Written by Mark Billingham — Inspector Tom Thorne is a grizzled veteran of a dozen hardcore murder investigations, with both Lazybones (2004) and Death Message (2009) winning that top UK accolade, the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. After a year away from Thorne, during which he released the standalone novel Rush of Blood, Mark Billingham returns to his hero in The Dying Hours, and it has been worth the wait.
Thorne is the master of all he surveys in his North London heartland, and has brought many a killer to justice. But now he’s standing in the bedroom of an elderly South London couple at 3:45 AM on a drizzly October morning. Wearing a crisp white shirt with two shiny inspector’s pips on the epaulettes. And a Met Police stab vest. After two decades of being a detective, Thorne has finally exhausted the patience of his masters and detractors and, after intervening disastrously in the siege of an Asian cornershop, he’s been busted down to uniform and moved south.
Working the graveyard shift as duty inspector out of Lewisham nick, he’s been called to attend what looks to be a double suicide. The elderly couple appear to have ended it all by overdosing on insulin, and when the local CID man arrives, he sees little to disabuse him of that conclusion. He is openly contemptuous of Thorne’s suspicions. Because most of the local CID know Thorne for what he is – an overweight, maverick chancer who has never played the game. Someone who takes short cuts and liberties. A copper from another era.
However, more apparent suicides come to Thorne’s attention. Hangings and drownings. Each of them seemingly straightforward. As a uniformed copper, he has to fight the system to get the information he needs, and every step of the way his former CID colleagues are put-upon to help him out. He stretches their loyalty to the limit. Eventually it becomes clear that the suicides are, in fact, elaborate and cunning acts of homicidal revenge. But how are the victims linked? Who has planned this complex scheme of retribution? Can Thorne find a cunning killer in the face of obstruction and opposition from the police establishment?
The London topography and atmosphere are, as one has come to expect from Billingham, lovingly and grittily described. Amid the carnage we are not sure what Thorne despises more – is it his demotion into uniform, or the dismal mileu of South London, with its abysmal transport links and terrible football teams? The picture of a police force almost at war with itself, and the mutual contempt, jealousy and suspicion bristling between the flatfoots and CID is convincingly painted. There are coppers who want a quiet life, and coppers who are consumed by ambition. When they rub together, the friction is almost tangible.
Fans of previous Tom Thorne novels will be delighted that the gang are all here. Phil Hendricks, the much tattooed and pierced gay medical examiner, is as sardonic and unlucky in love as ever. Holland and Kitson, Thorne’s former proteges, are dragged reluctantly into the fray, but find it hard to juggle career sensibilities with loyalty to their old boss. Helen Weeks is Thorne’s new love interest, and the scenes where Thorne does his best to be a father figure to her young son, Alfie, are touchingly written.
Tom Thorne, it has to be said, is something of an anti-hero. Despite his physical bravery and fierce intelligence, he doesn’t measure up in so many ways. He is bad tempered, selfish, intolerant, argumentative and has questionable tastes in music. His radar for avoiding unnecessary fights with his bosses is, to put it mildly, on the blink. This being said, he dominates the narrative, and never has he come so close to the end, physically and mentally, as in The Dying Hours. Billingham is on top form, and leaves us with a masterful teaser on the final page.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars