Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer

Oh dear.

I liked Belinda Bauer’s first two books, but this is not good.

Part of that is down to me and my particular tastes in crime fiction  – but not all.

Let me explain.

It starts promisingly: children are disappearing from cars and notes are left in their stead.

“You don’t love her.”

“You don’t love him.”

“You don’t love them.”

The drama, the mystery, the evocation of the countryside and the rural community was working very well.

And I was pleased to see the return of Detectives Reynolds and Rice.

I could have got past the fact that so many horrible crimes were happening in Devonshire countryside

“These kidnaps are only the latest in a series of horrific crimes visited on the moor over the past 30 years. Between 1980 and 1983, serial killer Arnold Avery buried six young victims on Exmoor, and two years ago another murderous spree left eight people dead in the small town of Shipcott. The killer has never been caught. “Exmoor is cursed” said one elderly resident who did not want to be named.”

I probably would have got past it, if only Belinda Bauer hadn’t brought back two characters from earlier books and put them through the mill again. Investigators, criminals, locations can return over and over again, but to have the same lives turned upside-down by crime over and over again is too much.

Stephen Lamb had nearly fallen victim to Arnold Avery and had been horribly affected by the uncaught murderer. He was sure he knew who the killer was, but he couldn’t prove it and he knew he would not be believed if he spoke out. And village policeman Jonas Holly had been bereaved and left horribly traumatised by the same murderer.

Jonas wasn’t in any state to go back to work, let alone be part of a major investigation, and what Stephen and his poor mother have been put  through over the course of three books defies belief.

And Davey, Stephen’s little brother, thinks he can catch the kidnapper …

I put my concerns to one side, because the mystery was intriguing.

But then a flashback gave the game away. I knew who the kidnapper was and I had a fair idea of his motivation was.

After that the story followed both victims and investigators to a grand denouement.

It all felt a little excessive to me.

Such a pity because Belinda Bauer does many things rather well.

The Lamb family – their lives their relationships – are drawn wonderfully. Stephen and  Davey in particular are wonderful characters, and I love the way their lives are moving forward.

There are small details caught perfectly and big set-pieces handled beautifully.

She clearly knows the countryside, understand how village work.

And she handles mystery and suspense really well.

But too much was sacrificed to the big drama.

The most significant sacrifice was Jonas’s character: it was all over the place and the answers to the questions left unanswered at the end of the last book weren’t really satisfactory.

Others have liked this book more than me, so maybe I’m looking for something different in a crime drama. Something not quite so dark, something driven rather less by plot and rather more by character.

But the consensus seems to be that this isn’t as good as ‘Blacklands’ or ‘Darkside’.

I’m hoping now that this is the end of a trilogy, and that Belinda Bauer will move on to something a little different.

And I tend to think that stand-alone stories, or at least stories more loosely linked, would be a better way for her to go …

Crime Fiction: The A to Z

When I set out on Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet I promised myself two things.

The first was that I would read nothing just for the sake of filling a slot, that I would only read books that I would have picked up sooner or later anyway.

I’ve managed that, though I did have to bend the rules a little for the difficult letter X and I had to throw in an emergency short story when the book I’d picked for letter Y let me down.

The second was that I would mix things up, and choose some familiar and some less familiar books.

And so my list is made up of:

  • Persephone books for H and X, and a classic short story by a Persephone author for G.
  •  A Virago Modern Classic, and a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger to boot,  for K.
  •  A wonderful anthology of new writers at W.
  •  Victorian crime for S and Victoriana for U. I would have liked to read more of both, but I ran out of time and letters.
  •  Crime fiction in translation at L and V.
  •  A Cornish book, set in very familiar countryside, at B.
  •  Agatha Christie re-reads at A and F. A for Agatha seemed to be the perfect place to start, and once I had re-read one book a number of others called me.
  •  Neglected woman authors, who were published in numbered green Penguins, at E, M, P and R. If I have learned one thing through the alphabet, it is always to look carefully at green Penguins as there are some real gems there.
  •  Male authors from the middle of the last century, who aren’t as lauded as some but really should be, at I, N and Q.
  •  A lovely range of contemporary crime fiction at C, D, J, O, T and Z.
  •  And that excellent, emergency short story at Y.

Mission accomplished, I think!

Here’s the A to Z in full.

A is for Agatha The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
B is for Bolitho Framed in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho
C is for Crombie Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie
D is for Darkside Darkside by Belinda Bauer
E is for Ethel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
F is for Five Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
G is for Glaspell A Jury of her Peers by Susan Glaspell (short story)
H is for Holding The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I is for Innes Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes
J is for Jane The Burning by Jane Casey
K is for Kelly The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly
L is for Läckberg
The Stone-Cutter by Camilla Läckberg
M is for Mary Death and the Pleasant Voices by Mary Fitt
N is for Not Not to be Taken by Anthony Berkley
O is for Other The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah
P is for Potts The Man with the Cane by Jean Potts
Q is for Question A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake
R is for Roth Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth
S is for Study A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan-Doyle
T is for Tyler The Herring in the Library (and others) by L C Tyler
U is for Unburied The Unburied by Charles Palliser
V is for Van der Vlugt Shadow Sister by Simone Van Der Vlugt
W is for Written Written in Blood: a Honno Anthology
X is for Expendable The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Y is for You You are a Gongedip by Sophie Hannah (short story)
Z is for Zouradi The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

And that really is the end of the alphabet.

So where does my crime fiction reading go now? Well, I have The Quarry by Johan Theorin, A Herring on the Nile by LC Tyler, Now You See Me by S J Bolton, and two books by Erin Kelly in my library pile. My own green Penguins and my Agatha Christie collection are calling too, Plus those authors I discovered, and rediscovered, along the way and want to read again. And recommendations I picked up from others along the way ….

No end of possibilities …

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

I noticed Blacklands back when it was first published. I had a close look but I didn’t bring it home because the subject matter worried me.

“…a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer…”

It wasn’t that I thought the subject shouldn’t be written about, but it had to be handled carefully and I wasn’t sure if I should take the chance on a first time author.

But the case for reading Blacklands grew:

  • I read many positive words.
  • The CWA awarded this debut novel its Golden Dagger.
  • I picked up Belinda Bauer’s second novel, which had an interesting but more tradition subject matter, and was impressed.

The case was made: when I was offered the chance of reading Blacklands for  The Great Transworld Crime Caper I took it. 

The sense of place, the atmosphere, the question in the very first paragraph pulled me in.

“Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colourless grass, prickly gorse and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the most cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark – a twelve-year-old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade.”

Blacklands is the story of that twelve-year-old-boy, and the story of his family. A family still scarred by a crime that happened two decades earlier.

Steven and his family are still suffering from a crime that happened two decades earlier.

Eleven-year-old Billy bought a bar of chocolate from the local newsagent, just yards from his home, and was never seen again. The police believe that he was the victim of Arnold Avery, paedophile and serial killer. He must have been.  Avery did confess to killing six other children and burying them on the surrounding moors only months later.

But Billy’s Mum, Steven’s Nan, can’t or won’t believe it. She still waits by the window waiting for her boy to come home. His room, his things, are untouched, waiting for him.

Her daughter, Billy’s sister, Steven’s Mum, has to deal with that, has to deal with being the child who was left. She’s a single mother, struggling to keep the family together and to bring up Steven and his little brother.

Steven, a quiet child, unnoticed by his teachers, bullied by his peers, wants things to be different. He believes that he can put things right, that his family will love him more, that his schoolmates will take notice, if only he can find Billy’s remains. And so he spends every minute he can digging on Exmoor.

This picture, absolutely psychologically true, is built up over the first few chapters. Those chapters are so accomplished that I couldn’t quite believe that they were written by a first time novelist.

Steven was an intriguing character. Sometimes he seemed older than his years and sometimes younger, but I could see how that might have been the result of his circumstances.

It was a piece of school work that changed everything. Writing a letter. Stephen’s letter was praised, he was noticed. And that gave him an idea. That he would write to Arnold Avery, to persuade him to reveal where he had buried Billy.

This is where things could have gone horribly wrong. A boy initiating a relationship with a paedophile. And an imprisoned paedophile’s first contact with youth in years …. But Belinda Bauer handles things well, making it clear what Avery was without ever being graphic. It was disturbing and uncomfortable, as it had to be.

Blacklands works wonderfully as a study of the long-term effects of crime on a family, with so many details of Steven’s life caught perfectly.

But the need to tell a bigger story created one or two problems. There are some unlikely events, and a horrible and quite unnecessary coincidence as events built to a dramatic conclusion. It was probably the right conclusion, but it felt muddled and then rushed at the very end.

That was disappointing after so much good: the psychology, the atmosphere, the sense of place, and such a different approach to a crime story.

Blacklands was, I think a book of two halves – a family study and a crime drama – that didn’t, probably couldn’t, quite work together.

But it was compelling, original, and a hugely promising debut.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: D is for Darkside

A few weeks ago when I noticed that Blacklands, Belinda Bauer’s debut novel, won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger, I decided that it was time I brought it home from the library. When I looked for it, it was gone, but there was a shiny new copy of her second novel on the new books stand. It came straight home!

The story opens in Shipcott, a small village community set in the wilds of Exmoor. It is the middle of winter and an elderly woman, paralysed after a riding accident, has been murdered in her bed. Nobody saw, nobody heard, anything.

Jonas Holly, the young village policeman, is called to the scene. He had been ambitious for more, but when his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis he realised that he had to put his ambitions to one side.

Of course the murder squad is called in, and the local man is pushed to the sidelines. But as there are more killings, as it becomes clear that the killer is targeting the elderly, the ill, the infirm, Jonas is sure that his local knowledge, his insight, could be the key to solving the case.

The plot starts slowly, giving the characters, the location and the themes space to take root, and then it twists and turns and gains pace wonderfully. There’s some very clever plotting on show.

And what makes the story sing is the people of Shipcott: their relationships, their shared history, their realisation that somebody they know, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, could be the killer.

The relationship between Jonas and his wife, Lucy , as they both struggle to come to terms with the practical and emotional effects of her deteriorating health, is particularly well drawn. It’s real, it’s heartbreaking, and it cleverly draws out questions about the killer’s motivation, about just who he might be.

I thought I knew, but I couldn’t work out how, and then I changed my mind. More than once before the final answer came.

I’m afraid that the conclusion was a bit of a problem for me.  The atmosphere, psychology and character that had driven the story so well were pushed to the side to make room for a dramatic set piece. It was gripping, but it just didn’t quite ring true, didn’t quite fit.

Just the one wrong note in a very interesting psychological thriller. So I’ll definitely be picking up that first book when it reappears in the library.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, E is for … ?