I noticed Blacklands back when it was first published. I had a close look but I didn’t bring it home because the subject matter worried me.
“…a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer…”
It wasn’t that I thought the subject shouldn’t be written about, but it had to be handled carefully and I wasn’t sure if I should take the chance on a first time author.
But the case for reading Blacklands grew:
- I read many positive words.
- The CWA awarded this debut novel its Golden Dagger.
- I picked up Belinda Bauer’s second novel, which had an interesting but more tradition subject matter, and was impressed.
The case was made: when I was offered the chance of reading Blacklands for The Great Transworld Crime Caper I took it.
The sense of place, the atmosphere, the question in the very first paragraph pulled me in.
“Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colourless grass, prickly gorse and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the most cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark – a twelve-year-old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade.”
Blacklands is the story of that twelve-year-old-boy, and the story of his family. A family still scarred by a crime that happened two decades earlier.
Steven and his family are still suffering from a crime that happened two decades earlier.
Eleven-year-old Billy bought a bar of chocolate from the local newsagent, just yards from his home, and was never seen again. The police believe that he was the victim of Arnold Avery, paedophile and serial killer. He must have been. Avery did confess to killing six other children and burying them on the surrounding moors only months later.
But Billy’s Mum, Steven’s Nan, can’t or won’t believe it. She still waits by the window waiting for her boy to come home. His room, his things, are untouched, waiting for him.
Her daughter, Billy’s sister, Steven’s Mum, has to deal with that, has to deal with being the child who was left. She’s a single mother, struggling to keep the family together and to bring up Steven and his little brother.
Steven, a quiet child, unnoticed by his teachers, bullied by his peers, wants things to be different. He believes that he can put things right, that his family will love him more, that his schoolmates will take notice, if only he can find Billy’s remains. And so he spends every minute he can digging on Exmoor.
This picture, absolutely psychologically true, is built up over the first few chapters. Those chapters are so accomplished that I couldn’t quite believe that they were written by a first time novelist.
Steven was an intriguing character. Sometimes he seemed older than his years and sometimes younger, but I could see how that might have been the result of his circumstances.
It was a piece of school work that changed everything. Writing a letter. Stephen’s letter was praised, he was noticed. And that gave him an idea. That he would write to Arnold Avery, to persuade him to reveal where he had buried Billy.
This is where things could have gone horribly wrong. A boy initiating a relationship with a paedophile. And an imprisoned paedophile’s first contact with youth in years …. But Belinda Bauer handles things well, making it clear what Avery was without ever being graphic. It was disturbing and uncomfortable, as it had to be.
Blacklands works wonderfully as a study of the long-term effects of crime on a family, with so many details of Steven’s life caught perfectly.
But the need to tell a bigger story created one or two problems. There are some unlikely events, and a horrible and quite unnecessary coincidence as events built to a dramatic conclusion. It was probably the right conclusion, but it felt muddled and then rushed at the very end.
That was disappointing after so much good: the psychology, the atmosphere, the sense of place, and such a different approach to a crime story.
Blacklands was, I think a book of two halves – a family study and a crime drama – that didn’t, probably couldn’t, quite work together.
But it was compelling, original, and a hugely promising debut.