Mark Billingham is a study in contradictions. Those who know him
initially from his screamingly funny performances as a stand-up
comedian are somewhat surprised at the dark, deadly atmosphere that
permeates his novels; those who know him primarily through his
books, a critically acclaimed series featuring British detective
Tom Thorne, are somewhat nonplussed at his manic comic delivery,
even as they are brought to their knees, gasping for breath as the
result of nonstop laughter.
Each endeavor, however, bleeds into the other. Billingham's comedic
efforts have a dark edge that hovers at the center, so that one is
never completely sure that the man isn't going to go ballistic at
any given moment. His novels are infused with a knowing, dark humor
--- think of a rude David Hewson --- at what might be considered an
otherwise inappropriate moment. LIFELESS is his latest, and
possibly his best, work of fiction to date.
LIFELESS finds Thorne still reeling from the death of his father in
THE BURNING GIRL, to the extent that he is placed on what is called
"gardening leave." Consigned to an office in Scotland Yard where he
performs Internet research for a report he is halfheartedly
preparing, a series of particularly brutal murders of street people
--- "rough sleepers" in the English vernacular --- provides Thorne
with what he feels will be an opportunity for professional and
personal redemption. Thorne's plan, reluctantly approved by his
superior officer, is to go undercover on the streets in the hope of
finding the killer.
Even as he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young junkie
and his girlfriend, Thorne finds that the homeless are roughly
divided into three groups: the alcoholic, the drug-addicted and the
insane. Thorne slips all too easily into one category and finds
himself falling into a nodding acquaintanceship with another. The
remainder of Thorne's squad, meanwhile, races against time to find
the significance of what appears to be a common link among the
victims, in an effort to stop the killer before he strikes again
--- and before Thorne loses his life, either to the murderer or
within the thickness of his own incipient madness.
It is a bit of a paradox that Billingham is at his funniest and
darkest in LIFELESS. Thorne's gradual and inexorable physical and
mental descent into street society is chronicled with a nuanced eye
that neither blinks nor turns away, and his well-nigh encyclopedic
knowledge of pop music past and present provides a mine of jibes
that are uncovered at the least expected moment.
Readers of Billingham's previous work will not be entirely
surprised at the book's somewhat ambiguous ending, which may --- or
may not --- be resolved in a future work. But it is doubtful that
anyone experiencing LIFELESS will walk away without wanting, and
anticipating, more of the same.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 11, 2011