Reviews by L. J. Roberts

BELINDA BAUER – Blacklands. Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, January 2010; trade paperback, January 2011. First UK edition: Bantam Press, hardcover, 2010.

Genre:   Suspense. Leading character:  Steven Lamb. First novel. Setting:   Devon, England.


First Sentence:   Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colorless grass, prickly gorse, and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the moor cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected.

   Sociopath Arnold Avery raped and murdered children; he admitted to six whose bodies were found. One who was not found was Billy Peters. The impact severely affected his family.

   Eighteen years later, his nephew, 12-year-old Steven Lamb believes if he can find Billy’s body, it will bring the family back together. Spending his spare time digging holes in the moor bring Steven to the point of writing the imprisoned Avery in an attempt to figure out what will convenience the killer to provide the location.

   The very opening of the book creates a sense of place and an atmosphere which is both gloomy and compelling.

   There are no perfect characters here; only human ones. Steven’s gram has become embittered and closed off following the disappearance of her son, Billy. Steven’s mother; closed off from her mother’s affection has a string of failed relationships.

   â€œUncle Jake,” one of Steven’s mom’s men, provides Steven with the outward displays of love and understanding but is only around for short periods of time. Steven’s friend Lewis who realizes Steven is the smarter of them but needs to dominate the relationship.


   Steven is by no means perfect. He’s a shy boy, afraid of confrontation, and knows his mother prefers his younger brother, yet he constantly strives for the thing we all want; love and acceptance.

   Avery, the imprisoned murderer is as far from perfect as one can get, but he is the person with whom Steven must form some level of a relationship in order to gain what he needs. Through Bauer, we understand how dangerous and impaired is Avery without her having to indulge in graphic detail. In fact, in some ways, the hints and inferences are even more effective than detail would be.

   What is particularly wonderful about Bauer’s writing is that the characters alive and understandable; she shows us Steven becoming more mature in his thinking and reasoning, yet still as a 12-year-old-boy. At one point, she talks about Steven’s comprehension of Avery being a sociopath, of the insignificance of one person to the whole of the universe and that asking Avery for help is akin to asking the Devil for mercy.

   This is sophisticated stuff for a young boy, but it works through our understanding of Steven’s need. She is also one of those wonderful authors who can take an inanimate object and make it not only an important element, but almost a character in the story.

   Bauer does write dialogue well, although there’s not a lot of it as the book is written narrative. She often exhibits an wonderful turn of phrase: “Avery adapted so fast, he’d have blown a hole straight through Darwinism.” While I’m one who really likes dialogue, the narrative, written in third person, past tense, works here mainly because of the quality of her writing.


   This is not an action-packed, rapid-fire action novel. The melancholy of the story’s opening sets the pace, but never did I find the book to drag.

   There is excellent suspense. At time she lets it build and then backs it down. It then starts to build again, slowly and relentlessly to an intense transition from where Steven was courting the Devil, to where he has fully awakened and I found myself almost catching my breath.

   The one real flaw for me was a dependence on some rather large coincidences. Otherwise, the book would have earned top marks. Still, it was very close and one of the best reads I’ve had in awhile and I can certain see why it won the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Golden Dagger Award for 2010. There is no question that Ms. Bauer’s next book, Darkside, will be on my reading list.

Rating:   Very Good Plus.

Editorial Comment: Belinda Bauer’s third book is Finders Keepers (2012). Village policeman Jonas Holly appears in both this book and Darkside, Bauer’s second.