In Bauer’s spare, haunting debut, a 12-year-old boy corresponds with a serial killer to learn the location of his uncle’s grave.
Nineteen years ago, 11-year-old Billy Peters disappeared from his home in a village on the edge of Exmoor, a craggy expanse of heather, gorse and Bronze Age ruins in Southwest England. His nephew Steven can see that Nan (the boy’s name for his grandmother) has lived a wan half-life ever since, waiting for news even though Arnold Avery was convicted of multiple child abductions and murders, including her son’s. (Police found Billy’s Nikes in Arnold’s van, but his body was never recovered.) Steven’s mother Lettie still lives with Nan, despite the fact that she neglected her daughter for years after losing Billy, her favorite. In turn, single mom Lettie favors younger son Davey over Steven. Since many of Avery’s victims were found buried on Exmoor, Steven searches the moor with his friend Lewis for Billy’s grave, digging with a cherished spade given to him by his favorite surrogate father, Lettie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Jude. With a child’s magical thinking, sensitively portrayed in Bauer’s inventive, ironic diction, Steven believes that the gaping hole in his family will be filled by the unearthing of Billy’s remains, thereby ending Nan’s uncertainty. He writes to Avery, a model prisoner hoping for parole in two years, in an effort to trick him into revealing the gravesite; Avery responds with tantalizing but puzzling hints. When Steven inadvertently sends a photo of himself, revealing that he is of the age particularly favored by this serial killer, Avery’s compulsion mandates that he must escape and make Steven his next victim. A dispute between a prison guard and Avery’s only friend, fomented by Avery himself, provides the opportunity. Meanwhile, Steven’s ambivalent friendship with the manipulative Lewis will have crucial consequences all its own.
Bauer displays remarkable talent in pacing, plotting and, most important of all, getting beneath the skin of even her most repellent characters.