Tom Thorne is an interesting man, a detective with an instinct for tracking the twisted paths of a killer’s mind, but only far enough to catch him. A fan of country music in his off hours and dealing with a tragedy in his relationship with Louise Porter, a detective in another squad, Thorne’s softer side is revealed in his daily life with Louise but never intrudes on his work. If Thorne is legendary, it is for his acerbic remarks, as personally inaccessible as he is capable, his best friend a heavily-tattooed gay forensic pathologist.
When a brutal murder occurs in London, the connection is made between the dead woman and her mother, murdered fifteen years earlier in a spree by the infamous serial killer Raymond Garvey. Two more murders follow - children of another of Garvey’s victims - and the scene is set for a tense chase to find the cold-blooded killer who leaves a piece of X-ray clutched in each of each of his unfortunate victim’s hands. Although the cops try to avoid the inevitable tabloid headlines, it’s only a matter of time when over half the children of Garvey’s victims have been ritually murdered.
Worrying over the state of his relationship with Louise, Thorne is often distracted but never far from obsessively working at the threads of the slowly unraveling mystery. As the story unfolds, it’s easy to understand Billingham’s popularity as a crime novelist: the increasingly stressed detectives, the political pressure for results, the link to Raymond Garvey a public relations nightmare only fifteen years after the sensationalism and national terror of Garvey’s spree. Clearly, the perpetrator is organized and methodical, Thorne haunted by the particular logic of such murders: “Its dark beats, the twisted melody of it. Like the first song you hear on the radio in the morning that stays in your head all day.”
While the reader is privy to the killer’s journal and the conversations he shares with the incarcerated Garvey before he dies in prison from a massive brain tumor, equally fascinating is the search for the remaining survivors of Garvey’s victims, an exercise in frustration as one refuses custody to protect the routine of her mentally-challenged child and another is on a walking tour, out of touch with a disinterested wife. While the suits worry about bad press for the department, Thorne’s job and that of his fellow detectives is to assemble the random pieces of a deadly puzzle and protect an unsuspecting public: “It’s not knowing where the next one’s coming from that terrifies people.”
Thorne is a compelling protagonist, a man who craves a family and has a penchant for solving kinky crimes that require an instinct for identifying the murky territory of a murderer’s mind, the intimate details of the crime scenes replaying in his memory: a howling father’s agony, a husband’s anguish, a child’s vulnerability. I look forward to enjoying more of Billingham’s work.