Judith Cutler is the author of many short stories and some thirty novels. Her most recent is Ring of Guilt (Severn House) the latest in the series featuring antique dealers Griff Tripp and Lina Townend. Check out the other novels on www.judithcutler.com
In this debut novel there are three protagonists: Steven Lamb, twelve years old when the novel opens, serial child murderer Arnold Avery, and Exmoor itself, where the action plays out.
Steven is one of two boys in a dysfunctional family, shredded by the death of Steven’s Uncle Billy when he was roughly Steven’s age. His room is a shrine; Nan’s emotions are battened down into perpetual bitter criticism; and Steven’s mum cares for her sons with one eye on her disapproving mother and the other on the hope of a man who is less transitory than the stream of Steven’s uncles.
Steven, whose only academic success is as a star letter writer, works out that the two women can only be happy when Uncle Billy’s body is found. Sometimes with, sometimes without, his only friend Lewis, he goes to the area of Exmoor where he believes the body must be buried and simply digs holes. He gets into trouble for ruining his clothes, just as he does when bullies assault him and steal them. And who can blame his mum, when there’s so little money to buy new ones?
A safer bet might be to use his other skill – letter writing. He will write to the killer, once he finds out where he is, a search involving all sorts of skills he didn’t know he had. His reading age rockets. But he knows that a flowery letter isn’t the means of extracting the information from Arnold Avery he so deeply needs.
Sent down for life, Avery first thinks that the correspondent who sends such enigmatic notes is an adult whom he can toy with; when by chance he realises it is a pubescent child, just the sort he’d most relish killing, for the first time he determines to escape from his prison on another moor – Dartmoor. As Steven tracks down the grave, Avery tracks down the boy.
It is hard to know where to start praising this spare, tense, humane novel. The characterisation is excellent – even such walk on characters as “Uncle” Jude are well drawn, as are the group of menacing hoodies who share Avery’s love of torture. The two narrative viewpoints counterbalance each other beautifully. The pace is spot on. Bauer takes a few liberties with prison and police procedure in the interests of her beautifully understated denouement, but few would blame her.
This is not just an excellent first novel – so good it will surely be at least short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger – but an excellent novel full stop. Read it, and start what I hope will be a glittering career for Belinda Bauer.