Monday, 15 November 2010

Blacklands


Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer, won the CWA Gold Dagger this year. A notable achievement at any time, but all the more so when you discover that this is her first novel. I’ve just read the paperback edition, and reviewed it for Tangled Web UK.

Blacklands is a book about the strange relationship between a serial killer and the young nephew of one of his victims. Most of the action is seen from the point of view of Steven Lamb, who is one of the most memorable, and likeable, characters I’ve come across in the genre lately. And we are also taken into the twisted mind of the killer, Arnold Avery.

I liked the fact that, for the most part, Bauer opted for subtlety of treatment of her material, and avoided graphic violence. I’ve read plenty of graphic serial killer novels, and some of them are very good. But this book, in my opinion, is better, and certainly more original. I haven’t read as gripping a book about serial murder in years. Why is this novel so successful? The answer lies in the quality of Bauer’s writing, as well as in her story-telling gift and ability to create believable people and evoke setting (several key scenes are set, very effectively, on Exmoor.) I might quibble about a few aspects of the story, but the quibbles are insignificant in comparison to the overall achievement.

There is a short but valuable afterword in which Bauer explains how she came to write the book – because she was interested in how it might be to belong to a family affected by murder. Until now, Kate Atkinson’s hugely enjoyable new book was my favourite read of 2010. But Blacklands made an even greater impression on me. The only question is whether this very talented writer can maintain such a standard in future. I very much hope so.

9 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks very much for your review. I'm very glad you enjoyed it as much as you do, and you've asked a very interesting question about debuts that are especially powerful and the author's ability to follow up. I hope that Bauer will, too.

Kerrie said...

I really enjoyed this book Martin. As I said in my review, it almost gave me palpitations

Fiona said...

Very interesting review Martin - Belinda was a panellist at the Reading Crime Fest in September and having heard her speak about the novel I was put off reading it completely! Inevitably she talked about the real Moors Murders and I found the idea of basing a novel on such an horrendous subject thoroughly distasteful.

Unfortunately another member of the same panel was Sophy Hannah whose latest book is about a women wrongly imprisoned for the murder of her babies, later identified as having died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (I hope I have that right, my mind is a blank just now). Again, this is obviously closely based on a very recent happening and to me it seems morally wrong to fictionalise - I nearly typed trivialise - such things.

It isn't because they are based on true crimes that I find the idea repellent (I didn't 'enjoy' your book about Crippen but it didn't bother me that it was based on fact) only that we are too close to history. When you posted about Nicola Upson's novels with Josephine Tey as a detective I described the idea as, in my opinion, lacking artistic integrity; I feel the same about these others but much more strongly.

I realise I am possibly appearing judgemental and unreasonably prejudiced, not having read the books and thus forming a reasoned opinion, but it's the idea behind the books I dislike, not the books themselves. I'd love to hear your views, Martin, as both an author and a lawyer!

(And just so I don't come across as a complete misery, the third panellist was Anne Cleeves and she was wonderful!)

Maxine said...

I enjoyed this too, though I thought the last quarter was pretty weak (the prison escape and the rest). But as you say, a very good first novel. I don't usually like books from the point of view of children or books about serial killers (esp SKs of children) so the fact that I enjoyed this is quite a testament. I have to say though that the subject matter did put me off reading it for a good while, and it was not until it actually won the Dagger (and happened to be on my shelf anyway) that I picked it up.

Dorte H said...

Ah, you have raised my expectations to Blacklands even further. Maxine was kind enough to send her copy on to me so it´s waiting for me on my TBR!

It has even been translated into Danish already so I´d better remember to review this one in Danish also.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting comments - thanks very much.
Kerrie, I agree!
Fiona, how very interesting. Was BB a good speaker??? I think there is a fascinating question about where one draws the line, and decides that the events are not so fresh that it's tasteless to write about them. Crippen seems fine to me in this respect. But James Bulger and Maddy McCann do not - too raw, still. The Moors Murders - 40 plus years is a long time, so I think it is legitimate to write about them without offending good taste (as long as the writing is not exploitative, of course.) Of course, we all have varying subjective views about these things, especially the tricky issue of taste.
Maxine, I have to accept that the plot development around the prison escape etc was a bit clunky. But I think she just about got away with it.

Maxine said...

Fiona's comment was in moderation when I wrote mine, so I had not seen it at that time. I agree with what you write, Fiona. I read and enjoyed the first Sophie Hannah book (in a slightly uncomfortable way) but have become less impressed with her since.

Another book along Fiona's lines is Elizabeth George's latest, which is heavily based on the James Bulger case.

I heard/saw Chelsea Cain as a panellist at Harrogate one year - not that I was intending to read her female serial killer books anyway, but this was sufficient to confirm my reservation. I was also particularly taken aback by the comments she made about her young daughter (age about 7?) reading her books.

Maxine said...

Just submitting a test comment!

Minnie said...

I'm with Fiona on this one, so won't be reading this book. There might be some form of fictional Statute of Limitations when it comes to deriving plots from real-life crimes; but - for me - if children are involved it might as well not exist. A late friend was once prison chaplain to Hindley. A highly intelligent & sophisticated man, his verdict on her was 'evil'. Not a great deal of point in exploring that: the point becomes ontological rather than psychological. And crime writers will therefore tend to be exploiting rather than exploring when covering such ground.
Two crime fiction writers I normally admire hugely have based novels (within series) on the West murders, & I found this reduced both credibility and reader engagement as well as making them a painful read.