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Three Faces of Crime

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again I get a hankering for something in that line. I am clearly not destined to be a detective however because  I invariably pick the wrong person as the perpetrator and miss the significant clues along the way to their exposure. It doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is of a good standard and the plot doesn’t stretch credulity too much. What appeals to me about these books is they give me a chance to turn the dial down on the brain for a while. I’m not yearning for cosiness or the kind of book where it goes in one eye and out the other without touching the sides but I definitely want to be entertained.

All three of the crime novels I’ve read this year have had something about them that lifted them above the ordinary though their styles couldn’t be more different.

crimefiction

 

My love affair with Chief Inspector Gamache continues unabated. A Fatal Grace is book number two  in the series by Louise Penny but the fourth I’ve read (I’ve not been reading in order).

She takes us back to the Three Pines village, a Canadian community so small it can barely be found on the map. It’s a close knit community but there’s one person that the village has never taken to their heart: CC de Poitiers. This is a woman who alienated everyone from her husband and her sad, cowed daughter to her lover so there are not many tears shed when she is electrocuted during the annual curling event. But Armand Gamache is a man full of compassion and an understanding of human nature, skills which ably equip him to understand the undercurrents as he searches for the truth.  A well written novel which kept me guessing (almost) to the end and entertained with its wonderful scenes set in the village’s cosy bistro. I admire the way Penny has developed these characters, giving them little quirks and tics but never descending to the level of caricature. She has also cleverly set up a storyline that is expanded in later novels about a threat from unknown forces to our beloved Chief Inspector. If you’ve not been introduced to Gamache, I recommend you remedy that soon.

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cover of the first edition of ''The Mysterious Affair at Styles''. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

The cover of the first edition of ”The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel to be published by Agatha Christie. It’s the novel that introduces Hercule Poirot to the world as a man with eccentric habits and a razor sharp mind.

The story of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather simple by contemporary standards – just one death and that happens off stage so sparing us any ghoulish details. But it’s the way the novel evokes a particular time and place that I found more interesting.  It’s written in 1916 when the world of the Edwardian landed family seems to be in its last stages. The multi-generational family living at the country house of Styles try to keep up their old way of life but the reality of World War 1 with its talk of war work, rumours of spies and shortages of essentials impinge on their comforts. Poirot himself has been displaced by the war raging in his native Belgium, finding refuge with a few of his countryman in a house owned by Emily Inglethorp, the matriarch of Styles manor house.  It puts him in pole position when his benefactor is found dead inside her locked bedroom.  Not a book that lovers of highbrow literary fiction will enjoy very much it was interesting to see where the legend of Poirot began.

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Both Penny and Christie give us professional detectives who possess an extraordinary ability to understand the forces that drive people to murder, maim and prey on the weak and defenceless. It’s often not the crime itself that intrigues them, but the character that lies behind it.

dissectionThe protagonist in my third novel  isn’t a detective nor does he have any interest in the criminal mind. He doesn’t easily understand emotions in fact because Asperger’s Syndrome severely limits his emotional response to situations and makes it difficult for him to interpret other people’s behaviour. Patrick Fort is however fascinated by death, a fascination triggered when as a young boy he witnessed his father’s sudden demise in a road accident. His obsessive desire to know why someone dies takes him to a university anatomy course in Cardiff where he he looks for answers by dissecting cadavers donated in the interests of furthering medical understanding. After weeks of working on Corpse 19, the body of a middle-aged man, he is convinced the diagnosis given on the death certificate is incorrect. Few believe his claim that Corpse 19 did not die naturally but was murdered in a hospital high-dependency ward for coma patients.

The introduction of a ‘detective’ with Asperger’s Syndrome has of course obvious parallels with Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. Rubbernecker uses a similarly emotionally disconnected voice but was rather more successful for me than Haddon’s protagonist. There are times when Patrick Fort’s lack of social skills  result in some unintentionally funny scenes but we also empathise with his mother whose patience at her son’s behaviour has been tested to despair.

There is a lot to appreciate in this novel though Bauer’s ambition seems to have led her to intersperse the narrative of Patrick’s quest with several other strands which don’t work as well. The most prominent is the narrative of a middle-aged car accident victim man who is trying to recover his voice and the use of his body after lying in a coma for many years. Then there is a story line of a nurse working in the same coma unit who sets out to snare the wealthy husband of a patient. The connection between these strands does eventually come together though it makes for some confusing reading initially. I’ll give credit to Bauer however for attempting to break new ground in the realm of  psychological crime fiction. The shame is that we won’t get another chance to meet Patrick in any further novels.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Blacklands

Blacklands is an award-winning debut work by Belinda Bauer, the first title in a trilogy of crime novels set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. Told mainly from the perspective of twelve year old Steven Lamb, it’s a psychological suspense tale rather than a whodunnit. We know almost from the start who committed the crime. We know also that he was caught and brought to justice. But given the opportunity is he ready to kill again? And will Steven be the unwitting trigger?

Clearly this is not your typical crime novel. It was never in fact designed to be a crime novel since Bauer’s original intention was for the story to be simply about a boy and his grandmother.  But she became fascinated by the idea that something dreadful had happened to Steven’s family that was still affecting them twenty years later.  The ‘something dreadful’ turns out to be the disappearance of Steven’s uncle Billy. Everyone in his village believed the young boy was killed by serial murderer Arnold Avery and buried on the desolate moor like the six other children he abducted.  But Billy’s body was never found and Avery has never disclosed where he buried the body.  Billy’s mother (Steven’s gran) is so convinced he is still alive she stands in the window of her home every day, watching for him to walk up the street.

Steven’s family life is not a happy one even without the shadow cast by the unresolved crime.  His father abandoned him and his younger brother many years earlier. Steven yearns for a real dad  but few of the “uncles’ who make their appearance have stuck around for very long. His home is a mess with mildew on the walls and mushrooms growing on the bathroom floor. Money is scarce. The hoodies lie in wait to beat up Steven whenever they can. His one and only friend betrays him.

If only Steven can find Billy’s body he believes his suffering and that of his family will be at an end. Every weekend he goes out in secret to dig on the moorland in search of the hidden body. Without any clues he can’t hope to make much progress.  His solution is to contact the man who knows the location of Billy’s grave. His letters to Arnold Avery turn into a dangerous cat and mouse game in which Steven’s own life is imperiled.

It seems a little incredulous that a twelve year old would be able to engage in correspondence with a man serving life without questions being raised by prison authorities. But Bauer cleverly gets around this by making Steven’s identity part of a riddle Avery must solve. Equally deft is her characterisation of Steven. She makes him convincingly naive but with a high level of natural intelligence; a boy who just wants to do the right thing in the only way he knows how. A boy that you want to succeed.

The result is a novel that is disturbingly good. It doesn’t rely on intricate plotting or the skills of a super sleuth; just a good story and some believable characters. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Belinda Bauer but it won’t be the last.

Endnotes

Belinda Bauer was born in England and grew up there and in South Africa. She currently lives in Wales (not too far from my home in fact). She worked as a journalist and then as a screenwriter, winning the Carl Foreman Bafta for her first screenplay, ‘The Locker Room’.  Blacklands, her first novel, was published  in January 2010 and went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2010.

Her most recent novel, published earlier this year is The Shut Eye

Discover more about Belinda Bauer at her website 

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