Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb of Somerset, England lives his young life with more purpose than most ever experience in an entire lifetime.
His father long since out of the picture, his mother stuck in a dead end housekeeping job and his Nan (grandmother) still haunted by the disappearance of her son, Billy, eighteen years earlier, Steven and his five-year-old brother exist in a house perpetually filled with tension and despair.
Billy, who was the same age at the time he went missing as Steven is now, is presumed to have been killed by pedophile and serial killer Arnold Avery. Convicted of killing six children, though he never admitted to Billy’s abduction or murder, Avery is serving a life sentence in a nearby prison.
That Billy disappeared at such a young age was tragic enough, but Steven is convinced what has cast such a dark cloud over his family is that Billy’s body was never found. His Nan in particular seems unable to move on, holding a daily vigil at the window as if still expecting Billy to come home even after eighteen years.
Steven believes that if he could just find Billy’s body he would be able to heal his family’s psychological wounds. After all:
“If Nan loved him and Davey, maybe she and Mum would be nicer to each other; and if Nan and Mum were nicer to each other, they would all be happier, and be a normal family, and… well… just everything would be… better.”
Determined to find Billy’s body and bring it home to rest so that he can have a normal family, Steven spends all of his free time digging boy-sized holes in the moor where Avery’s known victims were found, to no avail. Frustrated by his lack of results, he finally has an epiphany: go straight to the source. And so Steven writes a letter to Avery that sets into motion a life-altering chain of events.
Though the cryptic exchanges between Steven and Avery are reminiscent of the Clarice Starling / Hannibal Lecter relationship in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, through her use of a child protagonist Bauer has crafted a fresh twist on the serial killer crime genre. She has, in fact, managed to seamlessly weave together a psychological suspense novel and a traditional coming-of-age story.
At only 220 pages Blacklands is a quick read, though given the compelling storyline it could have been twice as long and I still don’t think I’d have been able to put it down without finishing in one sitting. Absolutely heartbreaking in his earnestness, painfully realistic in the missteps that he makes, and inspiring in the depth of his determination, Steven Lamb is one of the most fully realized characters I’ve come across in quite some time. That he is merely a child makes what Bauer has accomplished with Blacklands, a debut offering no less, all the more impressive.