four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
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A-BlacklandsBlacklands, a taut psychological thriller involving a young boy and an imprisoned serial killer with ties to the boy’s family, is the first novel from journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer.

The Story: Surrounded by a grieving grandmother and a mother at loose ends, 12-year-old Steven lives a mean life in rural Exmoor. The grandmother waits—hope against hope—for the return of Steven’s uncle, who disappeared nearly two decades before and was presumably the victim of serial killer Arnold Avery, who is now a prisoner serving a life sentence. In an attempt to bring his family some much-needed peace of mind, Steven, who spends his days futilely digging holes in the English countryside searching for the body of his missing uncle, writes to Avery for help. That correspondence kindles a relationship that quickly spins out of control.
Simon & Schuster. 240 pages. $23. ISBN: 9781439149447.

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"This astonishingly assured debut, from journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer, for once lives up to the hype. … Told in lucid, uncluttered prose, the description of the effect of this correspondence on both parties is genuinely chilling: aching, frantic hope on Steven’s part, as he scrabbles to find clues in the killer’s laconic responses, and, for Avery, gloating relish when he realizes that the letter-writer is a child." Laura Wilson

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Steven has such a convincing voice that the reader can really feel for the suffering of this boy in a sad family. … Bauer also demonstrates an uncanny ability to get under the skin of that other essential character in crime fiction: the murderer." Jane Jakeman

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Blacklands] is the dual character study of a young boy and a grown man drawn to each other through their separate obsessions, neither of them healthy. … For all the unnerving aspects of this appalling story, there’s a certain morbid pleasure to be had from its claustrophobic atmosphere." Marilyn Stasio

Critical Summary

Belinda Bauer’s debut is atmospheric and chilling, following in the footsteps of popular British crime writers Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. Far from being just another installment in the "often-exploited genre … of crimes against children" (Independent), the novel convincingly brings a young boy’s voice to the page. Through that voice—and the eyes of a ruthless killer—Bauer plumbs the depths of evil and obsession, ending with a memorable cat-and-mouse chase on the moors, where "children disappeared all the time, and a few turned up dead." Blacklands is an accomplished first effort from a novelist with a long future—and a devoted fanbase—ahead of her.