Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
It’s hunting season on Exmoor and little Jess Took has been left in her father’s horsebox while the men gallop off with the hounds in the hope of killing something furry. But this is Belinda Bauer country - her third Exmoor novel - and so things start to go very badly wrong for Jess by the bottom of page 2. That’s one of Bauer’s strong points - she’s always into her stride with indecent haste.
Rebellious Jess, who refuses to go hunting because her father has divorced her mother, is being a teenager - listening to hip-hop on her earphones, living in a world of her own. Suddenly, through the spring frost on the windows, she sees a shape. She thinks it’s her father and opens her mouth to be rude. But it isn’t her father who opens the horsebox door, and it isn’t her father who whisphers: “If you scream, I’ll shoot you in the head.”
Bauer’s style is both direct and subtle and you feel for Jess as she’s dragged to a waiting car. “Her legs were picked up and hoisted after her, and she just had time to register that she was in the boot of a car before the lid fell and cut off her cry, her light - and every idea she’d ever had of how her world was going to be - with a single metallic bang.”
The kidnapper leaves a note in the horsebox: You don’t love her.
This is Bauer’s forte - English rural crime noir, with a thread of the psychological thriller as insiduous as Daphne du Maurier. Soon we have three missing children, all taken from cars, and the press have dubbed the kidnapper The Pied Piper. On the trail is Jonas Holly, the local PC, and a team from Taunton CID, led by DI Reynolds - with DS Rice riding shotgun. Reynolds is entertaining enough - he’s had hair transplants since the last book which give him a nice comic dimension to offset the prissy academic nerd that he is. As Bauer notes: “Reynolds would have put his eyes out before admitting to a hunch.” Rice is good company too. She fancies PC Holly, but doesn’t have much luck. At one point Bauer perfectly captures her life view as she imagines the word dowdy droping ‘over her like a potato sack’. Bauer’s powers of brief characterisation are superb.
I guess you could read Finders Keepers without having read the previous two books but it would be a very odd experience, like watching a play in a foreign language you don’t speak. There’s a lot of baggage aboard as we set out to find this kidnapper - who graduates to murder with chilling inevitability. Most baggage is carried by PC Holly, who is in a precarious psychological state following the violent death of his wife in the previous book. Then there is young Steven Lamb - the main character of Blacklands - Bauer’s award-winning opener to this series. He’s doomed to play a central role again, and find love, and build a motorbike. The book carries an almost intolerable burden imposed by the previous two. No wonder the world’s media descend on the place – it’s got a murder rate which would scare a New York cop. I think it would be a good idea to stop the series now before the entire edifice topples over - and there’s every sign Bauer will move on, as most of the loose ends are neatly tied up here.
But before we get to the denouement Bauer pulls another one of her sudden volte face. I know these are designed to excite us and avoid any hint we’re in for a cosy read. But for me this one goes as badly wrong as the last one in Darkside. We start popping into the killer’s mind for a start, then we skip back to before the action starts, then we fast-forward again into the last third of the book. Suddenly the clues don’t count, which is a bit annoying, because we’vespent several hours collecting the bloody things. What’s more PC Holly had stumbled on key evidence - only to be prompty ignored by Reynolds and Rice. If they’d sat down for five minutes and thought about what they’d discovered they would have come up with the killer’s name. But all that goes out the window as we are plunged into a hellish world of dead meat, madness, and terrified children - forget Daphne du Maurier, its suddenly Val McDermid, and the moment when we cross over from rural noir to grand guignol had me weighing the book in my hand and trying to decide if I wanted to read on. Don’t get me wrong - I love Val McDermid - but the switch here prompted a giggle not a gasp. The book ends when DI Reynolds finally gets a hunch. Actually the real ending of the book involves PC Holly and is rather satisfying. But I’ll leave you to that treat.