Someone is killing cats up North London way, and although Tom Thorne can’t help but feel tomicide is not his proper calling, he’s going to be seconded to his old Kentish Town stomping grounds, an improvement over his new commute from his partner Helen’s place in Tulse Hill up to Hendon. And he knows there is always the possibility the serial feline killer might move on to something more satisfying, for both of them. That’s the grim reality for Thorne, an honesty that makes him one of British crime fiction’s most compelling detectives.
But once up NW5 way, he works out a mutual assistance deal with DI Nicola Tanner, suffering her own recent loss, but investigating the murder of a drug dealer, a case which isn’t as open and shut as it seems. Savvy readers might think they know where all this is going, but one of Mark Billingham’s strong points is the way he manages to confound expectations. There are twists along the way, and one big and very convincing one at the climax which will satisfy puzzle fans as well as those of the classic Scandi/British school of police procedurals.
Beyond that, what makes Billingham so good is the way the twists move within his own story and his relationship with the police itself. His cops are a rainbow coalition, ahead of the British curve in many ways, and the way their personal lives stack up, survive problems or not, is as much a thriller in its own way as the crime plot. And like John Harvey, one of the masters of the genre, the cops’ own situations are often mirrored by the story itself: here there’s an interesting doubling between a criminal held in protective custody and Thorne’s own troubled relations with his partner and her sister. And Billingham is good enough with characters that when, for example, Thorne attends his first gay wedding, of the tough-talking Sergeant Christine Treasure, it actually brings a smile to the reader’s face. It’s that quality of writing that makes Mark Billingham one of the best, and most consistent, writers in the business.
And of course, there are the cats.
The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham
Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 97807551566949