As much as I enjoyed IN THE DARK, Mark Billingham’s
previous effort, at the end of the day I found myself wishing that
it had come shrink-wrapped with a new Tom Thorne book. DEATH
MESSAGE, Billingham’s newest work, answers the prayer for
more Thorne --- and then some.
Thorne is a complex character, one of those introverted people
who fakes being personable quite well and, as his love life
demonstrates, the type of man who drives the woman he happens to be
involved with at any particular point insane. Thorne, as much as
any character you’ll find in contemporary mystery fiction,
has mastered the art of compartmentalization. His job as a London
detective investigator is over in one very big corner, with his
friends --- all of whom are in law enforcement --- in an adjacent
box, and his girlfriend, also a cop, somewhere nearby. When someone
tries to get too close to Thorne or too emotionally attached to
him, he pulls out (not a figure of speech, as Thorne demonstrates
at one point in DEATH MESSAGE).
The one element in Thorne’s life that causes him to stay
focused to the point of obsession is his job. So when someone
begins sending Thorne pictures of murder victims on his cell phone,
the professional and the personal intersect in a grisly manner.
Thorne is able to sort out fairly quickly who is doing this: a
convicted murderer named Brooks, who, on the eve of his early
release from prison, lost his wife and son to a hit-and-run driver
in an apparent act of revenge against him. The issue of why the
pictures are being sent to Thorne is resolved fairly quickly and
involves a degree of revenge, though the revenge belongs not to
Brooks but to someone from Thorne’s past. However, the fact
remains that the police cannot seem to catch Brooks, who shows no
sign of ending his killing spree.
At the same time, Thorne is lassoed into assisting with the
investigation of the murder of a Turkish gangster, who seems to
have reached a dead end until an unexpected revelation occurs,
which, against all probability, intersects with the Brooks case.
Almost immediately, Thorne receives another photograph on his cell
phone indicating, inexplicably, that Brooks’s next victim is
someone very close to Thorne.
Billingham strikes the perfect balance between plot complexity
and character development, using the urban backdrop of
London’s historical thoroughfares and seedier alleyways to
create a work that is part character study, puzzle and guided tour.
But the star element of DEATH MESSAGE is Billingham’s pacing,
which moves smartly throughout the book. While it is a compelling
read, watch out for the last third of the novel; you will not be
able to finish it quickly enough. And Thorne? Expect some changes
in his life and the lives of those around him.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 29, 2010