Blacklands is an award-winning debut work by Belinda Bauer, the first title in a trilogy of crime novels set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. Told mainly from the perspective of twelve year old Steven Lamb, it’s a psychological suspense tale rather than a whodunnit. We know almost from the start who committed the crime. We know also that he was caught and brought to justice. But given the opportunity is he ready to kill again? And will Steven be the unwitting trigger?
Clearly this is not your typical crime novel. It was never in fact designed to be a crime novel since Bauer’s original intention was for the story to be simply about a boy and his grandmother. But she became fascinated by the idea that something dreadful had happened to Steven’s family that was still affecting them twenty years later. The ‘something dreadful’ turns out to be the disappearance of Steven’s uncle Billy. Everyone in his village believed the young boy was killed by serial murderer Arnold Avery and buried on the desolate moor like the six other children he abducted. But Billy’s body was never found and Avery has never disclosed where he buried the body. Billy’s mother (Steven’s gran) is so convinced he is still alive she stands in the window of her home every day, watching for him to walk up the street.
Steven’s family life is not a happy one even without the shadow cast by the unresolved crime. His father abandoned him and his younger brother many years earlier. Steven yearns for a real dad but few of the “uncles’ who make their appearance have stuck around for very long. His home is a mess with mildew on the walls and mushrooms growing on the bathroom floor. Money is scarce. The hoodies lie in wait to beat up Steven whenever they can. His one and only friend betrays him.
If only Steven can find Billy’s body he believes his suffering and that of his family will be at an end. Every weekend he goes out in secret to dig on the moorland in search of the hidden body. Without any clues he can’t hope to make much progress. His solution is to contact the man who knows the location of Billy’s grave. His letters to Arnold Avery turn into a dangerous cat and mouse game in which Steven’s own life is imperiled.
It seems a little incredulous that a twelve year old would be able to engage in correspondence with a man serving life without questions being raised by prison authorities. But Bauer cleverly gets around this by making Steven’s identity part of a riddle Avery must solve. Equally deft is her characterisation of Steven. She makes him convincingly naive but with a high level of natural intelligence; a boy who just wants to do the right thing in the only way he knows how. A boy that you want to succeed.
The result is a novel that is disturbingly good. It doesn’t rely on intricate plotting or the skills of a super sleuth; just a good story and some believable characters. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Belinda Bauer but it won’t be the last.
Belinda Bauer was born in England and grew up there and in South Africa. She currently lives in Wales (not too far from my home in fact). She worked as a journalist and then as a screenwriter, winning the Carl Foreman Bafta for her first screenplay, ‘The Locker Room’. Blacklands, her first novel, was published in January 2010 and went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2010.
Her most recent novel, published earlier this year is The Shut Eye
Discover more about Belinda Bauer at her website