“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.

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