The Lady Vanishes
British novelist Belinda Bauer’s Snap was longlisted for the Man Booker Award last year, one of the rare suspense books to be included in that hallowed roll.
The opening chapter of the novel is harrowing—eleven-year-old Jack is left in charge of his two younger sisters, Joy and Merry, in the family’s battered car, while his mother goes off to make a call. Hours pass and she does not return; the car gets hot, the kids are hungry and scared. Jack gets out of the car with the two little girls to search for their mother, and, it is a measure of a society’s callousness, that cars whizz past the three traumatized kids and nobody stops to help.
Much later, the mother’s body is found in a deserted spot. The father, unable to cope with the tragedy abandons the kids to their fate and disappears. Jack does not want to approach the authorities for fear of the siblings being sent to different foster homes by social workers. He tries look after them, but there is only so much a penniless child can do. When they are dying of starvation, Louis, a burglar, finds them, takes Jack under his wing and teaches him to become an expert thief too. Jack’s modus operandi is to steal food for the homes he breaks into, and take naps in their beds; in his own home, he is plagued by nightmares about his mother’s disappearance. The baffled cops label him Goldilocks.
The kids pretend their father is out on work and that they are being home schooled; to prevent prying, Jack keeps the exterior of their home in impeccable condition, while inside is a mess of newspapers that Joy refuses to throw away. It is her way of coping, while five-year-old Merry, clutches a pet tortoise, compulsively mows the lawn and reads vampire books.
In a parallel story, Catherine, a pregnant woman, alone at home as her husband, Adam travels on business, finds her house broken into and a knife let by her bedside with a threatening note. For a reason she cannot explain even to herself, she does not tell her husband or the cops about the incident.
Detective Inspector John Marvel, a homicide expert, bristling at the transfer from London to Somerset, and unhappy at the downgrade to solving burglaries, is, nevertheless involved in the case, and even thinks up a scheme to trap Goldilocks.
Marvel’s colleague Reynolds, listens distractedly to his mother telling him about three wild and unsupervised kids next door, but does not act on it. Jack allows himself to be caught to bargain for solving his mother’s murder, for which he has provided clues. Marvel, longing to solve a murder, gets his wish, and the chance to interact with the amazingly smart and resourceful fourteen-year-old thief.
Bauer mixes suspense, action and a compassion for the three kids in a thoroughly engrossing novel—maybe not Booker-worthy, but excellent in its own way.