Mark Billingham’s TOM THORN

14 04 2012

Tom Thorn is fast becoming my favourite uniformed sleuth. Make that plain-clothes sleuth. What I mean to say is that he’s police. Police at what I suppose must be their very best. And therefore immensely unpopular in certain circles both inside and outside the Force.

The first one I read was Lifeless. For personal and private reasons, Thorn has been taken off a case involving the killing of homeless men, men sleeping rough on the streets of London’s West End, with no protection, no door to lock. So far there have been three of them, each kicked to death where he lay and left with a £20 note pinned to his forehead. Then one day, walking through the city with nothing to occupy him, he begins to identify with the victims of the case he has been taken off.

And suddenly realises he could easily end up on the streets himself. And that gives him an idea: why doesn’t he go undercover among the rough sleepers, most of whom would rather die than give information to someone they know is a policeman.

This is a fascinating book because it is not simply an almost perfect detective story / crime novel, it is also an in-depth look at the world of London’s homeless, the young drug-addicts (two wonderful characters stand out – after reading this your view of them will never be the same again!), the alcoholics (Thorne has no trouble passing himself off as one of these!), the weirdos and crazies (like Radio Bob, who believes he is a natural radio receiver), and those who simply want no part at all of the system.

The next I read was In the Dark, where the investigator turned out to be not Thorne himself but Helen Weeks, a pregnant Detective Sergeant working with a child protection unit, whose husband – only they are not actually married – is killed in what seems to have been a routine hit-and-run traffic accident.

Helen is one of those who believe he was murdered.

But as she investigates – heavily pregnant and more or less on her own – she begins to uncover aspects of her man’s life that she knew nothing about. Was he “bent”, and working for the London mafia? Was it they who had for their own purposes eliminated him? Or had he perhaps been working undercover, even been perhaps a kind of double agent? She is driven on partly by her own sense of guilt, for not only was she not married to him but the baby she is now carrying may well not have been his either.

I love that “may well not have been”. This was another heroine I wholly indentified with. When the story came to an end with the birth of the baby in intensely dramatic circumstances, I thought, sadly, that I had seen the last of her. Not so. Billingham must have been very taken with her too, for he brought her back for another shot in Good As Dead. But before that we have From the Dead, in which Thorn comes up against his own personal Moriarty, a London criminal/businessman whose wife was convicted of organising his murder a decade previously, but who, it seems, is very much alive and well and living in Spain on the Costa del Crime.

The wife, Donna, newly released from prison, receives some photos of him sent to her anonymously. Stunned, and desperate to find out what is happening, but with a natural dislike and distrust of the police, she hires a young would-be private eye called Anna Carpenter whose only experience is in divorce cases where she was the bait in the honey-trap. Soon finding herself out of her depth, Anna turns to Tom Thorn, the Detective Inspector who had investigated the original murder. If the charred body in that car ten years ago had not been Donna’s husband, then whose had it been?

Thorn’s attempt to keep his relationship with the gorgeous twenty-three-year-old Anna on a strictly professional – i.e paternal and patronising – footing is valiant, but there is no way he can keep it up in the face of her guileless admiration and eagerness to please … I loved her, and knew Billingham had got it exactly right. In her position – a position I could very easily imagine myself in! – I would have been exactly the same with Tom Thorn.

Then in Good As Dead Helen Weeks reappears, this time as the victim in a hostage situation where an elderly Pakistani tobacconist named Javed Akhtar, in desperation, successfully forces Tom Thorn to reopen the invesigation into the death of his son, Amin Akhtar, insisting that Amin had not committed suicide but had been murdered. Thorn has three days to prove it was murder and produce the murderer, while Helen is held at gun-point in the back of the tobacconist’s, waiting to be shot. He succeeds, but by going about it in an even more unorthodox manner than usual and not without stepping on a great many toes … A great crime story of vice and corruption in the highest circles and little people getting trodden underfoot as the mighty ones attempt to cover their arses.

Read these books. Read them all. There are still a couple at the beginning of the series I have not read, but I want to know now how the whole soap opera started so I am going to find them and add them to my collection. I wonder if they’re available on Kindle …

Of course, if they are, they might be more expensive than the paperback. Publishers of popular mainstream fiction don’t seem to have understood yet that ebooks should be cheaper – substantially cheaper – because the publishers of ebooks don’t have any production costs at all.


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