Twelve year old Stephen Lamb’s fragile family was damaged long before he was born. When he was a similar age to what Stephen is now his mother’s brother Billy was kidnapped and killed by paedophile Arnold Avery 18 years ago, though Billy’s body was never found. Stephen’s grandmother has been waiting at the window for Billy’s return ever since and his mother has lived most of her life with the knowledge that her mother’s favourite child was the one who died. Stephen believes that he might make everything well again if only he can find Billy’s body.
Blacklands is an astonishingly well-written début. Although others play minor roles in the story, the vast bulk of the action unfolds in alternating chapters from the points of view of Stephen Lamb and Arnold Avery and Bauer manages to be utterly convincing in both voices. Stephen comes alive as a boy so starved for affection that a lone throw-away piece of praise from a teacher who can’t even remember his name is savoured and allowed to influence him beyond all proportion to its meaning. And Arnold Avery soon forms into the kind of disturbed, repugnant person one might assume a paedophile to be but all the more disturbing because of his ability to imitate normality. It is a rare book that can be carried almost entirely by two characters and when one is a child and the other the most heinous kind of murderer it must be near impossible not to stray into melodramatic or macabre territory but Blacklands does neither. The character portraits are understated, intimate and totally compelling.
The story is actually quite uncomplicated, and probably only fits loosely within a definition of crime fiction, but there is beauty in the simplicity of Stephen’s yearning for a life in which he is, for once, loved. There is ugliness too in the form of Avery’s more sinister quest but it is the details of the two converging journeys that provide a reason to keep reading just a little bit more. Rather than the roller coaster ride of a traditional thriller, Bauer tends to lull readers with the kind of barely perceptible rising tension that allows you to forget you’re in the middle of a dark tale until you can’t help but remember, just like the proverbial frog that doesn’t realise he’s in boiling water until it’s too late to jump out.
Although its’ subject matter is grim I do highly recommend Blacklands as a novel of genuine psychological insight and suspense. I’m not normally a particular fan of being ‘inside the mind of a killer’ but I found in this instance there was no glorification or provision of prurient details just for the heck of it. I shall definitely be ordering Bauer’s second novel, Darkside, when it is released next January, although I will try to hang on long enough to see if it will once again be recorded in audio format and narrated by Colleen Prendergast who did a superb job with Blacklands.
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My rating 4.5/5
Narrator Collen Prendergast; Publisher ISIS Audio Books [this edition 2010, original edition 2009]; ISBN N/A; Length 7hours 8minutes
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