Mark Billingham has been on my “must-read” list of authors since I first encountered SLEEPYHEAD, his debut novel and the introduction to the Tom Thorne series. I was hooked from the first paragraph and have remained so ever since. Thorne, a British detective inspector, is a quietly tragic and driven figure --- uncomfortably likable might be a good description --- whose prickly personality and keen intelligence both attracts and repels, sometimes simultaneously. At his core, however, he cares deeply about the victims and, more particularly, their survivors, so that his blessing and curse is that he is unable to bring any sort of detachment to his job. But the best characters would be lost without a solid storyline and intriguing plot, and Billingham has provided both through seven Thorne novels.
"Billingham has never been as bittersweet, tragic and powerful as he is here."
After a detour through last year’s edgy stand-alone work, IN THE DARK (which includes a cameo appearance by Thorne), Billingham returns to a full focus on Thorne with what is surely his best work to date. Shot full with brilliant pacing, surprise twists, and pitch-black humor that is both chilling and funny, BLOODLINE is one of those books that you will want to read at least twice: once for enjoyment and absorption, and once to see precisely how Billingham brings it all so frighteningly and wonderfully together.
Following an enigmatic prologue that becomes all-too-clear comes tale’s end, Billingham opens BLOODLINE with Thorne and his latest soul mate, Louise, experiencing a personal tragedy. Thorne has little time to dwell on it --- though dwell he does, throughout the book --- when he is called to the scene of a young wife’s murder. Her husband is quickly eliminated as a suspect, while her death is found to have a link to a previous killing, as well as to the subsequent double murder of a brother and sister. All of the murders share a bizarre history with a series of infamous killings committed by notorious British serial killer Raymond Garvey, who terrorized Great Britain a couple of decades before with an elongated murder spree before being captured, tried and convicted. His actions spawned a small industry of true crime books, but, for all of his notoriety, Garvey died in prison. It now appears that someone is emulating Garvey’s behavioral pattern in the worst way possible.
Thorne and his colleagues, pressed to bring the perpetrator to justice, have their work cut out for them. They know there will be more murders and are even aware of who the victims will be and the identity of the murderer. They cannot, however, locate either the doer or the potential victims. The killer is as clever and diabolical a character as Thorne has ever encountered, and all of his resources, as well as that of the department, are taxed to the limit in attempting to apprehend him. Meanwhile, the perpetrator is taunting the police with clues left at the scene of the crime that indicate why he is doing all this. And while Thorne and the squad are looking for him and the other potential victims, he is watching them, letting them lead him to the next victim. Thus each step Thorne takes toward the killer leads the killer to the next murder. The result is a tale that grows more intense page by page, with one of the most striking endings you will read this year. Guaranteed.
BLOODLINE is not for the squeamish, though the graphic descriptions of violence and its aftermath are not gratuitous. Billingham’s sense of humor is at the forefront of his narrative, perhaps more so than any of his other works, yet the book is anything but comedic. The gallows mirth that is found throughout is offered primarily as a momentary and temporary respite from the grimness of its subject matter from beginning to end. Billingham has never been as bittersweet, tragic and powerful as he is here.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 12, 2011