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Posted on 31 Jan 2013 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

Crime Scene: BELINDA BAUER Rubbernecker. Reviewed by Jean Bedford

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9780593066935The anatomy student, the coma victim – and a satisfying new direction from Belinda Bauer.

I have to admit I was disappointed to find that the new Belinda Bauer wasn’t a continuation of the Jonas Holly series, but I was soon immersed in the very different world created in Rubbernecker.

The main character in Rubbernecker is Patrick, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is the third book I’ve read in the last year with an Aspy’s protagonist – a sign of the times, and also a very effective point of view for a crime novel: a character who is socially inept, literal-minded, obsessive and highly focussed, as well as having abilities and intelligence above the usual in certain areas; who is both a wise-child observer and an interrogator of matters most people take for granted.

There are other major points of view in the novel – the first-person narrative of a coma patient, the attitudes of a careless and lazy nurse, and the occasional, but telling, interpolation of Patrick’s mother’s feelings. She has always wanted Patrick to be ‘normal’ and she can’t deal emotionally with who he really is.

Patrick is obsessed by death. When he was a small boy his father was killed fetching him home from school after a violent incident, which Patrick was unable to adequately explain, and since then he has tried to work out what death might mean. He has examined a variety of dead animals without finding the answer, greatly disturbing his anxious mother in the process. Now he has enrolled in an anatomy course in a college in Cardiff, hoping that the dissection of corpses might tell him what he wants to know – what happens when people die. On his way to the interview at the college, he and his mother observe a car accident:

Patrick took a last look. Nothing was moving down there. He wondered what things were like inside that car – still and twisted and bloody, and awash with Roy Orbison getting higher and higher like the torture of angels.

The car accident has left a man in a coma. This man – Sam Galen – is able to remember his distant past, and to observe what is going on around him, but he is locked in, unable to communicate. In this state, he is witness to a murder, but can’t tell anyone what he has seen. He lies in a ward partly administered by the awful and uncaring nurse Tracy Evans, who divides coma patients into ‘good’ (quiet) and ‘bad’ (needing attention) and who has her eye on the husband of one of the other patients:

Tracy Evans pulled a fresh sheet tight over Mrs Deal’s slowly curling body, tucked it in hard, and hoped she wouldn’t get better too soon.

Sam’s first-person narrative, interspersed with the story of Patrick negotiating college life – or, rather, the college negotiating Patrick – provides the foundation for much of the plot as well as giving rather unwelcome insights into conditions in coma wards.

Patrick shares a student house, makes a friend and learns some social skills (not many), but he also discovers a mystery about the cadaver he and his team are assigned to examine. His literal and obsessive approach to the world means that he will not let anomalies rest and he relentlessly pursues the matter, uncovering crimes that others have thought safely dealt with and putting himself in danger.

The reader is kept uneasily balanced between trust in Patrick’s literal observations and distrust of his interpretations of social interaction, as well as amused by the various misunderstandings his behaviours bring about, as when he is confronted by the manager of the dissecting room after he has made an unauthorised entry:

‘What happens to them [the dead]? Where do they go? Can they come back?’

Mick squinted at Patrick; he shook his head; he made a face. ‘No,’ he finally said.

… ‘Hold on a second,’ [Mick] said, ‘I’ll see if the police know.’

‘OK,’ said Patrick, and waited to see if the police knew.

Mick stabbed the first two nines with a flourish and a glare, but then sighed and hung up.

‘Just get out, will you?”

‘OK,’ said Patrick.

The three main strands of the story – Sam in his coma, Patrick’s investigation of the mysterious cadaver and the nurse Tracy’s love affair – come together at the end in a highly satisfying manner.

The novel is nicely textured – the coma ward, the dissecting room, the grubby student digs, all feel authentic and supply important background detail to the characters and their interactions; Patrick’s character is believable, baffling and endearing; the structure works well and Bauer’s writing is always a pleasure to read.

Rubbernecker Belinda Bauer Bantam Press 2013 PB 320pp $32.95

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.