Written by Mark Billingham — It must be easy for a series author to fall into a pattern, giving us murder by numbers and keeping an established audience happy with a book a year. But we knew there would be something special about Love Like Blood, Mark Billingham’s 14th DI Tom Thorne novel, when we received an extraordinary letter with our early copy of the book. In it, Billingham is passionate and truly reinvigorated as he explains why he wrote a novel on the tricky topic of honour killing.
You can read the full text of that letter here. In this review, meanwhile, we’re pleased to report that all that passion has been channeled into what is a gripping and at times brutal story. It feels relevant. It feels conflicted. It’ll give you a knot in the stomach. And, it’s pretty uncomfortable reading, too.
Things begin with an attack on a woman arriving home after dark. She’s set upon by two assailants who squirt bleach in her eyes and then go on to do the unspeakable. It turns out that the victim is the girlfriend of DI Nicola Tanner, a by-the-book Metropolitan Police detective who has been looking into honour killings. Her theory is that a sophisticated network is in place whereby go-betweens set up the murders for Asian families, using third-party assassins. The ultimate outsourcing scheme.
Tanner is put on compassionate leave, although she badly wants to investigate her partner Susan’s murder. And, she feels guilty because it appears as though she was the intended victim. Although Tanner usually follows the manual by the letter, to work the case she needs someone who really is known for winging it. Enter DI Tom Thorne, whose erratic and sometimes confrontational approach gets his superiors riled, but also gets results. He agrees to Tanner’s request and goes steaming right in.
Billingham builds his characters well, and if you’ve enjoyed previous books in the series you’ll feel right at home. Thorne’s girlfriend Helen and step-son Alfie are there in the background, with their relationships developing, and with Helen working a suspected child abuse case as she’s a social worker. Phil Hendricks, the pathologist, is back for more banter with Thorne and Tanner tentatively joins in, forming a team of three very different cops whose dialogue aids the storytelling.
With viewpoints shifting as the story goes along, we join Muldoon and Riaz as they abduct a pair of young Muslims who were planning on running away together. With each chapter we spend with these men, their operation is gradually revealed. They are almost like evil counterparts to Thorne and Tanner. Muldoon is loose in his approach, Riaz is driven by a philosophy that justifies his actions as part of the natural order. But where Thorne and Tanner strive for justice, Muldoon outright relishes rape and murder and Raz is as cold-blooded as they come.
Tanner and Thorne kick into action on the abduction. Thorne wangles it so that he can take the case, because he thinks it might be linked to the unsolved case of a murdered Sikh woman that he worked. The way he steams in will have you cringing. Thorne’s gut is telling him that the parents of both missing teenagers are behind it, and he leans hard on them without the evidence to back it up. His approach is contagious, and soon Tanner is taking similar risks.
Tanner and Thorne confront leaders from the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities, though again they don’t really have enough to go on. But, if you rattle enough cages… The tension builds brilliantly as they get closer to the truth. With the threat of another attack hanging over them, and the emergence of another family who seem to want their daughter offed, we head towards a complex ending with a couple of big twists in the tail. Not all the assumptions the cops make are borne out.
What’s a little hard to believe is that Tanner isn’t given more police protection from the start, considering how and why her girlfriend was murdered. The major twist in the plot is a little too easy to foresee as well.
Like other Thorne novels going all the way back to Sleepyhead, there’s a lot of blood and violence, realistically delivered. Thorne is such a solid character too, and everything he does seems very real-world. And, with what’s happening in the world today, Love Like Blood is very now. Mark Billingham has shone a light into an area of crime few of us know much about, and this is a must-read book for the summer.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars