Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

What’s it worth to a 12-year-old boy to methodically dig up a stretch of moorland to find the remains of an uncle killed in childhood?  For Steven Lamb, it is a vain attempt to win the acceptance and love of his mother and grandmother, the two people most affected by the murder.

This is the basic premise of Blacklands, an intertwined tale of both a serial killer’s mind and the precarious mind frame of an age caught between child and adult.  Arnold Avery is the serial killer, a man convicted of several murders, possibly including Steven’s Uncle Billy, and a model prisoner with a seething intellect.  Steven is a ball of confusion, a bullied young man who sees his misguided attempts to solve his uncle’s murder the only solution to sorting out the unresolved resentments between his family members.   He starts to write letters to Avery, hoping for clues to his uncle’s death.  Avery succeeds in turning the correspondence into a vicious cat-and-mouse manipulation, and so the book barrels on to its clenching end.  It was a quick read, even for me. 

The character of Arnold Avery is not quite Hannibal Lector, but he’s not much better.  Avery’s psychology is not overly analyzed, but is disturbing enough – the depiction gave me the shivers.  The author also captures the pre-adolescent angst of Steven quite well.  The troubles with his family, the bullies at school, the one friendship he has that is questionable – the author writes about this thankless age better than most.  And to top it off, the story takes place in the unforgiving moors of Somerset and Devon in England – an area of wildly shifting weather patterns and uneven terrain that sets a foreboding tone for the entire book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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