Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, the protagonist of Belinda Bauer’s debut novel Blacklands, lives with his mother, Lettie, his grandmother and his little brother, Davey, in a small English village called Shipcott. Steven spends his time out on the moors digging holes. He’s looking for the body of his mother’s brother, Billy, who had been killed by pedophile and serial killer, Arnold Avery, eighteen years earlier. Avery had never given up the location of Billy’s body (or that of two of the other children he’d killed) and Steven thinks if he can find the body, it might bring closure for his perpetually grim and unhappy grandmother and his own mother, who has had to live under the weight of the tragedy her whole life.
Everything in Steven’s young life is miserable. Not only is his home life unhappy (even though he loves his family), he only has one friend at school (and it’s a relationship of convenience more than anything) and he’s constantly bullied by the “hoodies,” three lads who make it their mission to pick on him in and out of school. Even the teachers don’t know him. So Steven is a relatively solitary kid whose only goal is to find Uncle Billy so that “everything would change. [His nan] would stop standing at the window waiting for an impossible boy to come home; she would start to notice him and Davey, and not just in a mean, spiteful way, but in ways that a grandmother should notice them – with love, and secrets, and fifty pence for sweets.”
But Blacklands isn’t just Steven’s story; it’s Arnold Avery’s story, too. He’s rotting away in prison and, trust me, time spent with him isn’t so we can know his story and empathize with him. He’s reprehensible – a cunning deviant with a predilection for sexual torture and murder. He’s been a model prisoner because “model prisoners wanted to be rehabilitated, so Avery had signed up for countless classes, workshops and courses over the years.” It had all paid off, too, because two years earlier he’d been moved from a high-security prison to Longmoor Prison, a low-security facility.
So when he receives Steven Lamb’s first letter, a plea for help in finding Billy’s body, Avery begins to dream of escape.
Blacklands was the 2010 winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for Crime Novel of the Year. It works on multiple levels – as a story of what grief does to a person and how that legacy trickles down to poison all who come after, as a coming-of-age tale, and finally, as a can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough thrill-ride. Bauer manages the tricky shift between Steven and Avery with finesse and the whole story races, with only a couple minor missteps, towards an inevitable and thrilling denouement.