Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Blacklands.
Poor Mrs. Peters stands by the front door of her weathered house in the town of Shipcolt waiting for Billy, her eleven-year-old son, to return home. Alert and wide-eyed, she can see the rough and colorless wilds of Exmoor just visible through the mist. Steven, her young grandson, digs in the perpetual rain, his rusty spade slung over his shoulder like a rifle. That Stevenís grandmother would notice him with love and secrets and sweets drives the twelve-year-old boy to
try to find his uncle.
Stevenís is a small, lonely family. His mother, Lettie, runs through a succession of boyfriends while fawning anxiously and over-protectively over Davey, Stevenís younger brother. Trapped in their private demons, Billyís room
- old and sweet, untouched with the curtains always drawn and a half-built Lego station on the floor
- fills Steven with a familiar pang of pity and anger toward his uncle. Closer even in death, Steven thought he had given up on the hope of finding any real life clues to Billyís disappearance.
The sky and the heather swirling around him, Steven digs in the moor where the soil can finally bring to him the bones of Billy Peters. Bound by new possibilities and the dream of finally having ďa normal family,Ē Steven learns from Lettie a little bit about the infamous Arnold Avery, a natural-born killer who kidnapped and murdered six children in his white van but was eventually caught and charged after half a dozen small bodies were discovered in shallow graves on rain-swept Exmoor.
Even as Stevenís connections are made and the dots in his life are joined, Bauerís macabre, violent, fog-shrouded plot is veiled by a series of short,
cryptic, offhand letters addressed to Avery, now incarcerated in Longmoor Prison. Avery is smart enough to realize the notes did not pass to him without the censorís busy pen; thanks to Stevenís tenacious research, his new and methodical relationship with the killer is branded with a special kind of intimacy. Steven is smart and determined, doing his very best to think like a murderer.
Frustrated by his imprisonment and the systematic, single-minded nature of life inside, Averyís anger builds slowly. He's thrilled to receive the letters, which open in him a Pandoraís box of memory and excitement.
Desperate for knowledge, Steven gravitates between sycophantic pleas for guidance to frustrated rants at the callousness of the distant prisoner,
while his new "friend" learns once again that real sexual power lies ďnot in asking and getting, but in simply taking.Ē
As Avery sweeps down like "the angel of death," Steven is scared cold, blindsided by the sad fragmentation of his family, the pieces of his life
floating and scattering as he desperately searches for love and acceptance. Injecting layer upon layer of gloom, the spinning jigsaw pieces of Stevenís mind are made real: a slice of Uncle Billyís grin, a shakily traced map, and the final confrontation on Exmoor, the twisted roots tripping and tangling, the wet heather and muddy gorse whipping around the boy as the mist becomes a thick, white, impenetrable veil.
Troubling and disconcerting on every level, innocence does battle with uncompromising evil as the author intersperses her major theme: the impact of long-murdered children on the families who grieve for them.
Her tortured killer manipulates and plots as he seeks the truth for his own gratification. Compelled by a cruel pleasure that is impossible to restrain, Averyís urgent desire to finally face his incorruptible nemesis drives Bauer's alarming novel into ever darker territory.