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Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pages, $25

Dour, grim, gruesome, intense. That pretty much sums up Mark Billingham's DI Tom Thorne series. The Dying Hours is the 11th in the set and it's a good one.

I haven't read a Billingham book in quite a while. (I think there were pigs involved in the last one I read.) But Billingham does a pretty good job presenting the story thus far, so I happily joined the story arc in progress.

Actually, it's just Inspector Tom Thorne of the South London police force these days, Thorne having been demoted to uniform for shenanigans explained in the last book, Good as Dead. All was not lost at the end of that adventure, because Thorne had gained himself a live-in girlfriend and her 18-month-old baby. That girlfriend, Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks, owes Thorne a lot for the unrelenting stubbornness that saved her life. However, when evidence of Thorne's stubbornness again makes itself apparent in regard to certain recent suicides, Weeks is not immediately supportive. Perhaps that's because Thorne chooses to conceal, lie, and evade first before telling her what's going on. It's the price of having two police officers in one household.

Thorne misses the thrill of being a detective. He misses North London. His exile to South London is okay -- after all it's work he's good at -- but his real mates are still with his old unit. Nevertheless, he puts his best foot forward and is happy enough with Weeks and her son, Alfie.

When Thorne is called to a suicide, several things at the scene don't feel right. "'Oh Christ, are you talking about a 'hunch'?" says a detective with his department, when Thorne brings his uneasiness about the declaration of suicide to his notice. It is a hunch, but it's based on discrepancies that are red flags to someone of Thorne's experience. And, of course, Thorne's instincts are correct. Having been sloughed off by the murder squad, Thorne is determined to prove the suicide, soon to be joined by other suspicious suicides, is bogus. He enlists the help of former detective buddies, who reluctantly agree. A small part of Thorne thinks that if he figures out the solution and catches the killer, this might bring him back into the good graces of the department.

We meet the killer early on, so we know the deaths are the result of murder, not suicide. It's a terrific build-up to find out why the killer is targeting these people and how he gets them to commit suicide. (Actually, I think I saw something vaguely similar on the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS, with Benedict Cumberbatch, but that doesn't detract from the cleverness and terror in Billingham's story.)

Billingham fleshes out his characters and brings Thorne's old world together with his new one very well. He also serves up spots of wry humor. For instance, when a couple of Thorne's old cronies are gloomily discussing what sorts of trouble they could get into by helping Thorne, one of them says, "In for a penny," and the other finishes, "In for a P45." A P45 is the British version of a pink slip. And just to warn you, Billingham does have the last laugh.

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