Saturday, July 19, 2014


BLACKLANDS by Belinda Bauer (2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging 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 . . .

British author Belinda Bauer burst onto the scene a few years ago with this CWA Gold Dagger-winning tale of a naïve but determined 12-year old investigating the long-ago disappearance of his uncle - an event that decades later still hangs over his working class family like a choking mist.

Fatherless Steven Lamb feels overlooked by his struggling mother and his emotionally crippled Nan, who still waits by the window for her son, Steven’s uncle Billy, to come home, more than twenty years after many people think the 11-year-old was snatched, murdered, and buried somewhere on Exmoor by notorious child killer Arnold Avery. While Steven’s schoolmates hang out and swap football stickers, he spends his afternoons and weekends digging the moor, hoping to uncover his uncle’s body and allow his family to heal and move on. Getting desperate, Steven decides to ask the only person that might know where Uncle Billy was buried. He writes to Avery, who’s spent 18 years behind bars, kick-starting a dangerous cat and mouse game with the bored paedophile.

On its surface, Blacklands is a deceptively simple story, yet Bauer imbues it with layers; fully-realised characters struggling at the margins of society, a well-evoked sense of both the wild beauty of the moors, and the ongoing effects on a family and community of horrific crime, long after the headlines have faded.

Note: Bauer has today won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for RUBBERNECKER. Congratulations Belinda. I realised that although I had reviewed Belinda's debut, BLACKLANDS in print a few years ago, I hadn't yet published a review here on Crime Watch. 

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