Written by Mark Billingham — Crime fiction’s grumpiest copper is back. DI Tom Thorne has recovered from his ordeal on the remote island of Bardsey (read our review of The Bones Beneath) and is enjoying some long overdue family time. With his partner, fellow officer Helen Weeks, he’s trying to make the best of the fresh air, antique shops and twee cottages in the English Cotswolds. Helen’s little lad Alfie is being looked after by her father. When she learns that the husband of an old school friend has been arrested on suspicion of murder and abduction, she persuades Thorne that they should travel north to the less scenic region of north Warwickshire. She wants to offer support to Linda Bates, whose taxi driver husband is currently in police custody.
In the small town of Polesford, Helen tries to re-establish some kind of rapport with someone she hasn’t seen for half a lifetime. Thorne, meanwhile, is drawn into the incident room where the disappearance of the two local teenage girls is being investigated. It doesn’t take him too long to outstay his welcome, particularly when he queries the conclusions that the local force jump to when a decomposing body is found in woodland – an area well frequented by dog-walkers.
Having found questionable material on Bates’ computer, and clear DNA linking him to the corpse, the local police are convinced that they have their man. Despite having to field calls from his boss in London telling him to keep his nose out, Thorne senses that the body found in the woods is not the trump card that ends this particular game. As he tries to square the circle, Helen tries to console Linda Bates, who is in a safe house with her two teenage children while investigators search her home more forensic evidence that will slam Steve Bates’ cell door firmly shut.
Not only has Thorne made few friends among the local coppers, he has failed to keep his face off the tabloid front pages. His misadventures on the island of Bardsey months earlier have earned him a somewhat lurid reputation in the red-top papers. While reporters are staking out various houses in Polesford, they kill time by spinning ever more speculative stories about what exactly Thorne is doing so far away from his London home turf.
For the second book in a row Tom Thorne is playing away, and his nose for finding the truth is as uncomfortable to the Warwickshire Constabulary as it is for his senior officers back in London. Does the book still work? In short, I have to say that it does. The story is something of a slow burn, but Billingham is much too good a writer not to know when to start ratcheting up the suspense. The crime fiction convention that it is rarely the man in custody who actually did the crime is as old as the hills, but here it seems fresher than ever. This is very much a character-led story. Thorne’s long-time friend Phil Hendricks – a much tattooed and pierced pathologist – puts in an appearance. We also get to know a great deal more about Helen Weeks and her personal background. There are clues which point to the identity of the killer, but as with all the best such hints, you’ll only notice them in retrospect. Billingham does a nice line in subtle red herrings, which adds to the genuine pleasure to be had from reading yet another memorable chapter in the career of Detective Inspector Tom Thorne.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars