Written by Mark Billingham — Mark Billingham is celebrated for his long-running police procedural series featuring the London detective Tom Thorne. Like all good writers, however, he has shown he can produce standalones too, such as Rush of Blood, which came out in 2012. Die of Shame is still set in modern day London, where the relentless pace of city life has many of its inhabitants ripe for a touch of therapy. The police are inevitably involved because there is a murder, but we don’t see much of their procedure, despite a guest appearance from Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and liberally-pierced pathologist from the Thorne books. Instead, we are introduced to a psychotherapy group.
Led by therapist Tony De Silva, the group consists of five people trying to recover from different addictions. The newest is Caroline, whose size is a sad testament to her food addiction. Diana’s life has been turned upside down by her husband trading her in for a newer model, and she has taken to drink. Robin is an anaesthetist whose dark past involved him using the drugs of his trade. Chris is a young man who has sold both body and soul to feed his need for Class A drugs. Finally, there is Heather. Whatever crutch is going – booze, drugs, scratch cards – Heather has used it to prop herself up. One of the group turns out to be a murder victim, but which of them is the killer?
The group meets every Monday evening in Tony’s house, and sessions begin the same way. Tony asks them if they have had a good week, which is a coded way for his patients – or clients, as he insists on calling them – to confirm that another week has gone by without them succumbing to their demons. Tony is anxious that each of them traces the root cause of their addiction, and he is convinced that this lies in something which happened when they were children and, whatever it was, has evoked a deep sense of shame which, in turn, has led to their problems.
Billingham has structured the book to perfection. To begin with you are the fly on the wall of what is obviously a prison meeting room. Who is the prisoner? Who is the visitor? All you know is that the prisoner is shortly due for release. You are then flipped backwards and forwards with chapters simply called Now and Then. Then mostly means that you are sitting in on the weekly therapy sessions, but you also witness the discovery of the murder victim’s body. It is one of the psychotherapy group but, as a laconic SOC officer says, most of this person has dripped through the floorboards.
The Now chapters follow the search for poor victim’s killer, led by Nicola Tanner and Dipak Chall. Of Tanner we learn little, except that she has a live-in girlfriend, and is persevering, pragmatic and relatively unemotional. She is convinced that the killer is one of the therapy group. But could it even be Tony himself?
In the end, Billingham gives you not so much a contrived plot twist as a beautifully worked, literary sleight of hand. The enigmatic opening section in the prison becomes one of those “Ah, of course…” moments, while a primal scream moment in the therapy group lets you know that the ink on the victim’s death warrant is already dry.
Sometimes, mystery authors can be too clever when it comes to how they present their story, and the results are clumsy and awkward. Billingham, however, is much too good for that, and the result is something seamlessly brilliant. The final chapters provide revelation and a very quirky kind of completion. Quirky? The author has a little surprise for you at the very end.
If you enjoy Mark Billingham’s work, why not catch up with our reviews of some of his Tom Thorne novels? Die of Shame is released 5 May.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars