In a short space of time, Belinda Bauer has established herself as one of my favourite contemporary authors. Her latest book, Rubbernecker, is a memorable piece of work. I'm tempted to say that it's not for the squeamish, but then, I'm rather squeamish, and I really liked it. There are lots of descriptions of what it is like to be in a coma, and to dissect bodies in an anatomy class, and I must admit that I didn't linger too long over some of this material. But what makes this a fine novel is the combination of superb characterisaton and a very clever plot. These are the ingredients that made Minette Walters' early books hugely successful, and I think Bauer is definitely in the same league.
The main protagonist is young Patrick Fort. Bauer specialises in telling stories from the point of view of boys or young men, and she captures Patrick very well. Thsi is quite an achievement, since he has Asperger's Syndrome. I am no expert, but I do know a small amount about the challenges of living with this condition, and it seems to me that Bauer's empathetic portrayal is as effective as Mark Haddon's in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. At first, I wasn't sure how Rubbenecker was going to fare in any comparison with Haddon's book. Bauer took a risk, I think, when she opted to venture into similar territory. But it paid off. Her book is quite distinctive.
The build-up is relatively steady rather than providing instant reader gratification, but as I've mentioned before in this blog, that's a technique that plenty of writers (including me) use, and Bauer never lost my attention. I took an instant dislike to one character who made it clear at the outset that he didn't like a very good song by Rupert Holmes, and Bauer probably intended this. But I felt very sorry for him when eventually I learned of his fate, and this is part of her skill..
There's some wonderful black comedy as Patrick decides to investigate the apparent murder of a corpse he and his classmates have been dissecting. A police officer called Williams who is introduced late on in the story is given some marvellous lines, though I was a little surprised by the DCI who had never heard of vagal inhibition, when a retired cop was telling me about it only a couple of weeks ago. Equally good is an awful nurse who is out to ensnare a rich husband in an entertaining sub-plot. The attention Bauer pays to her minor characters is the mark of a gifted writer. I read one national newspaper review that carped about some aspects of the book, but although there was quite a bit of coincidence in the story, where would crime writers be without the occasional coincidence? The last part of the book is especially strong, and I eagerly look forward to what Belinda Bauer will do next.. Yep, I'm a fan.