Blacklands is one of the darkest crime novels I’ve ever read – and one of the best. It’s the story of a young boy obsessed with the serial killer who murdered his uncle when he was a boy. It’s a book about grief and how the trauma of losing a child in such violent circumstances is passed down from generation to generation.
The story is told from two main points of view – the boy and the killer. It grips with a mixture of childhood innocence and cruel cunning, and the unsettling sense that, at some point, these two will meet. There are hints of early Stephen King in the child's eye view of the conflict between good and evil – though the horror here isn’t supernatural but all too human.
Steven Lamb’s uncle Billy was one of several children abducted and killed by Arnold Avery and buried on Exmouth moor. Avery is serving a life sentence for multiple murder – but Billy’s body has never been found. His mother, Steven’s nan, has never recovered from the loss of her son. Nor has Steven's mother, who prefers his younger brother Davey to the son who's forever having his clothes ripped or stolen by the local bullies.
But Steven has a plan that will make him a hero. He spends his spare time digging up the moor in search of his uncle’s remains. Only then can he help heal his broken family. And when his search ends in disappointment, he hatches another plan, crafting a carefully worded letter to Avery in prison, hoping for some clue that will lead him to his uncle's burial site.
Blacklands is the debut book from Belinda Bauer, author of this year's Man Booker-longlisted ‘Snap’. First published in 2010, it won the CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Novel of the Year. It’s easy to see why. It’s blisteringly good read that grips from the outset and never lets up. I read the last few chapters with my heart in my mouth. Superb stuff.