Belinda Bauer’s first crime novel, Blacklands (2010), won the Crime Writers Association (UK) Gold Dagger Award. It was followed in 2011 by Darkside and the third in the series, Finders Keepers, is published this month.
Set in a small English village, Shipcott, huddled into the folds of Exmoor, the series so far has followed two main protagonists: first, Steven Lamb, in Blacklands, and then Jonas Holly, the village policeman, in Darkside; now both of them return in Finders Keepers.
In Blacklands, ten-year-old Steven spends all his free time on the moors searching for the grave of his uncle Billy, thought to be a victim of the serial killer Arnold Avery. Steven’s Nan spends her time watching from their window, refusing to believe that Billy is dead. Eventually Steven writes to Avery in prison and what follows is a chilling blend of adult manipulative evil and a boy’s coming-of-age story.
In Darkside, several years on, Jonas Holly has returned to his childhood home to take up the duties of village policeman. His wife, Lucy, has been diagnosed with MS and he has abandoned all his professional ambition to bring her somewhere safe where he can be on hand to look after her. But Shipcott is not safe – in fact it’s turning out to be one of the most dangerous small villages in England – and people start dying. Someone is killing the demented, the terminally damaged, and the terminally ill – those who are burdens on the community and their families. Detectives are brought in from outside – the egregious DCI Marvel and his resentful sidekick DS Reynolds – and Jonas is sidelined from the investigation. Steven, now a paperboy, forms a friendship with Lucy Holly and observes behaviour from Jonas that will later cause him to suspect him of the unspeakable.
Finders Keepers takes place a year or so later. Jonas is back on duty after a breakdown and Steven hates him. The 13-year-old daughter of the Master of the Hunt (a character met in the previous novels) has been abducted from a horsebox at a fair. There are no clues and there seems to be no motive except that the father, John Took, has quite a few enemies. The only hint is the note left taped to the steering wheel, which reads ‘You don’t love her’.
Marvel died in Darkside, and it is Reynolds, now a detective inspector worried about his recent hair implants, who is sent to run the investigation. More children and teenagers are abducted from cars and despite extensive searches and helicopter flyovers, there is no trace of them. Finally, Steven’s younger brother, Davey, and his mate Shane, decide to lay a trap for the kidnapper, but it goes horribly wrong, forcing Steven and Jonas into an uneasy and fraught alliance.
The plot of Finders Keepers is not quite as strong as the other two novels – I had to suspend a fair bit of disbelief when I finally found out the motive for the kidnappings, but the characterisation and the quality of the writing compensate for that. The denouement is horrific – not so much for its bizarre violence as for its further revelations about Jonas, whom we have come to like and identify with in two novels, despite the ending of Darkside showing us that he is a complex and tortured being, capable of murder. Ostensibly an attractive man with a strong sense of justice and protectiveness towards his village, he has a dark and violent side; he’s prone to memory loss, fugue states and self-mutilation, and by the end of this book he is on the edge of psychosis. Steven is unswervingly suspicious of him, but he is 16 and his observations may not always be reliable.
It is Jonas’s duality that makes these books so different and so interesting. For the reader there’s a real sense of unease about identifying with him, yet we are drawn to him by his protagonist status and by so much of the story being in his point of view. But he’s no Dexter – his character is much more ambiguous than that (there is an explanation but I don’t want to give away too much). In itself, this aspect is a great hook for the next novel; I can’t wait to see which way Jonas will tip and whether there is the possibility of any sort of redemption for him.
The books are very well written, with lovely descriptions of the village and the moors:
Under a sky that was already pale Wedgwood, Exmoor had burst into life. Heather that had made the hills look scorched and black through the winter had magically revived and mottled them green. Grass that had been muddy just a month before had become like straw, while the yellow sprays of gorse and broom hid countless birds, betrayed only by their summer songs. Foals tripped along behind sleek mares, and lambs that imagined themselves lost bleated plaintively – a sound that carried for miles on a still day. Buzzards and kestrels looked down on it all – poised to bring sudden death without disturbing the peace.
They are also imbued with a subtle Gothic darkness and claustrophobic menace as well as with humour and intelligence. Like other English writers who set their stories consistently in a particular town or village (Susan Hill is one, with her charming Simon Seraillier series), Bauer has the knack of making us care about this place and its recurring characters as if we know them personally, adding emotional texture and context to make them far more than the usual serial-killer thriller.
Belinda Bauer Finders Keepers, Bantam Press, 2012, PB, 393pp, $32.95
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