Written by Mark Billingham – Good as Dead is the fifth Tom Thorne novel, and the first since last year’s TV dramatisation that fortified Mark Billingham as one of the UK’s premium crime fiction novelists.
For fans of Billingham, this latest instalment exhibits all the hallmarks that make his plotlines so compelling. The father of a young man who died in police custody takes a police woman and a civilian hostage, demanding Thorne investigate the death of his son. As the clock ticks, Thorne unravels a series of cover-ups and institutional errors that threaten to blow the lid on his clandestine investigation and risk the lives of the hostages. Thorne’s walking a tightrope between suppression of the truth and a frenzied, grieving father, and Billingham exacts every ounce of tension in unravelling the story.
Taking place over a three-day period, Billingham’s plot is pacey, gripping and littered with bodies. As Thorne digs deeper and deeper into the death of the young man, Billingham ratchets up the stakes. Here we see Thorne at his best. He’s driven to save the young police woman (who is also a mother), but also by his desire to uncover the truth and halt the bloodshed proves just as vital by the novel’s end.
As ever Billingham’s characterisation is first-rate, in particular the grieving father. Though guilty of hostage taking, he is portrayed as distraught rather than psychotic, at his wits end and desperate for the truth. We sympathise with him even if we can’t condone his actions, and through a background of police cover-ups and whitewashed inquests Billingham constructs a range of wholly believable circumstances, many of which are based on recent real-life events, for Thorne to investigate. As the best crime writers do, though, Billingham has numerous spanners to toss in the works, throwing the reader – and Thorne – off the trail. His depiction of crooked cops is just as believable – there’s no veiled evil or intentional cruelty. Just the ineptitude and mistakes of normal people in uniform that the upper echelons of an institution try to cover up.
There are no holes in the plot or dips in pace, such is Billingham’s attention to detail, but one or two of the minor plot twists feel obligatory rather than necessary. There are only so many garden paths a reader will willingly be walked up, and while all are thoroughly believable and expertly crafted, some readers may find them too numerous. If the twists suffer from anything, it is their number rather than quality or necessity.
The mix of authentic procedural work with Thorne’s heroic nature makes for a heady brew. There’s always been something of the superhero about Thorne – his relentlessness and dedication to the cause, mixed with just enough attitude to give him an outsider stance. In Good as Dead Billingham has hit a rich vein of form, and created yet another Thorne novel ready-made for TV adaptation and mainstream success. We reviewed the hardcover version – the paperback is actually cheaper at £5.99 than the Kindle version which is rather expensive £8.49.
Print, iBook, Kindle
CFL Rating: Four stars