Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved.

This incident sparked Belinda Bauer’s latest novel Snap, somewhat controversially longlisted for the Man Booker prize last year.

The story focuses on Jack Bright, 11 when his mother disappears. He takes seriously her last words when she leaves him with his two little sisters: “Jack, you’re in charge.”

After the discovery of their mother’s body, family life breaks down. The children’s father, unable to cope, takes off. Jack now really is in charge and resorts to some extreme measures to keep his sisters safe.

In an interview in The Guardian last year to mark her inclusion in the Man Booker longlist, Bauer said: “…my style of writing … is about young people, for the most part, involved in a crime. His mum says to him: ‘You’re in charge, Jack,’ as she walks away from the car, and three years later he’s still in charge, trying to keep all the balls in the air, everybody alive, hidden from the authorities, in this terrible house, which is now full of newspapers which his sister collects obsessively to try and find clues about his mother’s death”.

Crime genre novels are not staples of the Man Booker prize, but the judges described Snap as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”.

New Statesman America writer Johanna Thomas-Corr was unimpressed. She remembered that “back in 2010, the former Man Booker judge John Sutherland joked that submitting crime novels for the prize would be ‘like putting a donkey into the Grand National’.” She was, however, prepared to be open-minded.

Noting that at least one reviewer had described Snap as spine-chilling, Thomas-Corr wrote: “Some of the writing is quite good – especially the first 13 pages. After that, I’m afraid my spine remained at its normal temperature.”

And then she said damningly: “It’s hard to understand how the Man Booker judges could have deemed Snap to be of sufficient depth or imagination to merit its inclusion on the longlist.”

How did I feel? I read it on holiday and enjoyed it, but I didn’t think Snap was anything like as good as Blacklands (2009) which stuck in my head and, unusually for a first novel, won the British Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger award. I also enjoyed its sequel, Dark Side.

But I’m not sure if my assessment is based on a proper evaluation or the fact that I read it on  my Kindle. There is something about a physical book that is a fitty thing, something that has presence, that you can hold and remember. An online book seems ephemeral, not entirely real. Later you can pick up a hard copy of what appears to you to be a fresh book and realise: “Oh, I’ve read this.” Online books don’t seem to register in my brain in quite the same concrete way.

Last words from a chuffed Bauer in her Guardian interview. “If it’s tokenism, I don’t care, because it does so much not only for crime writers but for readers in general, because now hopefully some of them will be open to reading a different kind of book.”

And that has to be a good thing.

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