In this debut novel by journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer, the reader is taken into the life of a family that has been destroyed by tragedy. Eighteen years ago Billy Peters disappeared. Billy was presumed murdered by the infamous serial killer Arnold Avery, who buried his victims in the desolate moor surrounding the small English village where Billy lived. Billy's body was never recovered. Rather than give into Avery's demands to reveal where the remainder of his six victims lay, the police hurried to lock Avery away as quickly as possible, in an effort to reduce the irreparable harm that he'd already caused. Eighteen years later Billy's nephew, Steven, is on a quest to find his uncle. Steven's life is falling apart. His grandmother is distant - still destroyed by the death of her only son, and his mother is bitter from living in the shadow her brother. Steven is tormented by uncaring teachers, and malevolent bullies at school, and finds no comfort at home, as everyone seems haunted by the ghost of Billy, who remains always at the edge of consciousness somewhere in the bleak moors outside their house. Steven takes to digging holes (almost at random) in a vain attempt to find his uncle's body. He believes that the closure a body could provide would finally start to heal his family, and maybe even give him something approaching a normal life. After months of failure, Steven has almost given up on ever finding Billy's body, after all, the moor is immense, and he's just a single 12 year old boy with a shovel. Steven decides to try one more thing: writing a letter to Arnold Avery, the man suspected of killing Billy. Avery, having spent the past 18 years languishing in prison, is ecstatic to receive Steven's letter, as it reignites the familiar spark that led him to commit his crimes in the first place, so he replies, teasingly, with a riddle. And so begins the cat and mouse game that drives the plot of Blacklands. Blacklands follows both Steven and Avery as they try to reach their goals: Steven to heal his wounded family, and Avery to kill once more. This shifting perspective builds tension, and Bauer writes both characters believably. Steven acts as one would expect a lonely, awkward 12 year old to act, and Avery's twisted compulsion is chillingly fascinating. Blacklands is a short novel, clocking in at just under 250 pages, and can be (and probably will be) read in just a few sittings. There aren't any wasted words as Bauer sets up the conflict, and then brings it to its breathless conclusion. More than anything the book develops a terrific sense of atmosphere. The reader is transported to the foggy, bleak moors of the English countryside. They're able to feel both Steven's hopelessness, and Avery's desperate hunger. Blacklands will appeal to suspense and mystery readers, but the look into the life of a family torn apart by grief makes it more than just your average thriller.
Recommended by Tony Pellicone