Belinda Bauer was a journalist and screenwriter before she began writing crime fiction. I’ve just read the first of her novels – Blacklands.
I like to read books that inform my own writing, so I was drawn to Bauer because I agree that moorlands are evocative landscapes, sometimes breathtaking…sometimes chilling. It’s easy to lose a body on a wide moor; sheep, even horses die unannounced, and it’s possible to imagine a walker wandering in bad weather until they finally lie down and are not discovered until their bones have turned white.
We know murderers of the most evil distinction (presuming you can tolerate the idea that there are different levels of evil intent in murder), use moorland to dig shallow graves which even they won’t ever find again.
Steven’s uncle is out there – buried somewhere on Exmoor. Steven is as obsessed with his dead uncle Billy as his nan – Poor Mrs Peters, she’s called around Shipcott town – she lost her son to serial killer Arnold Avery, now languishing in a high security prison. The body has never been discovered, and Steven believes, with every sinew of his twelve-year-old body, that if only Billy could be given a proper burial, everything that is wrong in his family would come right again:
His nan would become a proper nan; she’d smile, play with him, bake cookies.
His mum would settle down with one man, instead of regularly chucking boyfriends out of their cramped house.
Maybe, even, Steven would be more popular at school, not bullied, not ‘almost friendless’.
Every spare moment Steven has, he spends out on the moors, digging with a ‘brute spade’, hoping to hit on his uncle’s skeleton. It’s a hopeless task, and Seven knows it, so he decides to enlist a helper. The only person who could actually tell him where Uncle Billy lies – Arnold Avery.
Steven writes a letter to his uncle’s murderer. I loved the letters Steven composed in Blacklands. It’s easy, when using a child as a protagonist, to give them an intellectual maturity they would not really have, but Bauer doesn't do this. Steven’s letters totally convinced me. He’s not a stupid boy; he knows what he’s doing. Except, of course, he does not. Avery’s letters back to Seven are equally convincing, and utterly frightening. They offer a series of connecting clues…and we all know how twelve-year-old boys love a quest.
From almost the beginning of the book, the reader is in a lather of sweat over the safety of Steven. Avery will hunt him down; we understand that. He may be languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, but that won’t stop him pursuing yet another victim.
In the Moors (2013), the first book in my trilogy, The Shaman Mysteries, is set on the Somerset Levels, a moorland that stretches from the wide arc of Bridgwater Bay right across to the mysterious and esoteric Glastonbury, and I use all that landscape for the two following novels, Unraveled Visions (2014) and Beneath the Tor (out this year). Unlike Bauer, I use a single protagonist, Sabbie Dare, whose adventures as a modern-day shaman in practice as a therapist leads her to understand that she can sometimes help people who bring very dark problems to her…very dark problems indeed. Linda Bauer, on the other hand use the town of Shipcott itself as a link between her first three books, turning them into a trilogy set on Exmoor. Bauer has gone on to write further ‘stand-alone’ novels, all of which are scary beasts – I hope to do the same! (see my previous post http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-mood-board-different-way-of.html)
I had just a few plausibility problems with Blacklands, but these were nowhere near troubling enough to stop me reading, because there are two toweringly exquisite aspects to Bauer’s writing that make this a crackerjack of a book.
I loved Bauer’s writing style. It takes us deep into the minds of the characters. And, because of this, her characters are as real as people down the street; you feel their turmoil. In this extract, Steven tries hard to please his his nan, who has never recovered from the murder of her son and takes out her desperate misery on all around her. Steven has made her a new shopping trolly, working secretly with borrowed tools, using an abandoned pushchair; it was one of those all=terrain buggies, as if the parents who’d bought it were planning an ascent of Everest with their infant in tow…When Steven presented the rejuvenated trolley to his nan, she pursed her lips suspiciously and jerked it roughly back and forth across the floor as if she could make the wheels fall off this instant if she only tried hard enough.
‘Looks silly,’ said Nan.
‘They’re all-terrain wheels,’ Seven ventured. ‘They’ll bounce over stones and kerbs and stuff much better.’
‘Hmph. That’s all I need – some kind of cross-country shopping trolley.’
Blacklands won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger and it was the 2010 Channel 4 TV Book Club choice. The Guardian thought it had…“lucid, uncluttered prose” and was “genuinely chilling”.
Bauer says that Blacklands is “probably my most personal, reflecting as it does my own memories and experiences of childhood. Into that mix I've introduced Arnold Avery - the most heinous monster any child could imagine. I wanted to write about the way a terrible crime can pass through the generations like ripples on a pond.”
This is an approach I appreciate, both as reader and writer. I don’t enjoy crime novels that concentrate on the gratuitous; that only show how terrifying and shocking a murder is and how clever those who solve the mystery are. I like to hear the voices of those who are affected by crime, essentially the victims and their families, but often others who come close to the crime. In Blacklands, we are truly able to empathize with Steven and his family, and for me, that’s what makes this book a prize-winner.