From the Dead by Mark Billingham
Having established himself in acting, stand-up comedy and scriptwriting, Briton Mark Billingham decided to turn his hand to the minor task of producing a bestselling crime series. He duly did so in 2001, with Sleepyhead, quickly following up with Scaredycat, a 2002 novel with a startling provenance: Billingham based it on a 1997 incident in which he and his writing partner were kidnapped and held hostage in a Manchester hotel room. That event, he has written, taught him that “fear is a very powerful weapon.”
In embarking on a fiction career he had intended, he once said, to model his style on that of Carl Hiaasen, the equally multitalented Miami Herald reporter who has manufactured a stack of darkly comic Floridian crime tales, but found that his writing skewed more towards the serious – and thus, his recurring hero DI Tom Thorne, who first appeared in Sleepyhead, was born. (Billingham has so far published just one standalone thriller, 2008’s superb In the Dark.)
From the Dead opens with a tightly written prologue in which two unnamed thugs burn a man alive in his car in the woods. For the crime, a woman, Donna Langford, has served 10 years in prison for procuring the services of hitmen to murder her husband, Alan, whom she and the authorities always believed was the man in the car, the victim of what became notorious as the ‘Epping Forest Barbecue.’
However, as Billingham quickly reveals, the true victim was an unfortunate patsy dispatched by Alan Langford, a wily and cold-blooded crime boss who was far more than a step ahead of his wife.
With this discovery, Thorne, already frustrated by the acquittal of a man he arrested for the murder of a young girl, is confronted with his latest brain-teaser. If the body found in the car was not that of Alan Langford, whose was it? And where is the real Langford – and have his criminal career and habit of doing away with anyone who inconveniences him abated or intensified in the intervening decade?
The first question is what Billingham spends much – possibly too much – of the novel addressing, while establishing a couple of portentous subplots involving a new colleague of Thorne’s and his rather moribund relationship with a fellow cop, Louise Porter, whose entanglement with Thorne has featured in several earlier novels.
The relationship, which has always been of the on-off type, recently suffered the destabilizing effects of a miscarriage, and the quiet discomfort of the pair, coupled with Thorne’s evident uncertainty as to how to breach the new divide, adds a warming pathos to a story dominated by various examples of human malignance.
But Billingham knows as well as anyone that a crime thriller exists only for its ending – the writer’s job is to deliver a pay-off to make his reader’s eyes widen and justify the past 300-odd pages of slog through unidentified bodies, untimely assassinations and problematic domestic arrangements.
Billingham does so reliably, in an exotic locale, but without the degree of panache that made In the Dark one of the most memorable thrillers of two years ago. Surprisingly, what delivers a greater shock is the unexpected denouement, upon the detective’s return to London – which may well provide the springboard for the next Thorne appearance. It shouldn’t be long in coming.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on coast.co.nz