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This sense of being on the edge of things actually feeds into the plot. Hitchhiking still occurs here because the sprawl of small villages is not well served by public transport. Young women are more likely to accept a lift, which provides an opportunity for a killer who abducts his victims and forces them to use their iPhones to say goodbye to their mother via FaceTime. Initially, it feels like a prank but then he goes further – and Bauer intensifies this threatening scenario by placing a 10-year-old girl in peril.
As with her debut novel Blacklands (winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2010), Bauer’s latest novel features a child protagonist. Ruby Trick is an only child living in a damp cottage in the fictional seaside village of Limeburn. There’s a perilous cliff edge as well as a risk of flooding – a clever, contemporary detail given the British weather over recent months.
Ruby has some friends in this inhospitable coastal corner and she begins to develop unfamiliar feelings for 12-year-old Adam Braund, with whom she explores a supposedly haunted house perched above the stormy Atlantic. As well as being anxious about the approach of adolescence, Ruby is bullied by the middle-class kids on the bus, fed up with her weight and anguished over her parents’ likely divorce.
Her father, John Trick, has been out of work for years and his main occupation seems to be his hobby of dressing up as a cowboy, along with several other locals who are bored enough to re-imagine a soggy West Country as the Wild West. When he suggests getting up a posse to track down the killer, Ruby is desperate to join in to keep her father close.
While her plotting is undeniably bold, Bauer is more focused on character. In fact, her minor characters are so well drawn she never suffers from that dip in momentum from which even the finest crime writers can suffer. There’s the lonely, self-aware teacher Miss Sharpe who starts to look out for Ruby after a homework diary project raises concerns. The semi-retired Donald Moon is an obsessive litter collector who loses faith in his pettifogging routines when he stumbles across a body. And there’s the browbeaten DC Calvin Bridge, who soon realises that his boss, DCI Kirsty King, is more man than him.
An author’s voice can make a good novel great and Bauer’s sardonic narrative brings an unlikely element of humour to the horror at the heart of the book. She’s also hilarious in her pitiless portrayal of the local media’s coverage of the crimes, which extends to grabbing images of the victims from Facebook and inventing an absurd name for the murderer: the ET Killer (because, of course, he makes his victims phone home).
The Facts of Life and Death has several terrifying scenes, though it’s frequently very funny thanks to the author’s acute understanding of the foibles of both adults and children. In Bauer’s hands, childhood can be as grim as the forbidding Devon landscape. The storm-lashed cliff face and ominous forest near Ruby’s cottage loom large just as the wild, rugged Cornwall coast heightens the brooding atmosphere in the novels of Daphne du Maurier.
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Bauer’s other forte is for finales and this one brings a pleasing note of female solidarity; the victims are not forgotten in her latest standalone novel. Belinda Bauer is a uniquely talented crime writer who deploys cunning misdirection, memorable characters and unbearable tension as well as sentences that make you laugh out loud. Yet her resistance to the siren call of the detective series means you never quite know what to expect from her ingenious crime novels.