THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD
“bauer’s short, sharp scenes compel you to keep reading…”
Belinda Bauer is probably Britain’s most original crime writer. Her debut of 2009, Blacklands, saw a 12-year-old corresponding with a jailed child killer, while 2013’s Rubbernecker had an anatomy student stumbling across a murder amid the dissection room cadavers.
Therefore, the expectations were high for The Beautiful Dead but it may initially disappoint: depicting a murderer who strikes in familiar London locations feels like a deliberately commercial move. As a result, Bauer’s seventh novel lacks the atmosphere of her books set in the wilds of Devon. Yet the quality of her writing, the humour she mines from humdrum lives and the detached character insights (“No-one fed his cat” is the stark summary of one victim) means that you can forgive Bauer almost anything. Even a sickly serial killer who’s equally motivated by his failure as an artist and his heart transplant.
In an opening scene that will creep out anyone who’s worked in an empty office, a young woman is slaughtered just feet from the weekend crowds on Oxford Street. The calm and collected killer is obsessed with the depiction of death by artists – the “joyous cruelty” of Death And The Maiden and the Danse Macabre – and murder is his only way of feeling complete. “As she had emptied, so he had filled up,” is one of many memorable lines in a novel that’s as stylish as it is fast-paced.
The victims are “exhibits”, for which the killer seeks publicity. He’s soon drawn to TV crime reporter Eve Singer, who feels sick at the sight of blood yet makes her living on the “meat beat” – bodies, black bags and nasty stains. She’s also competing with rival reporter Guy Smith (naming him after a schlocky horror author is a nice touch). In addition to trying to cling on to her job at a horribly sexist TV station, Eve is coping with her father’s descent into dementia and fretting over her Christmas list.
As the killer continues to strike audaciously across the capital, he forms a twisted attachment to Eve, which benefits her career but makes her feel queasily complicit. Her pursuit of the murderer while reporting the crimes holds an almost unbearable tension and the short, sharp scenes compel you to keep reading. Bauer also laces her narrative with a touch of gore – for example “The body was in the bed. And on the bed.”
Part of the fun of Bauer’s writing is the implausibility that she distracts you from, as if she were a magician employing sleight of hand. The Beautiful Dead doesn’t quite pull off that trick, but it’s as rich in humanity and horror as her best books.