Twelve year-old Steven Lamb’s family has never recovered from the disappearance of his Uncle Billy almost two decades ago. Billy, who went missing aged eleven, was thought to have been murdered by the serial killer Arnold Avery. However, although six of Avery’s other victims were found buried on Exmoor, Billy’s body was never found.
Steven’s grandmother still can’t accept that her son is dead and stands at the window every day watching for him coming home. In an attempt to set his Nan’s mind at rest and restore some peace to his family by finding out where Billy is buried, Steven decides to write a letter to Arnold Avery in prison – but what he doesn’t realise is that by doing so he could be putting his own life in danger.
Blacklands is a dark and atmospheric psychological thriller, but due to the subject matter it won’t appeal to everyone. Although there’s nothing very gory or graphic, the book does takes us right inside the head of Arnold Avery, getting much closer to the mind of a serial killer than I was comfortable with. Of course, this type of thing should be disturbing and chilling, so I think the author has done a great job of creating a character who is genuinely frightening to read about.
Belinda Bauer said in her author’s note that this was originally intended to be a story about a boy and his grandmother and not a crime novel at all, which I thought was interesting because the family scenes were the aspect of the book that I really liked, rather than the crime plot. I was impressed with the way Bauer portrayed twelve-year-old Steven’s sad, lonely life and showed us the long term effects one tragic incident can have on future generations of a family.
The book explores Steven’s relationships with each member of his family. His Nan, still grieving for her lost son, is distant and detached, unable to move on with her life. His mother, a stressed single parent finding it difficult to cope in the aftermath of Billy’s murder, doesn’t have much time for Steven and lavishes most of her attention on his younger brother, five-year-old Davey. To make things even worse, Steven is being bullied and doesn’t feel he can tell anyone about it. His only moments of happiness come when he’s working in the garden with Uncle Jude, one of the many boyfriends who pass in and out of his mother’s life. Although he sometimes seems older than twelve, I found him a very believable character and it’s sad to think that all over the world there are real-life Stevens.
I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book, because how can you really enjoy reading about a child killer? But I did find it very gripping and didn’t want to put it down until I was finished. This was an impressive debut novel and although I don’t usually read a lot of crime fiction, I’ll look forward to reading more of Belinda Bauer’s books.
I received a review copy of this book from Transworld