A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Crime fiction is something I’ve always found my way back to. Sure, I’ll spend some time reading other things, but ultimately, I’ll always find my way back to a crime novel. A few years ago – about 10, actually, now that I think about it – I discovered Mark Billingham. I used to love the TV series Maid Marian and her Merry Men, so when I realised that Billingham had played one of the Sherriff of Nottingham’s dim-witted guards, I was intrigued. People who “cross-over” have a poor reputation; they invoke ideas of “actress/models” who are not particularly talented at either. That’s a bit of a prejudice on my part, I realise. Especially because Billingham is a very good novelist.
Anyway, I read the first four novels in the DI Tom Thorne series (Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat, Lazybones, The Burning Girl) one after the other. Then I stopped. Why? Not sure. Perhaps I felt that four books in a row by the same person was a bit much. Maybe it was that I didn’t like The Burning Girl as much as the previous three. For whatever reason, that was that. In the end, it was an unusual event that brought him back to mind: a literary quiz at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival this year, hosted by none other than… Mark Billingham. It was a good quiz, by the way, and our team – Agatha Quizteam – came respectably upper-mid table.
I have just read Lifeless, Tom Thorne #5, and if I thought that #4 wasn’t the best in the series, then the next one is a serious return to form. Without giving too much away from the previous book, Thorne has recently returned to work after a bereavement, and he’s not quite up to par. Eventually he’s put on “gardening leave” and is frankly in the doldrums. Then, three homeless men are brutally kicked to death on the streets, and Thorne volunteers himself to go undercover and live on the streets in a bid to catch the killer. Meanwhile, the team in the office realise that the killings aren’t random; there’s a connection between the men that is first indicated by almost identical tattoos.
Through a combination of insights from the street and more traditional police work, the case develops at a fair lick, making this book nothing if not a belter of a page-turner. What is most interesting, though, is not the basic plot, but the broader ideas surrounding it. Speaking of London’s Eros statue:
“The statue was actually meant to be the Angel of Christian Charity, and a number of those within range of his bow were among the city’s lost runaways, junkies, and rent boys for whom a little Christian charity was long overdue.”
Thorne begins to see past what your average passer-by sees when they walk past the homeless, getting to know the people they are (or were). There are junkies, boozers, and the mentally ill, building a society of their own, virtually unnoticed by the commuters and tourists that walk past them every day, and Thorne made his place among them. Given his recent situations and behaviour, perhaps he was not so far away from them to start with. “Two months,” Thorne tells his pathologist friend Phil Hendricks towards the end of his time undercover. That’s all that separates many people from the streets. Unless you have generous friends or family, two months is all the grace you might have. Rent or mortgage goes unpaid, credit cards go unpaid, your car’s on tick… after two months those things will gradually start disappearing through repossession, and then there you are, where you never imagined you’d be. It could happen to anyone in the right (wrong?) circumstances.
Genre fiction gets some stick. Some assume it is badly written; not an art. This is nonsense, and Lifeless is an excellent example of that. I’ve already bought Tom Thorne #6…
Mark Billingham, Lifeless. Kindle Edition (Sphere, 2008). RRP £7.99.