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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions