Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Blacklands.
Steven Lamb lives in a diminished world on one of Britain’s bleak moors. The lack of poverty more common than the occasional birthday treat, the emotional paucity of everyday survival weighs heavily on this boy’s twelve-year-old heart. A regular victim of local bullies, Steven’s only friend always claims the best for himself - the best half of the sandwich and the time to rest while the slender Steven digs relentlessly with a rusty spade to recover the body of his uncle, buried eighteen years ago by serial killer Arnold Avery along with other murdered children. Avery is incarcerated near another moor, his cell window boarded up to limit the sick fantasies of a man who savors not only the crimes but the wild place where he buried his victims.
Eventually Steven realizes the futility of his efforts, unable to find that one grave on the silent moor. He is inspired to write to Avery, a tentative request to learn where his boy-uncle’s grave may be found, his family made right somehow by this discovery. Only then can Steven’s grandmother can end her silent vigil at the window for a son who will never arrive, his mother’s rash temper be mitigated, and the dusty bedroom of a dead boy be open to the sun. How is Steven to know that the short letters from “SL” will ignite Avery’s long-banked passions? Imagine the moment when a sociopath playing a cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious stranger discovers that the stranger is not a man but a child, like the helpless ones laid to rest in the dark soil of the moor.
Bauer blends this odd pairing of serial killer and innocent boy with the deft touches of the chase, Avery’s need to dominate the correspondence, Steven’s desperation to bring harmony to a deeply dysfunctional home, and the awakening of Avery’s dormant beast - a killer scenting new prey. Steven’s mission might have been easily diverted by the reappearance of “Uncle Jack,” one of his mother’s temporary bedmates, but once Avery’s inner monster scents opportunity, every waking moment is spent in preparation for their fated meeting. The innocent Steven anticipates the success of his mission, never imagining the nightmare that awaits him: “He’d put on his favorite shirt to be murdered in.”
From Steven’s dour, sad Nan to his short-tempered, quick-handed mother and inconstant friend to the swaggering prison guard who prods his violent captives with the inherent power of a set of jangling keys, the landscape of this novel is scoured with poverty and the vulnerability of those with too few comforts. A dark mind festers in this fertile soil, tracking a boy who can offer his broken family nothing but the skeletal remains of a dead child, his endurance of bullies and determined excursions to locate his uncle’s grave. The line between life and death is thin, but Steven’s will to survive marks the beginning of manhood.