plenty of exercise walking two energetic terriers who leap into alarming life when the postman, Dave, knocks at the front door with a parcel. There’s a scrabble of claws on the wooden floor and he is greeted by an absolute cacophony of barking; Bauer chats companionably with him on the doorstep and I get the sense that she’s perfectly happy in her small house, despite the recent and dramatic alteration in her fortunes. Only three or four years ago, when a friend suggested that she enter a competition in a literary magazine, she was so poor that she could barely afford the £20 entry fee.

I press Bauer on her literary influences and she mentions Stephen King. Then she brightens, remembering that she also loved Jaws: ‘It’s a serial killer novel but the killer is a shark’, she offers, doing her best to come up with crime-writing credentials. The novel was banned (because of the sex, apparently) in South Africa and ‘I made my grandmother smuggle it through customs’, she says with a grin. It’s when she talks about her family that the bookishness of her background suddenly emerges; there was no point in approaching either of her parents to resolve sibling quarrels or even ‘cook meals’, Bauer says with startling candour, because they were always absorbed in books.

Some of her own early life got into Blacklands. The novel is set in a working-class milieu where families live on top of each other in cramped houses – not the rural England of Agatha Christie but a tougher, altogether grittier place where lives are blighted at an early age by low expectations. ‘When we moved to Devon from South Africa, it was quite a shock. People drove older cars, they wore older clothes. Stephen’s experience in Blacklands was very much my experience. We were the kids at school whose clothes smelled of mildew’.

Bauer initially regarded Blacklands as ‘coming of age novel with a twist’ although it has to be said that the twist – Stephen’s correspondence with his uncle’s killer, trying to persuade him to reveal the location of the body – is a pretty unusual one.  Darkside is at first glance a more conventional crime novel, until it becomes apparent that Bauer has unleashed a serial killer on Shipcott’s unfortunate inhabitants. The first victim is an elderly woman, smothered in her bed, while the second is a woman suffering from dementia who is found in a freezing-cold stream wearing only her nightclothes; someone is targeting Shipcott’s most vulnerable residents and Bauer ramps up the psychological tension like an old hand.

At the same time, Darkside has some memorable characters. Stephen from Blacklands makes a cameo appearance but the book’s focus is on the village policeman, Jonas Holly, and his wife Lucy. Holly is a decent man with a tormenting conscience and he’s relentlessly mocked, first by the detective sent to investigate the murders and then by an anonymous accuser who leaves notes accusing him of failing to protect his ‘own’ people. As the corpses pile up, Holly forces himself to leave Lucy, who is becoming progressively more disabled by MS, to patrol the village at night in search of the killer.

Holly’s relationship with Lucy is one of the most touching things in the novel, although this is one instance where Bauer didn’t write from experience. ‘If I had MS and was stuck in this cold little cottage on Exmoor, how would I feel?’ she asked herself when she began writing. At the same time, she decided that she would keep the formal police investigation at arm’s length: ‘Statistically the police don’t solve that many crimes. I feel they’re very well represented in crime novels and I just felt I didn’t want them to take centre stage in any of my books’.

The result is one of the most gripping crime novels you’ll read in 2011, even if its author still regards herself as an accidental crime writer. ‘You know, I’m really lucky to have been pigeon-holed as a crime writer’, she assures me. ‘How can someone be killing all these people in a place where everyone knows everyone else? It’s really played into my hands.’

But she’s still not keen to be compared with those best-selling Scandinavians. ‘The biggest influence on my writing is song lyrics’, she reveals as I get ready to leave. ‘Some of the lyrics used in three minute pop songs are superlative. They’re really succinct, they have to say everything in these short little songs. I love a lyrical quality to words and the structure of a sentence’. Forget Larsson and Nesbo; the next big thing in crime fiction dreams of being compared to Elvis Costello.

Darkside is published by Bantam, £12.99

Death and the Maidens

Sunday Times, 2 January 2010

Ciudad Juarez is the border city in Mexico where hundreds, possibly thousands, of young women have been abducted and murdered in recent years. Most of the victims have been students or factory workers, and the corpses show signs of torture and sexual violence. There has been an international outcry about the failure of the Mexican authorities to protect women or bring the perpetrators to justice, but the killings continue.

Sam Hawken is an American historian, originally from Texas, and he has chosen Juarez as the setting for his first novel. Paloma is a young woman who works with a group called Mujeres Sin Voces (Women Without Voices), a fictional organisation based on two real organisations in Juarez which campaign for justice for the victims. One of the most vivid images in Hawken’s book is a telegraph pole covered in fluttering photos of missing women, with new images added every few days.

Juarez is a city dominated by drugs cartels and Paloma’s boyfriend, a washed-up American boxer called Kelly Courter, is involved in the drugs trade at a low level; her brother Esteban deals in dope and Kelly helps him sell it to American tourists who’ve made the border crossing from El Paso. Kelly is a stock character, an ex-junkie on the run from the American police, but the situation in which he finds himself – the real-life murders of women on such an industrial scale have been termed a ‘feminicide’ – are highly unusual.

When Paloma disappears, Kelly is in a heroin-induced stupor. He surfaces to find himself one of the chief suspects, along with Esteban, and the two men soon experience the pitiless brutality of a Mexican prison; Hawken’s novel is graphically violent and not for squeamish readers. A world-weary cop, Sevilla, launches an unofficial investigation into Paloma’s abduction, and inevitably finds himself confronting drugs bosses and corrupt cops.

Hawken conveys the desperate atmosphere of Juarez, but it’s a pity that all his significant characters are male in a city where women are denied voices. That doesn’t stop the novel being both a tense, gripping read and a plea for justice. It deserves to be read on both counts.

The Dead Women of Juarez is published by Seprent’s Tail, £10.99