As a longtime crime fiction fan I am constantly on the lookout for authors who can step outside the formula (feisty pathologists, rule-breaking FBI agents, haunted detectives, reckless reporters and wannabe Hannibal Lectors) and bring something new and original to the genre while still giving me my fictional murder fix. Reading the synopsis for Belinda Bauer’s CWA Gold Dagger-winning debut, Blacklands, I suspected she might be it.
“Twelve year old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school and at weekends, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven digs to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery. Only Steven’s nan is not convinced 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. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it. So the boy 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 serial killer.”
And I wasn’t disappointed; Blacklands is fantastic.
Blacklands was accidentally a crime novel; the author admits in a note that it started off as what she thought would be a short story about a boy and his grandmother, and only later took a dark turn. It’s told mainly from the point of view of twelve-year-old Steven: a timid, skinny weakling bullied by the stronger boys. He shares a bed with his little brother – who he knows is his mother’s favorite – while his dead uncle’s room lays frozen in time, empty but preserved, next door. Steven muddles along so far beneath the radar that his teachers can’t recall his name, but yet he spends his free time searching for bones and his pen-pal is a convicted child killer, a man who may hold the information that Steven believes will restore his family and move his grandmother away from her ever-watchful stance at the front room window.
Moving between the confines of Steven’s cold, damp house and the confines of Arnold Avery’s dark cell – between childhood innocence and a man who lives to take it – and across miles of foggy, desolate moors, Blacklands is a tense, taunt tale that doesn’t hold back. Bauer is a wonderful skilled and accomplished writer, but her talents are in understatement; no Hollywood-esque bloodied attack is as frightening as the idle thoughts inside Avery’s mind, and Bauer needs no cliff-hangers to keep you turning the pages. As a consequence readers used to the high-octane plots of the likes of Cornwell (when she was good), Gerritsen and Slaughter might argue that this is not the book the cover suggests, but skipping it will be their loss.
Blacklands is captivating, creepy and original, and Steven is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read in fiction this year. I can’t wait to read more.
Thanks to Transworld for the review copy.