Sunday, 22 July 2018

Snap, by Belinda Bauer

           In summer 1998 a car breaks down on a busy British motorway.  Pregnant mother Eileen Bright instructs her eleven year old son Jack to stay in the car with his nine year old sister Joy, and two year old Merry:  he will be in charge while she walks ‘just a little way’ to a roadside phone to call for help. 
            Well.  She has been gone so long that Merry is now yelling and Joy is whining that something must have happened to Mum.  And the heat in the car is so unbearable that they have to do something for relief.  They will walk up the road to find her, even though Jack has to carry Merry because she won’t walk, and Joy still whines because of the heat, then because no-one will stop to help them, then because the roadside emergency phone booth is empty, it’s receiver dangling:  WHERE IS THEIR MOTHER?
            Three years later Jack is still in charge whether he wants to be or not:  more than a week after their Mum disappeared and the police finally picked them up, despite tearful public pleas by their Dad for any sightings of her, her body is found, stabbed to death down a bank not far from the emergency phone.  The Bright family is in disarray:  Dad turns to drink, Joy starts to collect every newspaper report of her mother’s disappearance and murder, Merry is running wild, and Jack has resorted to burglary to put food on the table – and to pay for Joy’s newspapers.  It will only be a matter of time before Social Services arrive and they are all taken in to care, especially when Dad goes out for milk and never returns.  Jack would give anything not to be in charge:  he’s not old enough to cope with all this chaos and sadness.  And rage.  No-one has ever been charged with the murder of his mother, the evil, senseless act that destroyed their entire family.  If he could ever meet that killer, he would make him suffer long and hard before he killed him.
            Ms Bauer treats us to another beautifully plotted thriller, as engrossing as ‘Rubbernecker’ (see review below), the first of her books that I loved.  She invests great care into building her characters credibly, especially in the parallel mystery of pregnant wife Catherine While, who disturbs a burglar, (Jack) only to have the burglar turn the tables on her by leaving a knife by her bed with a note saying ‘I could have killed you.’
            And let us not forget The Boys In Blue:  it takes them some time to join the dots, mainly because DCI Marvel, transferred under a cloud from London is not initially interested in old cases, cold cases and least of all in burglaries;  it’s only when the burglar (Jack) is outed that he finally shows some interest, and a deal with the devil is made.  This is crime writing at its best:  Aren’t we readers lucky!  FIVE STARS.      

Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer

Patrick Fort is 18 years old, and has left home  to study anatomy at university in the Welsh city of Cardiff.  He will share a tiny house with two other students and has a small allowance from his mum for food and incidentals, similar to so many other young people experiencing relative independence for the first time – with one huge difference:  Patrick has Asperger’s syndrome, and has gained his place at university because of his disability. The institution must accept a certain quota of handicapped students by law.
Patrick will never be ‘normal’.  His social skills are practically non-existent;  humour and irony are completely wasted on him, for Patrick takes every statement and situation literally.  If logic is not evident to him in conversations and actions he refuses to respond.  He is also fanatically clean and hates being touched, foibles which baffle and irritate his flatmates and fellow students, who are unaware that his condition has a name.
On the upside, however, Patrick has some enviable skills:  he loves puzzles;  he can fix a mucked-up Rubik’s cube in seconds, then offer to show the mucker-upper (in this case, the university Professor who admitted him to the anatomy class) where he went wrong;  he has a wonderful aptitude for all things mechanical;  and the human body, that most supreme example of physical mechanics, is the puzzle he most wants to solve – for Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was eight and the killer was never found.  Nor can Patrick understand the concept of death logically;  he needs to know by dissecting a body, where life goes, and if it could ever come back.  He needs to know, and the logical place to find out is in the Dissection class where he and his classmates are introduced to a corpse they name Bill.
Bill has donated his body to medical science;  he had been in a serious car accident, putting him in a coma for several months before he died;  now it is up to Patrick and three other students to study every part of Bill, and they must also establish the official cause of death whilst they do so.  Patrick is thrilled;  the mystery of where his father went when his life ended may soon be revealed!
Unfortunately, the only mystery revealed is the cause of Bill’s death:  he did not die of heart failure as was officially stated – he was murdered, and Patrick is faced with solving the biggest puzzle of his young life, and trying to keep himself alive as the murderer becomes aware that his was not, after all, the perfect crime.
This is SUCH a good book!
Ms Bauer has, through her impeccable research and enviable writing skills, made Patrick an entirely credible character, imprisoned within his syndrome but not lost to it.  Her minor characters are excellent and there are some great twists and turns in the plot – she had me fooled more than once, which is, after all, one of the most basic requirements of a good crime novel.  This was a pleasure to read.  FIVE STARS.

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