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Although three young women have died at his hands, he is not really a killer. He is a man whose mission it is to liberate these women by releasing them from the tyranny of life in the real world, freeing them from the humdrum everyday and bringing them to a place where they are fed and cleaned, monitored and cared for, every bodily function worried about by someone else while the victim perceives it from afar. The process he uses is to squeeze on a certain artery and induce a stroke which renders his victim comatose, a person who can see, hear and feel but not move or communicate. Thus far, he has had only one success, a young woman by the name of Alison Willetts who is now occupying a hospital bed and experiencing ³Locked In Syndrome². He laughs as the police search for the nefarious serial killer, for that is not what he is. He is a man of medicine who is improving the life of his victims, or so he thinks.
Detective Inspector Tom Thorne feels differently. Thorne is the man assigned to investigate these deaths and who first discovers the real motivation of the killer. Itıs at first impossible to interview the ³success², Alison. Her assigned physician, Anne Coburn, develops an affinity toward Alison and talks to her on a regular basis. Little does she know that Alison is capable of processing what she hears, although she cannot reply in kind. Billingham uses a startling approach and records the internal monologue going on in Alisonıs head as events transpire around her. This device is incredibly effective. We see this immobile victim as a real person, an intelligent, funny, courageous and frustrated woman who is trapped because of what this person has done to her. She is determined and feisty. How does a comatose person break up with her boyfriend? Her comments on her care are telling. Working with Anne, they develop a rudimentary communication method using eye blinks and letters written on a blackboard. Itıs an imperfect process, but it shows that there is a real person inside the shell of the body, a person that the reader respects and cares about.
Thorne and Coburn are tentatively attracted to one another, but it is a difficult relationship because Thorneıs main suspect is a man who has been Anneıs colleague and friend for more than 25 years. He is doggedly obsessed with the idea that Dr. Jeremy Bishop is the villain, and no one can convince him differently. His conviction that Bishop is the murderer estranges him from the other members of the police team, with the exception of a young man who he at first underestimates. Together, he and Dave Holland try to find some proof to support the circumstantial evidence. The reader has niggling doubts that Thorne is wrong which creates an undercurrent of suspense that runs throughout the book. Whether he is right or not is only revealed at the very last, with twists and turns that sway the reader hither and yon. Thorne is still haunted by an earlier case in which he experienced a similar psychic intuition upon which he did not act and which resulted in the deaths of some children. He has berated himself ever since for not trusting his own judgment, and this event from the past has a great impact on his current behavior. I found this incident referred to overly frequently throughout the book and felt that it would have benefited the book to have the details provided to the reader earlier on and more smoothly integrated into the narrative.
While I strongly admired the brilliant concept of the book and the excellent characterization, what did not work for me was the entire denouement. Most uncharacteristically, I had figured out a major plot point prior to its revelation. The actual revelation was clumsily done, in my opinion, rather quickly sketched out and pitched to the emotions rather than logic. There was the inevitable confrontation between Thorne and the villain, with the killer right in the middle of working on his next victim. It seemed preposterous to me that he could have continued with this admittedly delicate procedure while discussing all the past history and being distracted by what Thorne might do. At the same time, Anne is in jeopardy which seemed unnecessary in the scheme of things.
Sleepyhead is a disturbing book, emotionally involving and unique. The internal dialogues of Alison are wonderful and intriguing. Itıs hard to find the appropriate label to apply to this bookmedical thriller? Psychological suspense? Police procedural? Itıs a bit of all of those and a book that should be added immediately to your library.
Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, November 2002
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