SNAP by Belinda Bauer
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018
I was ready and willing to be wowed by Snap, the crime novel supposedly innovative and subversive enough to make it onto this year’s Man Booker longlist. I’ve talked before about the near-impossibility of divorcing your experience with a book from the context in which you read it; who knows how I would have reacted to this if I’d approached it as a guilty-pleasure thriller and not as a Man Booker nominee, but I did read it as a Man Booker nominee, and I’m at a loss as to how this run-of-the-mill, anticlimactic, bland thriller was able to hoodwink five judges into thinking it’s anything more than a supremely underwhelming contribution to the genre (Val McDermid’s influence aside).
But I’ll start with the positives, because Snap did scrape by with two whole stars from me. It’s undoubtedly pacey and gripping, with a fantastic concept: a woman leaves her children in her broken-down car to go get help, and she’s found murdered a week later. It kept me reading and kept me wanting to know what was going to happen. I know that seems like it should be a given for a thriller, but having read many which fall flat on their faces in this regard, it is nice to read a proper page-turner. I liked the setting as well; for some reason crime novels set in small town England have a vibe that really works for me and this was no exception.
Now everything else.
Screw utmost serenity! She had to tell Adam! She had to tell the police!
The writing in this book was so dreadfully awful. I can only implore you not to participate in a drinking game where you take a sip every time you see an exclamation point, because you would be unconscious by page 20. For some reason, Bauer doesn’t believe that emphasis or gravitas can be achieved without embellishing her sentences with excessive punctuation, italics, or some combination of the two. It only serves to undermine the book’s darker themes as it’s written with the dramatic flair of a novelized soap opera.
At a glance the plot itself seems intricate as there are so many different characters who play some kind of key role, but when you start to examine it more closely you begin to realize how unconvincing it all is. There are just so many plot holes (a very unique and distinctive knife is used to commit a murder and the police never think to look into the sale of that knife?!) and coincidences (a boy just happens to burgle a random house and look in a man’s hiking boot to uncover the missing key to his dead mother’s murder investigation?!). Interestingly Bauer attempts to write herself a get out of jail free card on this account, as a character remarks:
He’d never worked a case where coincidence hadn’t played a part, either in the commission of the crime or the solving of it.
… which is undoubtedly true to life in a certain way, but it’s also a bit insulting to your reader, to pile coincidence on top of coincidence and try to pass that off as a well-crafted mystery. Some of these coincidences ended up being utterly inconsequential, too, like the fact that one of the investigating officers lives right next door to the family at the heart of the crime without even realizing it. It just didn’t add anything to the story except for a VERY flimsy moment toward the end where we’re informed by a ham-fisted plot point that their proximity actually did matter! (It didn’t.)
But the most insufferable thing about this book – aside from the exclamation points – was the fact that Bauer just shows her hand too early. The only subversive thing about this novel ends up being the fact that there really is no twist, no shocking reveal, just a resolution that plateaus far too early to make the payoff feel remotely rewarding. Watching police try to prove what the reader already knows is just as thrilling as it sounds.
And I can’t end this review without commenting again on this book’s inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, which in itself caused quite a stir, raising the age-old question of whether genre fiction belongs in a literary prize. When the list was first announced, I was excited by the fact that there was some variety, that we weren’t seeing the same names that are nominated year after year. And I’m still an advocate of genre fiction having a place in the Man Booker and other literary awards… provided that it’s really exemplary genre fiction. I see no reason why a superb crime novel shouldn’t be longlisted. The problem is, this wasn’t a superb crime novel. Not even close. And I’m frustrated that the Booker wasted an opportunity to expand literary readers’ horizons on this rather pointless and ill-constructed novel.
More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews: