Written by Belinda Bauer — Having won the CWA Gold Dagger for her audacious 2010 debut Blacklands, about a 12-year-old boy who corresponds with a jailed child killer, Belinda Bauer promised to be one of those writers capable of leading the reader into some unsettling places.
She’s done it again with Rubbernecker: this is an original, disturbing and electrifying book about a teenage outsider with a death fixation whose logical yet twisted behaviour ultimately gives murder victims a voice. In her fourth and possibly finest novel, Bauer writes about cadavers and severed heads, a teenage collector of dead animals, and coma victims being killed off with impunity. Yet what might have been grim and gory becomes funny and captivating thanks to her smart, sardonic authorial voice.
Patrick Fort finds dead crows and mammals in the Brecon Beacons, but doesn’t appear to be a trainee serial killer. He simply tries to get closer to death, to understand it following the hit-and-run that killed his father. Having accompanied his dad to betting shops, he’s also obsessed with horses, especially when he witnesses their death throes after falling during races. This obsession takes Patrick to Cardiff – to the relief of his mother – as a student of anatomy.
Patrick is a unique and unusual protagonist. Asperger Syndrome distances him from other people and makes him fixate on everything from eating food alphabetically to the shapes of certain numbers. His literal approach to conversation ensures that he remains misunderstood. ‘Do what?’ Patrick responds to the everyday enquiry, ‘How do you do?’ And the occasional violent outbursts don’t help his cause. When he does brave a student party he spends the night washing up the smeary cutlery, and the surgical gloves from his dissection class are a useful way of avoiding the insidious germs of daily life.
Parallels will be drawn with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, but Patrick is one of several strong voices in Rubbernecker. Crucially, while his condition brings a comedic element, Bauer ensures that he’s a rounded and even heroic figure.
The delicious suspense in the first part results from Bauer’s adroit withholding of information, so that we have to work out what the crime is and who’s involved. As well as writing from the point of view of an Asperger sufferer, Bauer enters the foggy mind of a coma patient who thinks he’s witnessed a murder. She also has fun with the slapdash, sluttish neurology nurse who’s trying to seduce the husband of a patient. She’s an awful young woman, as even the confused coma patient can tell, but is she capable of murder? Is this a story about cold-blooded murder, or are these mercy killings that might touch on the debate about euthanasia?
Patrick’s logical mind prevents him from ignoring an anomaly in the dissection class, a discovery that puts him in danger and forces him to confront his aversion to germs including one scene where he’s required to conceal himself amidst human remains. Yet because he doesn’t understand people, Patrick’s never quite as fearful as we are on his behalf – a clever literary trick by Bauer.
His quest to understand the dead might falter, but Patrick does make some connections with the living. Fellow student Meg is a sort of love interest, if he could just make more sense out of that idea. His solo investigation into the suspicious cadaver, known as Number 19, also leads to an understanding with the dead man’s daughter, Lexi, once she’s got over Patrick’s blunt description of her dissected dad on the slab.
Just when you expect the plot to knit neatly together, it veers away in unexpected directions and Bauer relishes shattering our comfortable expectations, right up to the final sentence. Rubbernecker is undoubtedly the best crime novel I’ve read in 2013 and deserves to win her another Gold Dagger at this month’s awards ceremony.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars