Written by Belinda Bauer – Expectations are always high for a new novel from Belinda Bauer, winner of the CWA Gold Dagger for her debut, Blacklands, and the most recent recipient of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year (for Rubbernecker). Yet while quality is always assured, you’re never quite sure exactly what you’re going to get from this author. So far Bauer’s refused to write a crime series, though her characters do sometimes come back.
The Shut Eye, her sixth novel, features the taciturn DCI Marvel from 2011’s Darkside, though this is a prequel set in 2000. Bauer’s also moved the action away from north Devon, a dramatic location for her previous novels, to the fringes of London around Bromley. It’s not the most atmospheric setting – neither particularly gritty nor primly suburban – but the capital’s southern sprawl helps to ground a story that ventures into the supernatural.
The Shut Eye is a novel about missing children with its focus on the families – and the obsessive cop – waiting for some news. Anna Buck has been hollowed out by the disappearance of her young son, Daniel. The toddler walked out the front door mistakenly left open by his father, who was on his way to work at the garage next door. As she religiously cleans and polishes the five footprints Daniel left in the wet cement outside, Anna descends closer to insanity.
DCI John Marvel meets Anna on the first page, when he persuades her not to jump off a railway bridge into the path of the 8.20 from Victoria. But Marvel is actually fixated on the story’s other missing child, 12-year-old Edie Evans, whose BMX with its buckled wheel was discovered a year earlier. It’s a case he refuses to give up on and Bauer provides us with a typically sardonic portrayal of this driven detective, who can’t quite acknowledge the destruction he wreaks on relationships at home and work.
Marvel can at least admit to himself he’s a throwback who doesn’t fit in a modern police force he believes is “peopled by short men with degrees and vegetarian lesbians”. He rubs everyone up the wrong way and can see the bad in anyone. It’s no surprise that he’s an alcoholic, though Bauer’s clever characterisation means she hardly needs to refer to his addiction for you to understand he’s barely clinging on to sobriety.
For all his bad behaviour, Marvel is also a talented and dedicated detective. The only thing he regrets more than failing to find Edie is paying £2,000 to a psychic called Richard Latham in a desperate attempt to try and get a lead on the case. Nothing came of this unorthodox police work, though Latham is still proudly advertising his services. When Anna receives a flyer through her door offering the chance to speak to the dead, she visits the Bickley Spiritualist Church run by Latham to try and get a definitive answer about Daniel.
As psychic visions begin to offer hope as well as confusion for Anna, the two cases take over the life of DCI Marvel, who can’t decide if he’s making progress or losing his grip. It doesn’t help that his boss has tasked him with another missing case – his wife’s pet poodle, Mitzi.
One of Bauer’s great gifts as a writer is that her distinctive style and audacious plots are never a drag on the story. She lets you decide for yourself about the authenticity of the psychic elements of this novel, though there’s a possible clue in the title: in the argot of psychics, a Shut Eye is someone who genuinely believes they have psychic powers even if they haven’t. It’s a set-up that makes for a highly original, heartbreaking novel from this award-winning author – a psychological-meets-supernatural thriller.
After the grimness of last year’s serial killer story, The Facts of Life and Death, it’s worth noting that The Shut Eye is a more compassionate novel from Bauer. It’s also compulsive reading and the perfect introduction to Britain’s most inventive crime writer.
The Shut Eye is published on 12 March. Read our interview with Belinda Bauer here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars