Monday, January 25, 2021

Review: EXIT

EXIT by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Pensioner Felix Pink is about to find out that it’s never too late . . . for life to go horribly wrong.

When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he’s there to perform an act of charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath ... But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police – after making the biggest mistake of his life.

Now his world is turned upside down as he must find out if he's really to blame, or if something much more sinister is at play. All while staying one shaky step ahead of the law.

Many years ago I read a stunning debut from a British author who lived in Wales and wrote about a troubled young boy who spent his days digging holes on Exmoor and writing letters to an imprisoned serial killer. Desperate for answers in order to try to piece his broken family back together, in some form at least. That novel, BLACKLANDS, heralded the arrival of a strong new voice in British crime writing - Belinda Bauer. And it went on to win Bauer the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger, a rare feat for a debut (recently matched by Australian author Jane Harper, another exceptional, top-shelf crime writer like Bauer).

From her earliest pages Bauer has shown a terrific knack for penning memorable main characters - the kind that stick with you not just because they're a little different to the crime fiction norm, but because Bauer infuses them with heart, depth, and nuance. Whether it's an adolescent boy hoping to mend his broken family, or a medical student with Asperger's looking to solve a murder (RUBBERNECKER), Bauer brings heart and soul to her crime writing. And her most recent books in particular, a really adroit balance of hilarity and heartache, of touching on some dark deeds and tough issues via offbeat tales. 

Most recently Bauer achieved the rare feat of a crime writer having a novel longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the English-speaking world’s top literary awards – and one that usually eschews genre or ‘popular’ fiction. Such is the quality of her prose. Few authors mesh darkness and (de)light as well as Bauer, and her latest novel EXIT underlines that deft touch for offbeat characters and original writing.

Living in his village near the Devon coastline, Felix Pink is a pensioner with a purpose: he’s a veteran Exiteer, a volunteer who sits with the terminally ill as they leave this world a little early. Felix doesn’t help them on the way, just comforts and supports them at the time they choose their final moments. 

They make the choice, they take the actions, Felix helps them with his presence, and tidying things up afterwards to make it easier for the surviving family to cope with the loss. 

But when he’s paired with rookie Amanda and things go horribly wrong on a new case, Felix ends up on the run from the police. He's a compassionate man that gets caught between the desire to turn himself in and face up to what he's done, and to stay free so that he can protect others. Especially those who could suffer if he ends up behind bars. Meanwhile young cop Calvin Bridge is first on the scene and gets caught up in the investigation while battling issues with self-confidence, gambling, and trying to keep the secret from his colleagues his family history contains plenty of unlawfulness.

Put simply, EXIT is an absolute delight of a read. It flows along wonderfully with Bauer's characters and prose. There's a zing to the story and plenty of emotional pull and punches. Zany isn't a word you'd often use in a crime fiction review, but it could be appropriate at times here, with some of the laugh-inducing situations Felix and other characters get themselves into, or out of. Yet it never feels 'thin' or one-note - there's depth and heart and big issues here too, woven in among the chuckles. 

Many years ago a famous US college basketball coach named Jim Valvano gave a speech at a national awards show. He was dying of cancer, and spoke about how to live well with the days you had:

"When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special." - Jim Valvano, ESPY Awards, 4 March 1993:

For whatever reason, I couldn't help but think of Jimmy V's words as I was reading EXIT. Perhaps it was because some of the character in it are dying of terminal illnesses, as he was, that my mind wandered to that speech I first heard a long time ago; one that has become iconic in the sports world. 

But also I think it was because in EXIT, Bauer has crafted another extraordinary crime novel that in one story delivers all three of those things Jimmy V says can make a heck of a day: it can make you laugh, it can make you think, and it can move you to tears. It is a marvellous novel, original and zesty and so much more, from a writer at the top of her very considerable game. Highly recommended. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

No comments:

Post a Comment