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An Interview with Belinda Bauer, Author of Darkside

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Well, Belinda Bauer has done it again – “it” being writing a fine thriller. Yet this is in a completely different style and genre to her first book. Some, probably most, authors would choose not stray far from the successful path for their second book, especially after their first book received praise, awards and honors. Bauer, clearly, is not one of those authors playing it safe. Rather she deftly switches style yet keeps up the momentum and hold on the readers.

With Blacklands, she penned a harrowing young adult novel. The plot involved a boy, Steven Lamb, 12, communicating by letter with a prisoner. Stephen’s grandmother is still understandably damaged by the disappearance of her then-11-year-old son, Billy, 19 years ago. Steven just wants to get the help of the prisoner so they can  locate the body and then maybe, Steven hopes, the family can start moving on.

The connection with Bauer’s new book is that the action is set in the same region, and Steven makes an appearance or two. But the focus of the new book is that someone is killing off people, many of them already near death, and law enforcement seems so busy with in-fighting it’s a wonder if they ever get any crime-solving done.

Meanwhile, someone is leaving anonymous notes taunting the local constable, Jonas Holly, who is already somewhat distracted dealing with his wife, Lucy, who has M.S., and not wanting her to know he’s been sidelined during the investigation for making mistakes.

What was your goal with this book? Did it differ from your goal of the first book?

Weirdly, the goal with Darkside was simply to see if I could actually write a crime novel! I never felt that Blacklands was one while I was writing it, so it was strange to set off know that Darkside HAD to be one, when I’d never considered writing crime before.

Did you have any concerns as you wrote this second book since your first received much praise including awards? Was there more pressure? Or were you able to tune all of that out?

I was under enormous pressure – every ounce of it self-imposed. I felt completely out of my depth and that I’d committed to an idea I was not clever enough to do justice to. I knew that I would fail spectacularly, let everybody down, and that my career was pretty much over before it had begun. I couldn’t tune ANY of it out! Darkside was a nightmare to write and I was sure it was complete rubbish all the way through. Then I read it and thought: ‘Oh, it’s actually fine!’ It was a pleasant surprise.

Why did you decide to set this book in the same region/locale as the first? Will that continue in future books?

I wanted to see how Steven Lamb was doing four years on, and I enjoyed the people and place I’d created in Blacklands, but I also wanted to do a standalone, rather than a sequel. The third book is also set in Shipcott and with some recurring characters. Like Darkside, it’s a standalone, but there is more of a sense of what’s gone before and the fallout from that.

When I interviewed you for the first book you mentioned your second book would be called The Tipping Point. I’m guessing this is that book but the title was changed (there’s at least one reference to the “tipping point” in your book) Why was the title changed? Surely not just because Malcolm Gladwell had the same book title.

Yes, it was partly because of the Malcolm Gladwell book and partly because the marketing people didn’t feel it was a title that grabbed you. Personally, I liked it but when I was asked to come up with an alternative, everybody liked Darkside, so it was an easy choice. 

Let me ask you to set the stage for the readers: How would you describe the main characters especially Jonas, his wife, Lucy, Reynolds and Marvel?

Jonas is the policeman in the village where he grew up, so he knows all its secrets – at least, he thinks he does… He’s a quiet, good-hearted young man under increasing pressure as he tries to juggle caring for his sick wife with the rampage of a serial killer who starts to get personal. Lucy, Jonas’s wife, is young and vibrant and is dying of Multiple Sclerosis. Her love for Jonas is constantly vying with her pain, and fear for both of them.

Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel hates being away from ‘civilization’, and takes his frustration out on those around him. He’s good at his job, but he’s a bully and insecure, with hints of an uneasy past in London. He’s also teetering off the wagon just when he needs to be at the top of his game. Marvel’s detective sergeant is Reynolds. Reynolds is much better educated than Marvel, and can rarely resist showing it. Needless to say, theirs is a fractious relationship. 

Ok now that you’ve done that I was struck by Jonas’ wife having M.S. I can’t recall any crime mysteries I’ve read (and I read a LOT) having a subplot involving M.S. Why did you decide to do that here?

I had a friend with M.S. and was shocked to discover that it is actually quite a young person’s illness. I needed to give Lucy a serious illness but I didn’t want it to define her personality. However, I WAS interested in contrasting the feelings of someone who knows they are going to die, with the victims of murder, which is always shocking and usually unexpected.

Why the decision to have Marvel be such a, well, an ass? Was it to show quite the contrast between him and the other law enforcement members?

Not really. I have known many police officers; some are clever and dedicated, some are a bit thick, or lazy, or allow their personal prejudices to get in the way. They’re never superhuman or saintly or psychic. So really I just wanted to create someone who was a flawed human being first, policeman second, which – to my mind – is only being realistic. I find it just as interesting to watch a detective flail about in a pool of his own inadequacies as I do to see Sherlock Holmes dazzle Dr. Watson.

Your characters get one or two digs in on TV crime shows and film, particularly Quentin Tarantino.  Do you share those criticisms? Put another way what do you think about how crime and crime-solving is portrayed on TV and in film?

I actually love crime shows and films, and I won’t hear a bad word about Quentin Tarantino… but if my characters have a dig, that’s nothing to do with me! In fact, there’s no dig at Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs was from the gang’s point of view and the cops were expendable extras. I just liked the idea of reminding Marvel of that at a crucial moment; I enjoyed watching him wobble…

I love the idea you attribute to Ronnie, namely he steals cars, yes, but then he improves the cars before they are returned to their rightful owner. Where did you come up with that great idea? Did it really happen somewhere?

Ronnie doesn’t steal cars because he’s a hooligan. He steals cars because he loves them, and loves driving fast. Therefore it seems logical to me that he’d want to keep those cars for as long as possible, and make them as good as he can while he has them. Why dump them or burn them? I really enjoy cars and motorbikes, so I guess Ronnie is the kind of car thief I would be!

What are you working on next?

Book 4 is set in a university medical school. It’s essentially a two-hander with a really nice twist, so it will be something of a return to the spirit of Blacklands for me.

I often end my interview with what I call my bonus question – what question do you wish interviewers would ask that they always fail to ask? Here’s your chance to ask then answer it.

Nice idea! 

Q) If you could have your life over again, knowing what you know now, what would you be?

A) A jockey.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.