Anatomy of melancholy: Belinda Bauer's chilling crime mysteries have caused a sensation

Jane Jakeman meets a novelist with a taste for detachment – and dissection.

Belinda Bauer, a small but seemingly courageous figure as she navigates Cardiff traffic, has a surprising fear: she hates going into water. It stems from her childhood in South Africa where her father knew three people who had been attacked by sharks within the space of six months. "One had an arm bitten off, one was an old lady – all they found was her swimming cap – and another was a young spear-fisher who was swallowed all the way up except for his head. For years after that I didn't like going into a swimming-pool."

But as a writer, Bauer uses her experiences. "I think as a crime-writer you really have to understand fear," and the creeping apprehension of imminent horrors is a notable feature of many of her characters. It certainly distinguished her first novel, Blacklands, in which a young boy tries to find the body of his uncle, buried on Exmoor by a paedophile murderer. Blacklands won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 2010, but also shocked some. It is unsparing in its description of the poverty, spiritual and physical, of the boy's home.

Bauer, whose father was a dentist, herself experienced a sudden dive from a wealthy home in South Africa to a poverty-stricken West Country household when she and her mother returned to Britain. The dedication of that first book was "To my mother, who gave us everything and never thought it was enough". Bauer presented a realistically harsh picture of English village life in the fictional Shipcott. She also defied the conventions of the "cosy" crime novel in the second Exmoor novel, Darklands, where the policeman's wife, Lucy, suffers from MS but is no plaster saint. Had Bauer studied much crime fiction before producing that very accomplished first book? "I'd never even read a crime novel. Not one single crime novel. I read Stephen King, horror stuff. Stephen King was a revelation to me… For the first time I had read books in which dreadful things could happen to people like me."

But she did draw on some professional skills. "The training I did as a journalist [at Cardiff University] was incredibly valuable… right from when you were a trainee your copy was going straight to the newsdesk of every national paper." She worked as a journalist for an agency, and as a screenwriter. "If there was something wrong and they didn't like it they would come back to you and give you such a bollocking – you have to be completely ruthless to yourself."

Bauer loves Cardiff and stayed on in the city after she completed her course, but that's not the only reason why her fourth book, Rubbernecker (Bantam, £14.99), is set in her adopted town. "I felt that Shipcott had run its course. Also I did a talk for a Writers' Guild meeting about two years ago and it was quite a hostile crowd… This old chap actually stood up and said, 'If your book, Blacklands, had been set in Wales it wouldn't have had half the attention it's had'… I thought at that moment 'I'm going to set my next book in Cardiff, whether it fails or succeeds, just to prove this bloke wrong'." Luckily, "the idea I came up with was perfect for being set in Cardiff – it had the University here, the dissection room I needed."

Ah, yes, the dissection room, so graphically described in Rubbernecker, where her leading character, Patrick, is an anatomy student. Did she see one? "Yes, I did. I went into the dissection room and was very nervous because I was so squeamish. I spent a lot of time there… just getting an idea of exactly how everything works… I'm really glad I went because the smell of the place was bizarre and unforgettable." In the book, she describes that smell precisely: "dead flowers over shit".

This brings us on to Patrick, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome and regards life with the sort of clear-eyed logic that makes it difficult to understand other people's feelings. Determined to study anatomy, he takes his place in a roomful of dead bodies and mostly nervous live students. He is unfazed, and hacks and saws his way through Body No 19 in such graphic detail that any of the current Cadaver Queens of crime fiction would be put to shame.

Patrick has a sad history: his father has died in an accident and his mother, Sarah, is so distressed by his behaviour that she is driven to wish she had never given birth to him. Yet Bauer recognises something of Patrick in herself. When I asked her who she would identify with most in the book, she immediately answers, "Patrick absolutely, because of that slight disconnection with people… in my first three books I had a very sensitive male hero and as a challenge to myself I decided to see if I could write a protagonist who actually had no empathy really for anybody else."

So was Patrick a process Bauer had to work through? "My books are really not crime novels. They are about characters dealing with something in their lives – a man trying to come to terms with the terminal illness of his wife, Patrick trying to find out what happened to his father. The personal relationship he has with his mother, his only surviving parent, is critical, because she's all he's got and the relationship between them pivots on the father… My father died about three years ago and I've learned more about him as a person in those three years than I ever knew about him when he was alive."

Her combination of powerful imagination with a certain detachment seems to have been present at an early stage; as a child she loved solitude. "I had lots of friends but I didn't want them to come round to my house and play with me… I would lock myself in my bedroom. I had three sisters and I wouldn't let them into my room to play unless they paid me for half an hour. After half an hour I used to kick them out… I was having a much better time in my own head than I could possibly have had with anybody else . It was only when I started to write Rubbernecker that I realised this about myself, that I had a great affinity with Patrick, and by the end of the book I was really envious of him - every time he said exactly what he wanted to say, without fear of hurting someone's feelings or being misunderstood."

There was another plus to having Patrick in the book. "Somebody with Asperger's dovetailed perfectly into the plot – it was just the right thing for him to have to do, solve a murder mystery without interrelating with other people or understanding the nuances of communication."

I asked Bauer if she agrees with Graham Greene that an author must have a certain detachment, "a splinter of ice in the heart"? "Yes, I think that's really true. You have to be completely detached from any empathy or sympathy… and put down in black and white what a paedophile might feel – that splinter of ice comes in very handy. I'm lucky enough to have that complete objectivity. Although in my day-to-day life I'm very sympathetic, very easily moved to tears."

Bauer's eyes actually fill as she tells me about a woman she met at the vet's who had to have a much-loved dog put down. Her immediate warm reaction was to give her a big hug. She clearly has an intense capacity to empathise that coexists with authorial objectivity. Her own favourite work is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking-Bird, which she says is "the best book in the world". Because Atticus - the lawyer defending the innocent accused man - has such a burning sense of justice, I suggest? "I share it, and I think it's what readers want." But Bauer has a final chilling insight into the popularity of crime fiction. "Statistically all of us know a paedophile, statistically all of us know a rapist. Most people try to go through life not thinking about it. Maybe that's why crime writing is so popular – it exposes those things and we can close the book and have a little shiver and think, 'Well, it's not happened to me – yet.'" That nerve-racking "yet"! It's authentic Bauer gold.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album