Blacklands was Belinda Bauer’s first book, through which she became an accidental crime writer. *
In the Author’s Note at the end of the book she writes:
Blacklands was never intended to be a crime novel. I thought it was going to be a very small story about a boy and his grandmother.
12 year old Steven Lamb’s life is dominated by his uncle Billy, even though the two never met. Billy didn’t live to enter his teens. He fell victim to a paedophile serial killer long before Steven was born.
Steven’s small family lives with his grandmother who regularly stands at the window, looking through it as if still waiting for her son Billy to come home.
Steven reasons that the dysfunction within his family, the lack of expressed love and warmth, has been caused not only by grief over Billy’s murder, but because his body was never discovered.
Steven is determined to put things to right by finding his uncle’s remains. He sets out with map and spade onto the nearby Exmoor, but it’s a project hampered by scale, having no clue where it would be best to dig.
That’s something only one person knows for sure, Arnold Avery, the man guilty of Billy’s murder.
Steven starts a surreptitious correspondence with Avery, trying to learn the secret of Billy’s grave, instigating a disturbing interaction between the two.
Bauer tells the story from the points of view of Steven and Avery. Each of them have far different reasons for continuing the correspondence, but the shared focus on Billy’s murder and burial has consequences Steven couldn’t have imagined.
One piece of writing advice that I picked up from somewhere regarding the construction of a short story, was that if you include a description of a gun early in the story, that gun has to be used before the end of it. In other words, particularly in short form writing, don’t clutter the story with unnecessary detail – make everything is pertinent.
Blacklands is not a short story, but Bauer seems to follow that advice throughout the book. There are so many colourul little details introduced that could have been legitiamtely put aside after they’ve added dimension to a character, but instead they become vital, active elements later .
I didn’t need to find yet another author to follow, but this book has made me add Bauer’s work to my growing list of books to read.
Her most recent novel Snap has been longlisted for this year’s Man-Booker Prize.
It wasn’t until a lunch to sign a contract with her publisher, Transworld, that Bauer learned she was all set for a career as a crime novelist. “We were sitting in this posh restaurant with a contract between us and [her editor] hands me a pen and says: ‘Just tell us what your second book is going to be about.’ I said: ‘It’s going to be about these two children in a spaceship,’ and she took the contract away, whoop, like that tablecloth trick. And she said: ‘No, it has to be a crime novel.’ I was floored – I had no idea how publishing worked, because I’d always done such diverse scripts as a screenwriter. I literally had to make it up there at the table,” says Bauer.
So, having “never read anything that was actually marketed as a crime book”, she started out as a crime writer on “possibly a different footing to someone who was immersed in the genre”.