[15 February 2010]
In this tightly written thriller, Arnold Avery is a English pedophile who lures his prey into his delivery van. Once his victims are safely trapped, he tortures the children for several days before strangling them. He then buries them in the English moors, where the inhospitable chill, sharp gorse, and blinding fogs are highly effective camouflage. When Avery is finally caught, he doesn’t confess to all his murders, leaving them forever unsolved, the children’s families in limbo.
Steven Lamb lives in one such family. Nineteen years earlier, his Uncle Billy, then aged 11, vanished. His Grandmother, called Nan, has spent the intervening years staring blankly out the window while cultivating a bitterness that pervades the household she shares with her adult daughter Lettie, 12-year-old Steven, and five-year-old Davey. The boys are fatherless, “between uncles”, both missing Lettie’s boyfriend Jude, whom they adored.
The Lamb household is an impoverished one. Lettie earns little cleaning houses. Food, clothing, and shoes are all precious, cheaply made, and highly rationed. The house is dirty. The mood ranges from silent depression to screaming rage. Steven, a quiet, sensitive child, is determined to alter matters. To this end, he has spent the better part of three years digging randomly in the moors, searching for his Uncle Billy’s body, convinced that locating his uncle’s remains will bring not only closure, but the domestic happiness he craves.
Bauer is reminiscent of Stephen King in her ability to evoke a boy on the cusp of adolescence. Her Steven is almost unrealistic in his wish to heal his family, but achingly honest in his longing for a father. He is enough of a child to be enchanted by puzzles, but mature enough to decipher them. When digging proves fruitless, he does a little library research, finding Arnold Avery’s name associated with other local children. He writes Avery in prison.
If Steven Lamb is adroitly imagined, Arnold Avery is truly terrifying. When Steven’s letter arrives at Longmoor prison, Avery is stunned. He’s been busy bending his formidable will acting the model prisoner, insanely hoping for parole, whereupon he can resume his pastime. Steven Lamb’s letter is his first in more than a dozen years, and reawakens a dangerous train of thought. Bauer’s evocation of Avery’s deranged mind is truly unsettling in its precision. If you ever wondered what kind of person could rape and murder a child, Blacklands will tell you.
Avery and Lamb engage in a series of brief, coded letters leading inexorably to the climax. At 221 pages, the book is a rapid, compelling read, to be gulped in one sitting.
There are a few flaws. Avery endures an injury that aids the conclusion, but the circumstances detract needlessly from the action. The ending is a little too pat, as if Bauer wasn’t sure how to dispel the ugliness of the climax. Yet these are minor quibbles. Blacklands is a diverting, well-constructed read, perfect for shutting out the real world and its intractable horrors, if only for an evening.