Snap by Belinda Bauer

It's fairly unusual for crime fiction to attract attention from non-genre literary awards, and yet Belinda Bauer's Snap has found itself on the longlist for the Booker Prize. As a reader of crime fiction I'm delighted about this, although in many ways, this is far from a conventional crime novel and more the story of a fractured family irreparably damaged by a shocking murder.

The mystery drives the plot, certainly, but it's of secondary importance to the development of the characters and if you're a crime reader who looks for meticulous procedural detail and in-depth analysis of motive, you might be disappointed. This is neither a whodunnit, technically, nor a whydunnit, and yet I loved this book and feel it absolutely deserves its Booker longlist place. It's slightly reminiscent of Kate Atkinson's crime novels in that the characters are slightly off-kilter and the detecting imbued with a sort of heightened reality that means the mystery is unravelled more through luck than judgement.

Snap opens with three children, Jack, Joy and toddler Merry, waiting in a broken-down car on the hard shoulder of the motorway on a boiling hot day. Their heavily pregnant mother has left them to walk to the emergency phone and has left with strict instructions to stay put - but she's been gone for far too long, and Jack is starting to worry. When they finally decide to go and find her and discover the emergency phone receiver dangling, Jack realises something terrible has happened, and that his life will never be the same again. Skipping forward three years, we find Jack, Joy and Merry still living in their family home - but their father is nowhere to be found, the house is filled from floor to ceiling with old newspapers and Jack, now 14, is supporting the family solely through an intensive campaign of burglary. One day, however, he stumbles across what he firmly believes is the key to the mystery of his mother's unsolved murder.

This summary makes it all sound rather bleak, but in fact, it's far from that. It's achingly sad at times, and is utterly impossible not to want to reach into the pages of the book and rescue poor, stoical Jack, a boy forced into being a man and desperate to hold the dregs of his family together, from his plight. But at the same time, this book is witty, wryly observant, and has some borderline surreal moments and larger-than-life characters. The fence who sells on Jack's stolen goods is a compulsive hair-remover who shaves his legs constantly in the street and is as bald as if he had alopecia, while his brother is a functioning heroin addict and the local postman, and we haven't even moved on to the local police force and their appalling newcomer Inspector Marvel, transferred from the Met to the West Country and apparently having attended the same charm school as Mick Herron's Jackson Lamb.

As the different strands of the plot intertwine and the clues and coincidences mount up, the story gathers pace and builds to a tense climax - although again, what really matters is the characters rather than the resolution of the mystery. Realism is not the primary concern, and yet I think this book is all the better for it. Whether Snap makes it from the Booker longlist to the shortlist remains to be seen, but I'll certainly be looking out for Bauer's other books as this one really stands out from the crowd.