A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

The Shut EyeThis recommendation comes from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.  

Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Maxine, any reader who visits Amazon UK regularly is bound to be familiar with her reviews. It’s a testimony to the quality and popularity of her reviews that even now her profile is still listed amongst the ‘Top Reviewers’. Maxine reviewed Belinda Bauer’s debut novel ‘Blacklands’ and said “I loved the book, though it is not a “crime” novel in the usual sense…Overwhelmingly, though, I admire the achievement of the author for this well-constructed, observant and insightful book, not least because it is her first novel.” I’m sure she would have enjoyed Bauer’s latest book just as much.

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie’s case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. In fact, so desperate had he become that he even put aside all his disbelief and cynicism and consulted a psychic. But to no avail, and the case is now officially classed as ‘cold’. But when Marvel begins to suspect a tenuous link between the two very different disappearances, he’s willing to clutch at any straw to have it reopened…

Belinda Bauer has the rare talent amongst crime writers of achieving a near perfect balance of light and shade, so that her books are always hugely entertaining even when they are addressing some pretty grim and disturbing subjects. In this book, she does this in two ways. Her third person multiple-viewpoint narration provides a tiny bit of distance between the reader and her characters, allowing her to show the emotional turmoil of losing a child without forcing the reader to spend too much time inside the bleakness of the parents’ minds. She is also a mistress of the art of injecting little bits of black humour at just the right places to lift the tone without destroying the tension. Her humour is so black and so subtle, in fact, that it often feels as if it comes direct from the reader’s mind rather than the author’s pen, which is brilliantly disconcerting.

There are three main viewpoints in the book. James, Daniel’s father, is riddled with guilt because he left open the door allowing Daniel to run off. But he’s just about holding it together, providing strength and support for his distraught wife, Anna. James works in the garage across the road from his home and it was there that the last signs of Daniel were seen – his little footprints embedded in the wet cement of the new forecourt. The garage is staffed mainly by immigrants, legal and illegal, while James’ boss is an unscrupulous bully. But this all-male environment gives James a kind of emotional support that helps him face things at home.

Anna is falling apart – she rarely leaves the house except to clean and polish the footprints to stop them from being worn away. Anna’s story is the grimmest strand in the book – Bauer shows us the agony and guilt felt by a mother who loses her child, and when we first meet Anna we learn how close she is to complete despair and mental breakdown. But one day a flyer is put through her door for a spiritualist meeting and she is tempted to try to find out once and for all if Daniel has died.

The third viewpoint is DCI Marvel and it’s in the sections relating to him that Bauer employs her humour. Marvel is a good cop, driven to succeed, but with little empathy for either the victims or his colleagues. Usually he sees each case as a competition between himself and the killer, but something about Edie has found his soft centre – maybe because she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, and this reminds him of his own boyhood dream. So when the Superintendent pulls him off a murder case to carry out what he sees as a trivial investigation, he’s at first outraged but then decides to use it as leverage to force the Superintendent to reopen Edie’s case. We also get to see Marvel’s home life, and his relationship with his put-upon partner Debbie, which nicely rounds him out as a character. He loves Debbie but he clearly doesn’t understand why she gets so frustrated with his behaviour. What’s so odd about looking over autopsy pictures during dinner anyway?

There is a supernatural element to the book surrounding the spiritual church and the psychic involved in looking for Edie. Normally that would destroy the credibility of any book for me, but Bauer’s writing is of such high quality that she carried me along and I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Marvel, too, is a cynic about such things and his down-to-earth scepticism prevents this aspect of the plot from becoming too fanciful.

Another excellent outing from Belinda Bauer, who seems to grow in skill and confidence with every book. Recently she has been producing standalones, as this is, but I would be one delighted reader if she decided to bring DCI Marvel back for another case at some point – he’s the kind of character who’s fun to spend time with… complex, frustrating, sometimes unfeeling, but also amusing and likeable, and with a good heart. I may have to start a petition…

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28 thoughts on “A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

    • Thanks! 🙂 She’s gradually worked her way up to be one of my must-read authors – it’s the way she balances the darkness with humour that makes them so enjoyable for me.

  1. Pingback: The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer | FictionFan's Book Reviews

  2. Fabulous work, as ever, FF! And I like the sound of DCI Marvel – an interesting, well-written literary detective that doesn’t just come across as another cheesy, washed-up alcoholic. Super!

  3. Superb review, FF! DCI Marvel also appears in Dark Side, but the events in this book apparently pre-date Dark Side, as Dark Side is definitely his last case…unless she writes some more set pre-Dark Side. I found him an exceptionally amusing character in that, so I’ll look forward to this one. She’s become one of my favourite authors, too – I look forward to each new book.

  4. I totally agree with your comments about the perfect balance between lightness and darkness in her writing. I really do find crime fiction easier to read when it has some lighter moments. You can count on my name on that petition too!

    • Yes, I think touches of humour make the book seem more realistic somehow – it’s very rare in life for there to be no lighter moments even in the darkest of circumstances. And Bauer seems to know the exact moments when the story needs a lift…

  5. Wonderful review, FF! I always enjoy your dissection. Alas, I just finished The Light Between Two Oceans and I must give myself a break between parental heartbreak. But I will tuck in the back of my mind and add it to the second tier of my TBR list.

    • Thanks, DD! Yes, that’s why I read such a variety – need light things between the serious stuff. Haha! I’m so glad I’m not the only one with more than one tier…

  6. I have been wanting to read a book by Bauer for some time, but had been concerned about some of the earlier themes. I get that she is an excellent writer, but I am squeamish. I am not sure how the issue of missing and abused children will be a great theme for me, but I’m willing to try it.
    Or can you recommend another book to start with?

    • She does always tend to go for fairly dark themes, but she somehow manages to write them in a way that stops them becoming too grim for me, and I’m a bit squeamish too. In this one, trying to avoid spoilers, I will say that although the storyline about the children isn’t easy, it’s not a traditional child abuse story. I also loved Rubbernecker which is dark and kinda gruesome in places, but gloriously full of black humour. And unlike most of her books the focus isn’t so much on children…

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