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