"Blacklands" by Belinda Bauer. This novel was not a 'whodunit' or even a 'whydunit'. It was a superb example of a psychological thriller. A debut suspense/crime novel.
After much lively discussion as we went around the circle, the overall consensus rating was 8.5 out of 10. The highest score from Whodunit so far I think.
What made the novel such a strong contender? Without a doubt it was the characterization. Belinda Bauer has the enviable ability to get inside the minds of her characters in such a way that the reader completely understands what drives them. Whodunit members agreed it was an extremely well written book.
Everyone agreed that the novel was 'dark' with sometimes disturbing subject matter. Some who don't really like that type of novel gave it a good rating despite this - based on the writing and character development.
The novel centers on a twelve year old boy, Stephen Lamb. He lives with his dysfunctional family in the tiny village of Shipcott on the border of Exmoor. Years before when his uncle Billy was roughly the same age as Stephen is now - he disappeared from the village and was presumed the victim of a serial murderer. This family tragedy has had such an impact on the Lamb family that Stephen becomes the victim of emotional neglect. He is used by his only and only friend Lewis. He is bullied by older boys. His grandmother waits beside the window each day for Billy's return. His mother is overwhelmed by the hardships and drudgery of her life and takes it out on her sons. Their lives are an endless cycle of poverty, disappointment and despair.
Despite his horrific background Stephen is a determined, bright, mature, sensible, courageous and perserverant character. He becomes almost invisible to those around him. His plight is such that the reader wants to 'mother' him with attention and praise as he is so lacking in these attributes. When he does get a modicum of praise from his teacher on one occasion he treasures it.
Exmoor plays a huge part in the novel. Stephen believes that his Uncle Billy is buried there. He believes that if only he can find his uncle's body then he will be able to 'fix' his family. To that end he spends every available hour up on the moor digging... He realizes the vastness of the arduous task he has set himself and decides to write to the convicted child killer in prison to ask if he will tell him the location of Billy's body.
A correspondence develops between the prisoner and the boy.
Belinda Bauer made an excellent job of her characterization of the killer. He was creepy and all too believeable. The prison atmosphere was almost as chilling as the mind of the paedophile killer.
The only weakness in the plot seemed to center around the shooting of the escapee. Some readers thought that the manner in which it came about didn't seem credible.
The pages leading up to the ending held the reader in a vice grip. The tension was palpable, the scenes perfectly described and the finale was very satisfactory.
Belinda Bauer won the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of 2010 for her debut novel "Blacklands". She lives in Wales and is working on the third novel set in the fictional village of Shipcott.
The lucky winners of the book giveaways for September were:
2. Lynne (yipee - I won a hardcover copy of the latest Peter Robinson)
When we meet again on October 30th we will discuss the novel "The reluctant detective" by Finley Martin.