When the Man Booker longlist was announced last month, it was hard to discern much of a theme beyond: “Surprise!” Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina won the headlines as the first graphic novel to be nominated, but eye-catching in a different way was Snap, Belinda Bauer’s suspense thriller about a mother’s disappearance, loosely based on the real-life, unsolved murder of Marie Wilks in 1988. It’s the sort of commercial fiction that tends to outsell the rest of the longlist put together but which Man Booker judges are supposedly too snotty and set in their literary ways to consider. The paperback comes garlanded with praise from Women & Home (“Spine-chilling”), as well as the crime writer Val McDermid, whose inclusion on this year’s judging panel was presumably designed to bring about precisely such jolts of populism.
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”. Since then, the barricades have been crumbling; I don’t know many literary types who would object to genre fiction on principle. Indeed, I was primed for a pulse-pounding page-turner, all set to miss my bus stop and stay up way past my bedtime. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Bauer’s eighth novel is alright, some of the writing is quite good – especially the first 13 pages. After that, I’m afraid my spine remained at its normal temperature.
Snap opens on stiflingly hot day in 1998 as three children sit in a broken-down car on the hard shoulder of the M5. “It was so hot in the car that the seats smelled as though they were melting,” Bauer begins. “Jack was in shorts, and every time he moved his legs they sounded like Sellotape.”
Jack Bright, 11, has been told to take charge of his two younger sisters, nine-year-old Joy and baby Merry, while their heavily pregnant mother Eileen walks to find an emergency telephone. She tells them it’s too dangerous to leave the vehicle, but after an hour, they lose patience – only to find the receiver dangling off the hook of an orange SOS box. None of the passing cars stop (“Nobody wanted to get involved” is the novel’s insistent refrain) but eventually the police show up and deliver the children home to their father. Eileen’s body is later found by the side of the road, one fatal stab wound to the stomach.
Winner of two Crime Writers’ Association awards, including the Gold Dagger for her 2010 debut Blacklands, Bauer doesn’t do blood and gore and she’s not interested in the killer’s psyche either. She writes about the victims of crime, in particular children, which she does acutely and without sentimentality. The descriptions of Jack’s evolving dreams about his mother at the roadside are particularly unsettling, as the children’s father abandons them and he learns to rob houses to support his siblings.
The problem with Snap is that it’s very uneven. After a taut first chapter, a flimsy secondary plot, featuring a heavily pregnant young woman called Catherine, sucks all tension away. She wakes to find an intruder in her house and a knife beside her bed with a chilling message (“I could have killed you”) scrawled on a birthday card from her mother. She’s so precious about her unborn child that she frets about eating a Bakewell tart, but she somehow manages to laugh off a series of increasingly menacing threats, refusing to call the police or tell her aggressively protective husband, Adam, in case he blames her for leaving the bathroom window open.
Bauer’s depiction of a woman in the last stages of pregnancy is so shallow and patronising, it feels like being stuck in an endless NCT class. That Catherine doesn’t get knifed early on is one of the book’s biggest disappointments. But unidimensional females appear to be a hallmark. When the novel shifts to 2001, Jack’s sister, Joy is barely allowed a line of dialogue, while the saucy female cop, Elizabeth Rice, comes across like a character from a Benny Hill sketch amid the sort of “equality-my-arse” colleagues often to be found in regional police procedurals.
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. Even as a thriller, it’s much less thrilling than Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. And it’s just hard to be thrilled when you come up against passages like this:
By the half-light of the hallway Catherine stood, naked, and stared down at her huge tummy – shiny and stretched to accommodate the baby they were looking forward to with such pleasure. It was a view she’d enjoyed many, many times over the past months – marvelling at her tightening swell and disappearing feet. She always felt joy and wonder. But tonight the joy didn’t come. And neither did the wonder.
A little later, Catherine is queasy as she stares down at her tummy: “Because for the first time, alongside their precious child, grew a tiny seed of doubt.”
I have a tiny seed of doubt, too. Are the judges of our most prestigious literary award so scared of being tarnished with the elitist brush that they’re making a play for Richard and Judy territory? McDermid has spoken of her frustration at her own novels being overlooked for the Man Booker. The judges’ comment says that Snap was chosen as a “stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”. Which makes me wonder if they read Happiness by Aminatta Forna, an ambitious, big-hearted novel that actually explores the subject of trauma rather than exploiting it. That didn’t make the shortlist. Nor did Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, or Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – all bold, sexy, emotionally engaging novels which convey a depth of felt-life. At a time when literary fiction is being sidelined by publishers and overlooked by readers, you’d hope the Man Booker judges would mount some sort of defence.
For context, McDermid founded the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival with Bauer’s agent, Jane Gregory, who is also her agent. Cosy. I’d be interested to hear from the other judges individually as to why they thought this book worthy of inclusion. If Snap is, as McDermid claims, “the best crime novel I’ve read in a very long time”, then it’s not literary fiction that’s in trouble.
Black Swan, 448pp, £8.99
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic