Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
Move over Clarice Starling. There is a new game in town and her name is Eve Singer. And she is the heroine of Belinda Bauer’s tremendous new novel, The Beautiful Dead.
The book covers similar ground to The Silence of the Lambs (crafty killer involves intelligent but ambitious young woman in his murderous escapades, cat and mouse weave and dive around each other and a lengthy body trail.) But it does it now and with a refreshing female perspective Thomas Harris simply could not offer.
Eve is flesh and blood, harried, overworked, underappreciated and the sole carer to her dementia-suffering father Duncan. She reports for trashy London news network iWitness that specialises in “if it bleeds, it leads” pieces, with emphasis on lots and lots of blood. As our anti-Christmas December set story begins, London is grappling with a spate of nasty killings. Good for Eve’s business, for the good citizens of the Big Smoke - not so much.
Identified only as The Killer through much of the book, our bad guy offers up gallons of the red stuff. Though physically frail, he is a talented killing machine, knifing and strangling his hapless victims and in one instance chucking a girl under a Tube train at rush hour.
It becomes clear early on that The Killer has developed the same type of creepy crush on Eve as Hannibal Lecter had on Agent Starling. Despite her odious job, Eve is essentially a good egg, hard-working and devoted to her befuddled and befuddling dad. Bauer craftily allows us to believe Eve’s attraction to the killer even as his actions becomes more repulsive and more violent. The nastier the tomcat, the more the mouse is intrigued by that cat.
Bauer skilfully parallels the normal rush to Christmas with the mad rush to stop the determined serial killer. As shoppers quake in fear and shiver from the cold, domestic scenes in the Singers’ suburban household play out believably and are strong and humane on their own terms. As distressing and dangerous as Duncan’s illness is, we empathize with Eve’s devotion to him mingled with impatience and frustration and are rooting for both to achieve some sort of calm. All the while, The Killer taunts her and tricks her, going so far as to call her and touch her in scenes that do make the flesh crawl.
As the title suggests, themes of art and beauty and creation snake their way through the breathless chase elements of the story. The Killer’s skewed world view perceives a loveliness in the act of killing, a thoroughness and a finality that he strives for. Bauer never insults readers by having Eve buy into that logic, but we do believe The Killer’s weird aesthetic is grounded in the damage incurred as a child. Bauer also avoids hitting us over the head with the irony that iWitness’ viewers are happy to watch such displays so long as a screen serves as a shield between them and the horror. Eve is alone in having to face the real reality of the murderous rampage and she has the Dickens scared out of her.
Disassembly and re-assembly are another set of themes that Bauer handles adroitly. Just as the Killer obsesses about putting together murder scenes, Duncan Singer slavishly watches a TV program about how stuff is put together (a sort of Great British Bake-off for the DIY set).
The minor characters are fully drawn and devoid of cliché. The tiny female police officer sent to guard Eve and the Duncans’ deeply traumatized next-door neighbour stand out in particular. Bauer also peppers the story with gentle humour (her digs at trash TV are especially fresh) that never hampers the horrific backdrop.
This is crime writing of the highest order – scary as all get-out, perfectly paced and one heck of a work of art about the depths to which some people will sink.