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.

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
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.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave