February 23, 2010

BOOKS: Blacklands, Belinda Bauer (2010)

It's been nearly twenty years since Billy Peters was killed, the victim of a pedophile serial killer, and his family's never recovered. Arnold Avery led the police to the bodies of several of his victims, but Billy wasn't among them, and his mother still can't give up hope that he might be alive; she spends most of her days sitting at the window, watching for Billy to come home.

Billy's sister lives with her mother, along with her two sons, and they're not a very happy family. The older boy, Steven, is twelve now -- a year older than Billy ever got to be -- and he's convinced that if only he can find Billy's body, then Nan will have to accept that he's dead, and just maybe the family can move on to something resembling a normal life.

But even if Billy is buried on the moor where the other bodies were found, well, it's an awfully large moor, and Steven's not an awfully large boy; his months of digging holes have gotten him nowhere, and he decides it's time to take more drastic measures. Like writing a letter to Arnold Avery.

Bauer's first novel is a marvelous debut, with a nifty premise and a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between Steven and Arnold. She ratchets the tension to almost unbearable levels, and the climactic chapters are terrifically tense.

She writes with great confidence. There is a moment some 50 pages from the end of the book, for instance, when she suddenly introduces a new character. His role in the story is a minor one, and he will be of no significance once that small role has been played; you'd expect him to be whisked on and off stage as quickly as possible so as not to interrupt the story. But Bauer devotes eight pages to this character's backstory, at a moment when the action has begun to build inexorably to the final showdown. In a lesser author's hands, this would be incredibly annoying, and you'd be screaming at her to get on with the story already. Bauer not only gets away with it, she makes that digressive chapter a spectacular bit of bleak comic relief.

Clearly, this is not a book for those who are particularly bothered by children-in-peril stories, but if you're not subject to that particular phobia, then you're gonna love this one. A glorious debut.

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