So it turns out that I have a soft spot for the unconventional amateur sleuth. Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Flavia de Luce, Agatha Raisin, the list goes on. It’s a miracle I haven’t read the Shardlake series, really. One amateur sleuth to which Bauer and her excellent novel owe something of a debt is Christopher Boone. The narrator of Mark Haddon’s groundbreaking Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was never noted as specifically having Asperger’s and was investigating who killed his neighbour’s dog, which didn’t ever really put him in mortal danger. Patrick Fort, Bauer’s hero at the centre of Rubbernecker, is a little older than Boone, unashamedly Asperger’s, and finds himself drawn into investigating what really happened to the body he’s dissecting in his first year anatomy class. So while there may be some differences, I very much doubt a single review or interview made it to the end without mentioning Haddon and the shadow cast by Boone.
There is a lot more to Rubbernecker than “autistic teen gets involved in a murder mystery”. In addition to Fort and his anatomy class, we also spend time in a coma ward with a ghastly gold digging and singularly unhelpful nurse. And Patrick is studying anatomy as he’s driven to find answers about death, having witnessed his father’s death when he was a young boy. His relationship with his mother, never great, has creaked and strained all the more since and the amateur sleuthing threatens to upend things entirely, for reasons Patrick could never see coming. When Patrick disagrees with the given cause of death for the cadaver he’s dissecting, so begins an increasingly exciting investigation into what really killed him.
The skill with which Bauer weaves these disparate storylines together is really quite wonderful. Patrick’s Asperger’s provides some fantastic moments of humour, but is never held up for laughs and mockery. It’s sensitively handled without it ever obviously being a thing with moments like “Jackson had long, pale hands that flapped on slender wrists, and dyed black hair, so short at the back and so long at the front that Patrick itched to reach out and realign it with his head” and “Patrick hadn’t been to a party since he was five years old, when the clamour of twenty over-sugared children in such disorganised proximity had led to a meltdown on a scale rarely witnessed during musical chairs. The very word ‘party’ had the power to trigger in him flashbacks of wailing classmates, overturned furniture and a big brown dog gulping down jelly.”
If I have to be critical, and I suppose I do, I could say that the culprit at the heart of Patrick’s mystery is kind of obvious from relatively early on, but that would be to overlook the heartstopping excitement Bauer creates on the way to unmasking them. The other plot strands are tied up so brilliantly though, that any misgivings over the central mystery are easily forgotten, I think. And Patrick Fort is such a gorgeous creation, I found it impossible to feel cheated at any point. If Bauer wanted to write more books with Fort at the centre, I wouldn’t mind one bit. And I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in that. If you heart Christopher Boone, read this book. If you haven’t read Haddon’s book, then read that. After that, read this one.