Bellingham is a popular crime novelist in England, growing in popularity in the States with a series of thrillers starring Detective Tom Thorne of the Area West Murder Squad. Thorne is one of those tough, action-oriented detectives who consistently push beyond the expected to make a case, both respected and feared by his coworkers for his intolerance of stupidity and deliberate methodology. These qualities are exactly what shopkeeper Javed Akhtar has in mind when he takes two customers hostage in his tiny newsagent shop—Tom Thorne exactly.
In fact, Thorne is the police officer Akhtar holds responsible for putting his son, Amir, behind bars after a knife fight. Sent to the Barndale Young Offenders Institution, Amir is slashed in the face by another inmate then dies of an overdose while in the facility’s hospital unit to recover from his wound. Javed is beside himself with grief, guilt that he trusted the system to protect Amir and despair that he believed in the rule of law in England in spite of his son’s protestations. Now this father wants to know exactly what happened and why.
Hostage Helen Weeks, a detective who works primarily with social welfare cases rather than murder or violent crime. She is an unfortunate victim of circumstances, a regular customer in Javed’s shop, as is Stephen Mitchell, who is in a hurry to get to a meeting when Javed locks the door and slams down the metal shutters that protect the merchandise from theft. Both are dependent on the actions of the angry newsagent, handcuffed and without communication with their loved ones. Only Thorne can get these hostages released. Emergency police forces gather outside, a hostage negotiator called to assist while a militant tactical offers hovers nearby, anxious to move in immediately and defuse the situation with force.
This particular case presents Thorne with an unusual challenge: having delivered a criminal (Amir) to the courts, he has no reason to be further concerned with that person’s fate. What he learns about the boy’s tragic and unnecessary death causes Thorne to question the institution charged with the well-being of prisoners, especially juveniles who have not yet committed to lives of criminal behavior. Interviews at Barndale yield little valuable evidence, but as Thorne delves deeper into the demise of a bright young man with a solid future, a series of incendiary secrets revealed by young inmates expose an ugly picture of perversion, treachery, greed and a blatant misuse of power. Facts finally in hand, all Thorne’s efforts are worthless unless Helen and the other hostage are freed from their ordeal.
In chapters alternating between Thorne’s investigation at the Barndale Young Offenders Institution and an evolving crisis at the hostage scene where anxiety and raw emotions have ratcheted up the immediate threat, Bellingham builds up the unbearable urgency of a man at the end of his endurance. Grief and frustration make him reckless and rage makes him dangerous, the sustained tension of the situation about to shatter as Thorne rushes to the scene. The fate of Akhtar and his hostages rests with Thorne, but time runs out with an explosive revelation.