Billingham's Tom Thorne, a character renowned for his assortment of tortured rectitude, is undoubtedly the star of Cry Baby, a retro look at Tom struggling to make a life for himself in 1995. Separated from his wife, Jan, Tom spends his days watching fantasy football and thinking about his failed marriage. The center of Billingham's thriller is the very human story between friends Maria and Cat, whose sons Josh and Kieron are good friends and love to play together. Five years older, Maria lives in a nice house in Muswell Hill while Cat's place in the Archway is somewhat rough and ready. As Cat watches the boys walking slowly around the edge of the playground at Highgate Wood, little does she know that a kidnapping will challenge their friendship like never before.
The investigation begins when Thorne is called to the scene at Muswell Hill Road. Right away, Tom knows that the woman standing in front of him is the mother of the missing child. Tom's nemesis, DCI Gordon Boyle, is doing his best to keep the two women moving forward. With cases such as this, it's imperative to take the necessary steps as quickly as possible. Thorne knows by now that Cat saw nothing, but the job compels Thorne to dig away at Cat's most terrible fears. With only an hour of light left, she might well be desperate to get back to Highgate Wood and join the search.
One thing Billingham's novel makes clear is that the quaint old London of Hercule Poirot is all but gone as a setting for this crime story. Thorne roams an inhospitable, hard-edged city when he's not sitting in the narrow and windowless major incident room at Islington Station that, with 30 new detectives, seems to seethe at all the roadblocks in the case. A wave of shame washes over Maria as she thinks about Cat. She wants to help, to let Cat know she's there for her, and that she'll do whatever she can.
According to thick-haired DS Russell Brigstocke, the case is not as straightforward as Thorne first thought. It mirrors the case of James Bulger three years earlier. The vast majority of those who abduct children kill them relatively quickly, within a day or two. Thorne wonders if hearing about someone else's problems might take Cat's mind off her own. Soon the enquiry focuses on Cat's neighbor, a junkie named Grantleigh Figgis. Thorne goes to the Astoria, the local gay bar, to find out if anyone there knows him or can remember seeing Figgis leave with anyone. Another suspicious character is Billy, Keiron's father, as well as the man who visits Cat and calls her son "my missing flesh and blood."
Once the investigation is leaked to the media, it's reported that the Figgis, a known drug user, has a history of sexual offending. Thorne and Boyle clash over their prime suspect. Thorne is certain that Kieron knew the man who had led him from the woods, yet he remains unconvinced that Figgis is responsible, even though Figgis has a suspicious manner. The peculiarities that rang alarm bells just a few days before are now blanked out by despair. Other suspects percolate around the edge, including Simon Jenner, Kieron's teacher, who Cat seems drawn to in the white-hot chaos of the moment. Thorne is more than a little irritated by this young woman's apparent ignorance, blissful or otherwise of her partner Deane Meade's capabilities.
Such chilliness notwithstanding, one does feel for Thorne in these early years, not the least because he naturally attracts sympathy even when he sometimes doesn't deserve it. We finally get insight into Tom's past: he likes country music, he has an aging father, and he's basically a nice guy who could use a little love. Central to the story is Tom's budding friendship with Phil Hendricks. Dressed in tight black jeans, black t-shirt, rings through nostril and eyebrow and with tattoos of Celtic rings and crucifixes, Phil may look like bouncer "at a Sisters of Mercy concert," yet Tom notices that he works with much skill as any pathologist Thorne has ever seen.
In the way of the great British fictional detectives, Thorne has an intuitive genius combined with gentle empathy. He's concerned with Cat's welfare but also with his team, ground down by two weeks of abject failure. In typical fashion, Billingham generates a good degree of tension and dread, along with some quite unpleasant scares (particularly the scenes where Kieron is locked up, held at the mercy of his kidnapper, a man who says he doesn't want to use that shackle and chain).
While a central character's inner monologues actively contribute to the action, Thorne's ruminations on life and love drive the story. Excellent detective stories do not "spoon feed" the reader, and Cry Baby is no exception. Thorne is always at the center, a brooding, complicated character, a cold fish with a short fuse.