In Love Like Blood, DI Tom Thorne investigates the possible deaths of two 18-year-old Bangladeshi Muslims, Amaya Shah and Kamal Azim. At first, there’s nothing to indicate anything sinister going on, nothing obvious to connect them to Meena Athwal, a young girl who was found raped and strangled four years ago. Meena’s murder frustrated and perplexed Tom in an investigation that was not exactly by the book. After meeting with beleaguered DI Nicole Tanner, poor Tom has a whole new set of burdens to brood about. Unfolding six months after the events of Die of Shame, this novel begins just two weeks after the murder of Susan Best, Nicola’s partner. With Nicola on compassionate leave, it is left up to Tom to link the puzzle of Susan’s slaughter to the recent spate of honor killings that seem to be surfacing in the greater North London area.
Because Susan’s death was considered a job-related homicide, Nicola is not allowed to be part of the new investigation. Rules, of course, are not something Nicola normally sets a lot of store by. She’s keen to impart to Tom her ideas that there’s team of hitmen moving through the city and carrying out these killings. She’s also convinced that she was the target and not Susan: “I need to catch the people who killed her. She was driving my car, they killed Susan but it was me they were after.” Because Nicola has worked for the Honor Crimes Unit, she’s best placed to convince Tom that the perpetrators have gone to lot of trouble to make a straightforward honor killing look like something that is perhaps sexually motivated, or random attack, or maybe even suicide. The attacks were also carried out by people who had most likely been paid by the victims’ families.
Billingham tunnels us into a volatile landscape where certain individuals think the idea of investigating “honor killings” is a “political hot potato” and where two men were probably paid to have Susan killed. Tom works on this three-fold investigation: to find the whereabouts of Amaya and Kamal, root out Meena Athwal’s killer, and figure out who really murdered Susan. First he focuses on the families of Amaya and Kamal. The teenagers have not been seen for days, and according to DS Dipak Chall, Amaya told her parents she was studying with a girl she knew at college. Kamal said he was going to Oxford. Nicola works the case underground, visiting a North London mosque where a group of young men representing all the South Asian faiths have formed an anti-hate organization.
Billingham writes with a taste for the violent as his hero (and heroine) work to connect Amay and Kamal’s investigation to Meena’s cold case, which seems to be more macabre than originally thought. Meena looked like she was killed because her father, her brothers, or all of them paid to have her killed. This leads Tom to suspect the Shahs and the Azims, who he’s convinced are trying to get around the law against forced marriage, considering his conversation with the two sets of parents, particularly when a pivotal video shows Amay and Kamal frozen in their seats while a big white man in a paint-spattered jacket stands over them and an older Asian man in a suit stands his ground in the face of abuse.
Billingham has a highly visual writing style, including writing scenes from the perspective of Muldoon and Riaz, the unlikely pair of hired killers. This helps take this tale a cut above the current crop of good but interchangeable British police procedurals. Tom confides to his beloved Helen about Nicola’s murdered partner and the problems with the honor killings investigation. Tom’s boss, DCI Russell Bridgestocke, and Tom’s best buddy, chief Pathologist Phil Hendricks, finally come on board over what Nicola and Thorne have come to believe is the absolute truth. The atmosphere continues to darken when Tom and Nicola visit Palmers Green Mosque. The men who seem to be in charge of the anti-hate group and their go-between, a man named Ilyas Nazir, rant about veiled accusations and how certain people in the community are on a “witch hunt.” Nicola is excited the pieces of the puzzle finally come together. She’s positive the murders were arranged and paid for by the people they loved and trusted. She’s also convinced that the hitmen are out to get her--that is until Billingham throws us a curve-ball, unfolding evidence that might suggest there are indeed two different killers, each working separately but also in tandem.
Like “misshapen wings, or the rust colored remains of them,” Nicola remains traumatized by the night she opened the door and found Susan’s bloody body lying lost and lifeless. Nicola’s pain and anger creates an immediate sense of dislocation in the story, of punishment. Her desire for revenge feels almost alive as Tom tries to prevent her from tearing around London, not giving a toss that what she’s doing might be dangerous to herself and to everyone else. This shifting dynamic between Tom and Nicola is really the focus of the novel. We know that Tom is exactly what Nicola wants him to be, yet he’s eternally frustrated that he hasn’t had much of a chance to show her. Tom’s instincts command respect even though he likes to play fast and loose with the truth and with the rules.
In a stark and often heartbreaking study into the price of family loyalty, illustrates London’s immigrant Muslim underbelly and how its tarnished and socially strict mores have contributed to this proliferation of honor killings. He also wins my admiration for his skill at character development. The sadness of victims’ families stands in stark contrast to Tom and Nicola’s unexpected journey into the orbit of an unhinged, murderous psychopath who comes out of nowhere and proves impossible to restrain.