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by Mark Billingham
HarperCollins, August 2007
400 pages
ISBN: 0061255696

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

RTE has already reviewed the British edition of this novel, the sixth in what is now the seven-volume DI Tom Thorne series. That review provides a spot-on discussion of the major characters and a general summary of the mystery. The only thing I might add is that sexual abuse and a hate crime also come to play important if somewhat peripheral roles to the central case of the kidnapping of a retired police officerís son.

The reviewerís concluding remarks educed a strong response from me. She wrote: "My only gripe is that Billingham doesn't play fair with the reader at a key point. So if you expect to be in with a chance of working out whodunit at about the same time as the hero does, you're going to be very miffed here!" In several of Billinghamís earlier novels, I felt the same way; in fact, in one novel I swear that the person targeted as the killer could not possibly have committed the crime.

Therefore, when I was asked to mark the appearance of the novelís American edition, I felt free to do something I wished I had done earlier: I first read the last six of the 45 numbered and unnumbered chapters, and then turned back to begin with the prologue. Knowing who the guilty parties are (there is more than one crime and more than one perpetrator), I tried to stay alert to check whether the author does mislead the reader or not. My conclusions are definitely mixed.

This time I have no problem buying that the guilty parties are indeed guilty. They also show up often enough across the story that the reader is not smacked in the face with the final revelations as I was in an earlier novel. Many of the games the author plays with the reader in this often torturous case seem fair to me, including the slow build-up to the final and ugliest revelation that Thorpe receives near the very end.

Enough other writers use the device of showing us the criminal in action without revealing who the person is by name that I suppose we must now accept the gimmick as a convention, whether we like it or not. Billingham is certainly fond of the device; 13 of the unnumbered chapters serve this function.

It is also a matter of taste, I suppose, whether you are willing to go along with another ploy that likewise shows up in so many other mysteries, the partial revelation. Billingham is also quite fond of writing sentences such as "So [she] named the man" and then making his readers wait (in this case, 19 pages) to discover what that name is. This, I think, is what so irritated the previous RTE reviewer. I admit I too derive no pleasure from the device. The physical apprehension of the criminal provides more suspense for me than any uncertainty about who the police are going to arrest ever could.

But I also discovered that Billingham on occasion does out-and-out deceive the reader. More is going on in the prologue than he lets on, as we discover only far into the novel when he reprises the scene almost word for word but now provides the additional information. At another key point the authorís voice informs us that the killer, while being interviewed by the police, does not know anything about a murder.

Reading the novel with a different mind-set than my usual, I was struck by how all-important characters are to Billingham: not only his recurring figures but also the personages who show up to play their once-only role in the case at hand. It also struck me that, while the jobís daily grind fascinates the author, he is little interested in any implications outside the proceduralís narrow confines. Political, social, and economic issues may intrude on a case, but they do not matter much. Nor do the great abstractions of truth and justice. Only the personal resonates in the readerís mind upon finishing one of these mysteries.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, September 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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