Mark Billingham is A first-rate British crime writer who is too little known in this country, although his books have been bestsellers, won prizes and been made into a television series over there. “From the Dead,” the ninth of his 12 novels about London-based Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, was published in England in 2010 but is only now reaching these shores. It arrives bearing praise from outstanding American crime novelists — George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman — and their enthusiasm is justified.
The police procedural is a deceptively simple genre. You need a crime, a cop, suspects, complications and finally a solution. The art, of course, lies in the ingenuity of the crime, the depth of the characterizations and the quality of the writing. Billingham excels in all regards. Tom Thorne’s adventures bear comparison with those of Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.
In “From the Dead,” Thorne finds himself seeking a smooth-talking and entirely ruthless criminal named Alan Langford, who faked his own death and helped frame his wife for his “murder.” After serving 10 years in prison, she receives photos showing that her husband is very much alive, possibly in Spain; moreover, her 18-year-old daughter has vanished, and the mother thinks the husband has abducted her.
Thorne’s first job is to determine just whose charred body was found in Langford’s burned-out car if it wasn’t Langford himself. This takes him to a prison to question an inmate who may have answers, but soon after that visit, the prisoner is murdered. That crime suggests that if Langford is in Spain, he has dangerous people — possibly some corrupt police officers and prison guards — doing his dirty work back in England. More deaths follow before Thorne sets off for a coastal town in Spain to seek Langford, who’s prospering in real estate and the drug trade. The surprises continue there, amid a lovingly described portrait of Spanish bars, beaches, bikini-clad women and carefree fiestas that will have you aching to catch the next plane over.
It’s a good crime story, but in time the reader may realize that at another level the novel is about the complexities and pitfalls of love. Thorne, who is in his 40s, has been living with Louise, another detective, but they’re drifting apart. The truth is that he cares more about his work than their relationship. Soon, Thorne is drawn to a woman in her 20s, a would-be private detective who’s endearingly scatterbrained and temptingly sexy.
The story also features two women who began a love affair in prison and are struggling to maintain it after they’ve regained their freedom. There’s a cop who’s mourning his dead wife and an elderly man trying to comfort a wife who’s drinking herself to death. A mother agonizes over a daughter who has rejected her. Teenage girls, in this book, cause much sorrow. One of the lessons Thorne takes away from this case is that “love could cause as much damage and death as hate ever did.”
Billingham followed an unlikely path to crime writing. He spent his 20s and 30s as a modestly successful actor and stand-up comedian. In 1997, he and a writing partner were having dinner in a Manchester hotel room when three masked men broke in, overpowered, beat and bound them, and took their money and bank cards. They were kept prisoner, facedown on the floor, while one man went to withdraw money from an ATM. By going just before and after midnight, he could collect the maximum for two days. Billingham and his friend had no way of knowing if they would survive the night.
It was not long thereafter that Billingham began his first Tom Thorne novel, “Sleepyhead,” published in 2001 when he was 40. He later wrote in a London newspaper: “When I began to write crime fiction, it became clear that the experience in that hotel room had made its mark in a number of ways. . . . It is the fear of the victim that has come to dominate much of my writing. . . . As an adult, being made to feel as helpless and terrified as a small child is an experience that it is not easy to forget.”
After the Manchester police proved indifferent to his and his friend’s ordeal, he angrily concluded that if he wanted a policeman who really cared about justice for the victims of crime, he would have to invent him.
That’s how Tom Thorne came to be, and he’s worth getting to know.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
FROM THE DEAD
By Mark Billingham
Atlantic Monthly. 390 pp. $26