The Beautiful Dead
By Belinda Bauer
Bantam Press, £12.99 hardcover
A skilled writer is a skilled picker. To plunge readers into their story, a writer first sifts through a world of possibilities to select a precisely suitable image, emotion, or event to convey with immediacy. Nowhere is that more crucial than in the taut, tense world of the mystery thriller.
Hats off to Belinda Bauer. She has the gift of accuracy. Early in The Beautiful Dead she brings readers to protagonist Eve Singer’s neighbourhood and says: “It was the kind of place where residents banded together to save their old red phone box but never went into each other’s homes.”
This sentence alerts us that all will be well. They are simple words, but as skewering as an icepick. We know that street. We know everyone living there. Bauer projects directly onto the mind’s eye with a cinematographer’s skill. Using a curated menu of images and symbols, she draws the weave of her story as tight as gabardine.
The Beautiful Dead evokes Thomas Harris, with its ruthless and inventive killer who believes himself an artist. It also tips its hat to Inspector Morse: when we meet TV crime beat reporter Eve Singer she’s throwing up. It’s an unfortunate occupational hazard — the sight of blood and gore makes her ill.
Twisting and turning from one unsettling set-up to the next, the action ranges across London, from Heathrow-adjacent suburbs to the turbine hall at Tate Modern, where the climax plays out. (It’s the only scene that feels OTT, short on the lightness of touch and the grace that Bauer evinces everywhere else. Even so, you’ll root for things to turn out well for her characters.)
Bauer’s mysterious killer is ordinary to look at but deeply deranged. From money, he now inhabits a vast, empty home, burns oil paintings to keep warm, and keeps an unusual family “heirloom” in an upstairs bedroom. He believes wholeheartedly (ahem) that murder is a gift and an art form, and that Eve Singer was sent to burnish his legend status.
When his dream goes pear-shaped, he decides she should become his next work of art.
Eve has her own issues, which include a father with Alzheimer’s, cut-throat colleagues keen to relegate her back to the bottom of the career ladder, and a hot-headed, impetuous nature that often lands her in harm’s way. She’s buffeted by guilt — about her father, and about the ease with which the killer contrives to make her feel complicit as the death toll rises. Maybe she is guilty? She’s fighting for her career and economic security. That kind of anxiety can cloud a person’s judgement.
As well as making your heart race, The Beautiful Dead will have you laughing out loud. Eve’s enormous likability stems from a GSOH that’s not without a dash of self-deprecation. Her cameraman, Joe, has an equally wry outlook, and together they’re an endearing double act. Bauer’s also written exquisite, poignant, funny exchanges between Eve and her father that will tug your heartstrings.
Accomplished, lively, thoroughly enjoyable, The Beautiful Dead is a keeper.