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Our Dark Fears of Fog: An Interview with Belinda Bauer

By Andrew Donaldson for the Sunday Times:

Andrew Donaldson talks to Belinda Bauer about the crimes we can’t forget

Belinda Bauer, on the line from her home in Wales, says that from her bedroom she can see Exmoor, the hilly, open moorland in west Somerset and north Devon. “It’s just across the water, across the Bristol Channel,” she says. “I feel quite close to it, even though it will take me a couple of hours to drive there.”

Bauer has, in previous interviews, described it as “small and pretty”, a sort of “chocolate-box moor”. Yet in her dark, obsessional stories terrible things happen there, in the mist and fog that cloak the countryside surrounding Shipcott, the fictional village that has featured in all her novels.

In her debut thriller, 2010′s Blacklands – winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger – a 12-year-old boy, Steven Lamb, writes to a jailed serial killer of children, Arnold Avery. Eighteen years earlier, Avery had murdered Steven’s 11-year-old uncle and never revealed where he buried the body. So begins a cat-and-mouse game between Steven, who’s seeking closure for his emotionally damaged family, and Avery, who wants to kill again.

In last year’s Darkside, a serial killer targeting the elderly, the helpless and the infirm taunts a young policeman, Jonas Holly, who has given up a career in London for the less-demanding job of being the village bobby so he can devote more time to his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. It soon becomes clear that Holly’s wife is the next victim.

In Bauer’s latest, Finders Keepers, the children of Shipcott and Exmoor are once again the prey; this time of a kidnapper who leaves no ransom demands but only a terse note brutally accusing their parents of failing to love them. Holly returns, and so, too, does Steven Lamb, this time as an awkward adolescent, falling in love for the first time. It’s a story that grips the reader from the outset, but once the kidnapper’s motives become known, Bauer racks up the tension for a terrific climax out on the moor.

The moors and children. Children and the moors. There is, Bauer agrees, something about the combination that has, since 1966 and the infamous trial of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, embedded itself deep within Britain’s consciousness. Hindley and Brady, psychotic lovers, were jailed for life for the kidnapping, torture, sexual assault and murder of children in the greater Manchester area from July 1963 to October 1965. The full horror of their actions has yet to be revealed – and may never be known. Hindley died in prison in 2002 following a chest infection and Brady, declared criminally insane in 1985, has made it clear that he never wants to be released.

“Even when I was a child, although I was too young to understand it at the time, I became aware of the Moors murders,” Bauer says. “You know, you have that kind of strange attraction to something so terrible…everybody has it. That thing, slowing down on the motorway when you see a car crash or something. I think it is something inherent in everybody.”

Hindley and Brady’s crimes were dubbed the Moors murders because two of their five victims were discovered in graves on Manchester’s Saddleworth Moor prior to their trial, and a third was found decades later, in 1987. The killings, the torture and sexual assault, were so shocking that, as one obituary of Hindley put it, they “became the benchmark by which other acts of evil came to be measured”.

The body of a fourth victim, Keith Bennett, 12, is also suspected to be buried on the moor, but has never been found. Bennett’s mother, Winnie Johnson, is still regularly interviewed in the media. It was her quest to find her son’s body that inspired Blacklands; as Bauer put it, she started wondering “how a crime can reverberate through the generations”. Once she came up with Steven Lamb, the novel wrote itself.

“I didn’t write it calculating that feeling,” she says. “Now that it is such a success I don’t think it was just about the character or just about the writing, I think it was also about, well…lucky for me, I tapped into something that was so deep within the British psyche that it helped me, really.”

A debt, of sorts, to Hindley? “I think there’s even more fascination with women who kill, or men who kill with women, because it’s so much more abhorrent – you know, not to be rude, because most killers are men. But when a killer is a woman, it’s quite often a crime of passion or something like that. But for most, the worst crime is a woman killing a child, especially not even her own child, where you might have some kind of psychological damage implicit. A woman actually going out and being a serial killer of children is something that is so alien that I think it draws that much more attention.”

As for Shipcott: “I know exactly where it is on the map,” Bauer says. “But it’s not actually there.”

And what was the inspiration for that particular community?

“After coming back from South Africa [where she spent her childhood], we went to live in Devon, and the shock of that was something that has always stayed with me, because obviously we went from a very warm, sunny, outdoorsy kind of climate with a big house and a swimming pool and stuff like that, to one of these very small, dark, damp little cottages, and the cottage I describe in Blacklands, where Steven grows up, is really straight out of my childhood memories.”

With Finders Keepers, Bauer says, she’s bidding farewell to the community she built on Exmoor.

“I’m not one of those writers who could actually write a long-running series. My books are built on character rather than plot. Everybody moves from the one book to the next – and with all their baggage. That becomes incredibly complex to write around. So, I don’t think that’s something that I’d like to do. Obviously, the third book, Finders Keepers, is kind of the end of a trilogy. The fourth book, which I’ve just finished writing, is completely different.”

She’s moved away from her little village? “I’ve moved away from it, yeah.”

That neck of the woods was very dangerous. “It is, it’s extremely dangerous. That is one of the reasons I felt I needed to move away from it because you start hearing people mentioning [long-running British TV series] Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple, stuff like that, and you think to yourself, ‘You know, I want to write books that have a feel of originality about them, I don’t want to be labelled as someone who’s doing cosy armchair mysteries in the same village where everybody is ridiculously over-criminalised.’ I don’t want to fall into that trap, and so I decided very clearly that I needed to move away in the fourth book.”

Would she write anything in another genre?

“I would love to – not that I dislike writing crime. I’ve got the next two or three books mapped out in my head in the crime genre. But I remember when I sold Blacklands, the publishers gave me a two-book contract, and I went to lunch and I met them and they said, ‘So what’s the second book going to be about?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be about these two children in space.’

“There was a shocked clattering of cutlery and they said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s going to be a crime story.’ And I’m, like, ‘Well, I’ve never even read a crime book, and now they’re actually asking me to write a crime book from scratch.’ It was quite a daunting experience writing Darkside.”

The popular crime novelist Val McDermid is a great champion of Bauer.” I was so lucky. Publishers like to send your books to established writers to get them to give you a good couple of words on the cover. I didn’t even understand how that worked, but all of a sudden Val McDermid was being incredibly generous about Blacklands.

“When I met her, and tried to grovel up to her to say thank you, she just dismissed it: ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it.’ The entire crime-writing community, I’ve now discovered, are just the nicest bunch of people. They are so supportive, so much fun, and they don’t take themselves seriously.”

But others do. The novelist and Literary Review critic, Jessica Mann, for example, has mounted a campaign against what she terms the emerging trend of “graphic misogyny” in the genre. Women are not only murdered, but suffer the most gratuitous sexual violence before they’re done away with.

“It’s a delicate line to tread,” Bauer says. “And people do have their own views. As a teenager I used to enjoy reading very graphically violent novels, and now that I’m actually writing I find that I don’t want to do that. I find that the imagination of the reader is far more graphic than anything I could put into a novel.”

In this regard, Bauer says, she did pick up Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She got bored with it, and didn’t finish it.

“I saw the film … and I was very taken aback by the misogyny. I’m disturbed that, somehow, that heroine in that book [Lisbeth Salander] is being held up as some kind of feminist icon, and that disturbs me because it makes me feel that men who are reading that book are feeling that her attitude and her responses, which I felt were completely out of character, completely extreme, and the rather perverse fantasies of a middle-aged journalist, Stieg Larsson, are being held up as some kind of valid response by a young woman in her situation.”

Larsson aside, there’s not much else that Bauer can read these days. “I don’t like the idea of reading a crime novel,” she says. “I don’t want to be influenced by crime, so I look elsewhere and I pick up a book and within pages I’m thinking, ‘Uh, nobody’s dead yet. This is a bit dull. Where’s the crime?’ It’s a bit of a catch-22. The only thing that appeals to me is the excitement and intrigue of crime, and yet I can’t read it.”

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