Meet Felix Pink. The most unlikely murderer you’ll ever have the good fortune to spend time with.
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.
Felix Pink had climbed a tree, and nothing was beyond him.
There are times when this sort of book is just what you need – a cosy, heartwarming but effective crime novel. And the dark evenings between Christmas and New Year were the perfect time for it.
We meet Felix Pink as he lets himself – and a colleague, Chris – into a home. He wanders upstairs. He meets Mr Collins, an elderly and terminally ill man, and bears witness as he dies. As he exits this life. Because this is the job of an exiteer, to offer company, respect and to bear witness at the moment of death. And there is something terribly noble and gracious about that idea.
It is a little more morally grey, perhaps, when we learn that the exiteers also facilitate their clients’ purchase of the nitrous oxide that they take to end their lives, treading a terribly fine legal line between bearing witness and assisted suicide. But concerns about the elderly, the isolation that comes with growing old and infirm, the vulnerability that comes with it are potent concerns – perhaps especially so with memories of care homes struggling with covid over the last two years, and of my own grandmother’s rather unedifying last year of life.
Felix was a wonderful creation – seventy-five years old himself but physically spry enough to visit numerous locations in the South West as an exiteer, to walk his dog and to tend his garden. He bears himself with a quiet nobility and humanity, categorising himself as “steadfast”
Being steadfast was no longer fashionable but it was a quality Felix had always admired. He liked to think he’d been a steadfast husband to Margaret. Even after she had left him alone with their memories.
Even after that.
Things quickly go wrong for Felix: on his next exiteer appointment, he has a new partner and things go terribly wrong: the canister of nitrous oxide is out of reach and his partner passes it to the dying man. Legally, we are told, this steps into assisted suicide. Even worse, having facilitated and born witness to this man’s death, Felix discovers that there was a second terminally ill man in the house and that they had killed the wrong one!
Bauer then branches the novel in two. We see Felix vacillate between being willing to surrender to custody and be arrested, and investigating the confusion himself. Initially simply to find out what truly happened, and eventually to exonerate himself by uncovering that truth – how did one man’s will, signed by him, end up beside the bed of his equally terminally ill son? Alongside that, we see the police investigation, where PC Calvin Bridge is seconded to CID by DCI Kirsty King, which criss-crosses Felix’s own.
Often, I dislike those split narratives – they can be tricky to balance well, to avoid the disappointment as you settle in with one character to switch to another. Here, Bauer does it beautifully. Both Felix and Calvin are deeply enjoyable protagonists, flawed and fragile and human, and their crossed paths are wonderfully well balanced. Tea towels draped gauchely over suspicious filing cabinets are taken to be carefully planted decoys, for example, and “tea towel” becomes a metaphor through the novel.
There is a tremendous sense of joy here: repeated references to “Sergeant Coral’s wife’s terrible fruit cake” were a lovely domestic touch; Felix’s adventures in a tree that reinforced his physical confidence; every single secondary character was a delight. At the same time however, Bauer introduced a wonderful pathos at the experience of aging. Somehow, Felix’s attitude to his beige coat was something I identified with too much:
Margaret had bought it from Marks & Spencer years ago, and he’d been secretly appalled. Felix was no adventurer, but he had never dreamed that he would wear such a staid thing. Such an old man thing. He’d seen old men in that very jacket for decades. Often with matching flat cap and walking stick. He had a hazy recollection of his father in the same jacket, and quite possibly his grandfather. The fact that Margaret had apparently felt the jacket was suitable attire for him at the age of sixty-four had come as something of a blow.
The trouble was, he now wore it all the time! It was warm but not hot. It machine-washed, and dried in a jiffy, looking like new, and it went with everything else in his wardrobe, somehow making the smart look casual and the casual look smarter. On principle, Felix had spent ten years looking for something more suitable to replace it with when it finally wore out, but it never did wear out, and he was far too much a man of his generation to dream of discarding something when it was still entirely serviceable, even if he had an existential crisis every time he wore it.
Felix has suffered his own tragedies and weathered them stoically – the moments when he remembers playing chess with his son, who had taken his own life, or his time with Margaret who developed dementia before dying are genuinely painful but tenderly offered to us.
And Bauer brings every single element together by the end of the novel – and there are oh so many more than I have touched on in this review – in such a neat but satisfying way!
Bauer has been on the periphery of my reading consciousness for several years now: her debut Black Lands is still on my tbr and the fact that it is in a physical format shows how long it has been there, and I did really enjoy Snap when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. This novel, however, may be the one that encourages me to give her a little more priority.
What I Liked
- Felix Pink: steadfast, noble, still growing at the age of seventy-five
- The wide cast of fantastically drawn and rounded secondary characters from Felix’s neightbour Miss Knott to Mr Martin who “had a face like a lemon”, from Felix’s co-exiteer Amanda to the cleaner Hayley Pitt, from the camaraderie of the Police Station to the community in the bookmakers… all wonderful.
- Bauer’s sheer sense of fun and genuinely tender pathos, which she balanced exquisitely.
- That ginger cat!
What Could Have Been Different
- The title – I know it is a tiny and inconsequential detail, but I found the title of both this, and Snap, deeply uninspiring!