I am a sucker for books with kids as heroes. Not smartass kids, not stagy kids—just kids. Maybe I never quite outgrew my favorite children’s books, or maybe my affection for Jem, Scout and Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird has had too strong an influence on me. In any case, if you, too, like a good child protagonist, I have one for you: Jack Bright, from Belinda Bauer’s 2018 mystery Snap.
Jack is twelve when his mother leaves him and his younger sisters, Joy and Merry, on the side of the highway in their broken-down car, while she walks along the shoulder to the nearest emergency phone. “Jack’s in charge,” she tells the children and never comes back. When the police find her, she’s been stabbed to death.
Three years later, Jack’s father has deserted the family and Jack really is in charge. But never fear: this is not a Horatio Alger story. Jack’s way of taking care of his sisters is not by selling apples on a street corner or returning the local millionaire’s lost dog. He’s a burglar.
Beyond Jack, there are the police whom he enlists in solving his mother’s murder: two sorry specimens who provide the comic relief in a disturbing story whose tension increases page by page. One cop is a prig and a highly unreliable narrator; the other is a rude slob who somehow manages to win our grudging affection. As this misfit trio circles around the truth behind the crime, another murder is looming.
To my delight as both a lover and a writer of mysteries, Snap was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize. I assume this is in honor not only of the book’s clever plot and original characters but its good writing. Not pretentiously or distractingly good, thank God, just good. Here’s an introduction to a character’s mother, whose “default” guilt-provoking greeting when her adult daughter phones her is always “Oh, hello!…To what do I owe this honour?” Talk about character assassination in a nutshell.
Or the wimpy, fussbudget policeman’s description of his colleague’s husband: “Eric…was no taller than Reynolds, but he was so muscular that his head/neck combo formed a dome on his shoulders—of the kind that might contain a stuffed Victorian pheasant, rather than a brain.”
If you’re still not persuaded to read this book, I can promise you some other outstandingly well-drawn characters, including a man who removes all the hair from his body and a terrifying maker-of-knives.
Belinda Bauer has written eight other novels besides Snap; the latest one (2021) is Exit. But next I think I’ll try her debut novel, Blacklands, which won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of 2010. When you like a book as much as I like Snap, it’s great to know that so many other stories by the same author are just waiting to be read.