Written by Mark Billingham — In Tom Thorne’s last outing, The Dying Hours, having been busted down to uniform for one too many indiscretions, our hero ends up hospitalised with a bullet wound. His boss says, “I’ve got good news and bad news….”
Not far into The Bones Beneath we are enlightened. The good news is that Thorne is to return to the rank of Detective Inspector. The bad news involves a psychopath called Stuart Nicklin, who is serving several life sentences at Her Majesty’s Prison, Long Lartin. Situated in the lovely Worcestershire countryside, Long Lartin is a Category A prison for serious offenders. Nicklin certainly ticks all the boxes – and more – to be a long term resident of this particular hotel. Thorne was the police officer who brought him to justice, and the hunt for Nicklin was central to the plot of Billingham’s second novel, Scaredy Cat, in 2003.
Echoing the real life drama of Ian Brady refusing to reveal where he buried his victim Keith Bennett, despite the anguished dying wishes of the boy’s mother, Nicklin has refused to say where he buried one of his earlier victims – Simon Milner. He and Milner had been residents of Tides House, an experimental project to rehabilitate young offenders, situated on Bardsey – an island off the Welsh coast. Since early times the island had been by a fledgling Christian community, and became renowned as a haven for birds, seals and other wildlife. The idealistic Tide House experiment collapsed when one of the boys was savagely killed, and Nicklin and Milner escaped. Nicklin was ever seen again and it was assumed he buried Milner’s body somewhere on Bardsey.
Now, Nicklin has offered to take the authorities to Milner’s grave with two conditions. The first is that the police officer leading the search party should be none other than his nemesis, Tom Thorne. The second is that he should be accompanied by another prisoner, Jeffrey Batchelor. Batchelor, a mild mannered former lecturer, is serving a long sentence for battering to death the teenage boy whom he held responsible for his daughter’s suicide. Fearful of a tabloid newspaper campaign, and mindful of Nicklin’s ability to manipulate events even from his prison cell, Thorne smells all manner of unpleasant rats, but has no option but to accept the task.
Despite the well-worn scenario of people being trapped on an inhospitable island, with seas too rough for rescue boats to save the day, Billingham manipulates us masterfully. An apparently divergent thread early in the book strikes like a thump in the gut in the closing chapters and will leave you to think,”Why didn’t I spot that?”
The back-story concerning Batchelor has a terrible twist to it, and Stuart Nicklin is certain of a podium finish in the Psychopath Grand Prix, probably alongside Dr Lecter and James Patterson’s Gary Soneji. The artistry in the plot and the writing is matchless. Yes, we are marooned on a bleak island, with a clever and ruthless killer. But, said killer is in handcuffs and surrounded by policemen and prison guards. What can possibly go wrong? We know that Nicklin is going to spring a terrible surprise on his captors, but when it comes it is unexpected and jaw-dropping. When you start to read this book, take the phone off the hook, cancel the day’s appointments, and leave a note for your family to tell them that there is plenty of food in the freezer.
The Bones Beneath is released on 22 May.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars