Steven Lamb is 12 when he writes his first letter . . .to a serial killer
Every day after school, whilst his classmates swap football stickers, twelve-year-old Steven digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. His uncle disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery – but his body has never been found.
Steven’s Nan does not believe her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late – even if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son.
So Steven takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. And there begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored psychopath ...
Title: Blacklands | Author: Belinda Bauer | Series: Exmoor #1 | Publisher: Corgi | Pages: 242 | ISBN: 9780552158848 | Publication date: 2nd January 2010 | Source: Self-purchase
‘Blacklands’ is a gripping crime novel with a simple, effective concept – a boy on the cusp of adolescence tries to find the corpse of his uncle who has killed years before by a child murderer. It’s more than that though, author Belinda Bauer’s first book is also moving, humorous and often insightful in its examination of family relationships.
Bauer has been getting a lot of attention recently after her latest novel ‘Snap’ was long-listed for the Booker prize. I’ve read ‘Snap’ and really enjoyed its mix of mystery and humour, but for me ‘Blacklands’ is more deserving of critical praise. It’s one of the most convincing crime novels I’ve read this year, and that sense of realism comes largely from the great work Bauer has done in creating her two central characters.
Twelve-year-old Steven is heartbreakingly sympathetic. An unhappy, uncomfortable boy who just wants to make things right for his bereaved grandmother. He’s wonderfully written, his determination utterly engrossing and the pain he feels horribly real. I’m not sure I’ve rooted for a protagonist quite as earnestly as I did for him in quite a while.
On the flipside, the book’s villain Arnold Avery is despicable but just as credible. Bauer has done a brilliant job of getting into the mind of a psychopath, making his motivations believable without ever giving the reader any reason to feel anything other than hatred for him. Plenty of fictional lunatics end up being grotesque cartoons, but Avery is chillingly real.
It is the interplay between these two that makes the book so effective and enjoyable. The plot progresses inexorably, fuelled by both characters’ broken psyches, pulling the reader along like an unwitting observer to something unspeakable. The narrative is quite linear, but the tension is beautifully done and the ending satisfying. Throughout, Bauer eschews over the top theatrics in favour of realism and the book is all the stronger for her restraint. There is one deus ex machina moment in the second half which felt both bizarre and unnecessary, but it’s so beautifully written I forgave it.
The parallels between Avery’s crimes and those of the Moors Murderers are obvious, but the book never feels exploitative or cheap. Bauer apparently started it as a short story examining the effects of murder on the lives of the victim’s families. That theme comes over beautifully and the book is a thoughtful examination of grief as well as a touching coming of age story. Taken as a whole the book is quite an achievement and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It’s thrilling, chilling, convincing and touching and I enjoyed every page.