Iain's Leisure Reading


Mark Billingham - the DI Tom Thorne novels   






I come across my reading material in a variety of ways. I am always delighted when someone who has chanced upon my web site gets in touch, and it was a double delight when a lady in Canada contacted me to ask if I had tried Mark Billingham's DI Tom Thorne novels, and wondered what did I make of them? I thought, why not.

Mark Billingham was born in 1961 in Solihull, West Midlands, grew up in Mosely, Birmingham, and attended King Edward VI Camp Hill Grammar School for Boys in nearby King's Heath. He later went to the local Uni, graduated with a degree in drama, and then helped to form a Socialist theatre Company, Bread and Circuses. As an aside, I wonder why nearly all writers seem to be left leaning - there must be a reason.

In the mid 1980s Mark moved to London as a "jobbing actor, " - and he still lives in London with his wife Claire and two children. Mostly he got various minor parts playing "bad guy roles," and so he became somewhat disenchanted with acting. It seemed casting depended on looks, not talent.

About 1987 he decided to pursue a career in comedy, and worked successfully as a stand up comedian, but he still kept his hand in by also taking the occasional serious acting role. He turned his hand to comedy writing e.g. TV scripts, and in 2001 branched out into crime fiction, publishing his first book "Sleepyhead" featuring DI Tom Thorne. He thought book writing was very similar to stand up comedy - in both you have to open strongly and capture your audience. Similarly both need a good ending arrived at after audience misdirection.

Mark was aware when he started writing about another flawed policeman, that he was entering a crowded field. Other authors had been writing since the 1960's or earlier - e.g. P.D.James (1962) Colin Dexter (1975), , or my favourite Ian Rankin (1987). Mark was worried that he was failing to be original in entering "the world of the strange clich-ed cop" but he realised that cliches are part of the territory. He used a writing a Western comparison. It's not a cliche to give a cowboy a horse, six-gun and stetson, its part and parcel of the territory. So too do detectives in crime fiction usually have a past, problems and flaws. I liked old Reg Wexford, happily married to Dora, but at times I did criticise him for being boring.

Mark Billingham sort of created an alter ego in DI Tom Thorne. Both Mark and Tom are London based, both share a birthday, and both like country and western music. But mostly Mark let Tom Thorne's character evolve as the series progressed, and remained unpredictable. In book 1 Tom Thorne is 41 years old.

Finally I should add that Mark Billingham is a multi award winning writer.






Sleepyhead,     (2001)


I read this book in Jan, 2017.

This is book 1 of the London based DI Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham. It is always exciting to start a new series - especially one recommended by a visitor to my web site. I think it was Ann from Canada, but unfortunatley I've lost your email, Ann, sorry.

This is yet another crime series featuring a flawed disfunctional detective, but Mark Billingham explained that in his view, these are intrinsic to the genre.

Tom Thorne is divorced from Jan - she was unfaithful to him some 5 years ago. They had no children. Thorne is not a popular copper - his colleagues think that he thinks that he is better than them. He has a good track record of catching murderers, but is "Tommy, no mates." He is extremely self centred, he drops everyone and everything to catch a suspect, and he has no fear of being wrong. It's not really a very sympathetic picture - I wonder how Mark Billingham will persuade us to like Thorne ?

We learn that some 15 years previously, as a rookie copper, some sort of flash on intuition told him that he had come face to face with a ruthless killer. The man had been called in as part of a mass screening and was leaving the police station. As an inexperienced raw recruit at the time, Thorne dismissed the thought. Eventually he did get on his trail, but he was too late to save a wife and dying children. Their deaths still haunt Tom's nightmares - and Tom learned not to dismiss hunches. And so, in this story, Tom is 100% driven to prove that Jeremy Bishop is a madman responsible for a series of deaths, even though Bishop has an alibi. You'll have to read the story to find out if Tom is right, or terribly mistaken.

We have a truly horrific and wierd crime here. A madman picks up young ladies, drugs them, and then almost strangles them in a difficult pressure point procedure to deprive the brain of oxygen, cause a stroke, and induce a persistent vegetative state. Mostly the attempt kills the victims, but with poor Alison Willets, the madman succeeds. Alison is lying on her back in hospital, her mind active and her eyes open, but her body is paralysed. But she can blink. I think the title is quite appropriate, in a sick kind of way.

Throughout the book we share Alison's thoughts and frustrations and somehow she still has preserved a grim sort of sense of humour. The doctor treating Alison is Anne Coburn, and Ann is the love interest for Tom in this book. Ann has a daughter Rachel, and both feature in a cliff hanger of a climax to this book.

I liked the book, and Tom Thorne is a strong character. There is plenty room in fiction for another flawed detective. I like the way we get to share the thoughts of both the madman and poor Alison, trapped in her body with no possibility of a cure. Getting inside the heads of the characters is not a new technique, but it's well done here.

All in all, I think I am going to like the Tom Thorne books.

At the end of the book, Mark attacks politicians, and says we should spend more on the NHS. I don't disagree but problems in the NHS run deeper I fear, and simply throwing money at a problem may be too simplistic. Perhaps the NHS is just too big an organisation ever to be run efficiently, but what do I know ?






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Scaredy Cat,     (2002)


I read this book in Feb, 2017.

This is book 2 of Mark Billingham's series featuring a typical disfunctional cop, DI Tom Thorne of South London. Tom is naturally divorced from his wife, has few friends, and little respect for his superiors - which is unfair in that DCI Brigstocke seems a good DCI and boss, and is more than fair to Tom.

Tom does now seem to be part of a team - Tom's half friend DC Dave Holland, and a new character DS Sarah McEvoy. McEvoy is a bit of a scary out of control character, and eventually we learn why. Tom also has another sort of friend in Hendricks, the pathologist. It's now some time after book 1, and Tom still has no girlfriend - he hasn't bothered to contact the doctor (Anne Coburn) he met in book 1.

Mark Billingham is a good writer, and Tom is a strong character, but I am not sure that I have warmed to Tom Thorne yet - certainly not in the way I like Rebus , or Morse , or Dalgleish . It's early days. Perhaps Mark Billingham is just trying too hard to shock - with someone trying to condemn victims into "Locked in Syndrome" in book 1, and a double pair of nasty serial killers in this book. There is a very troubling opening to the book. We think we are following a boyfriend and girlfriend home, but after the killer jumps on the girl as she opens the door to her flat, we realise that her companion is her toddler child. Did he have to watch the terrible things that happened to his mum - "mummy's asleep" - as the killer munched a chocolate bar ? Its powerful writing, but a terrible thought, and not very pleasant reading.

I read somewhere that in 1997 Billingham and a friend were held bound and gagged in a hotel bedroom robbery, and terrified by the experience. This gave Mark the idea of someone being scared into doing terrible deeds. Right at the start of the book we meet two schoolboys, a big lad easily led, Martin Palmer, and an amoral, fearless, smaller character, oblivious of pain, Stuart Nicklin. Stuart rescues Martin from bullying, is the only friend Martin has, but to say that Stuart leads Martin astray is a terrible understatement.

Someone is committing a series of two horrible murders on the same day. It's Tom's case, and he realises that there are two killers in play. Generally he is a good detective but he does make some terrible mistakes. The Met allowing a murderer out of prison so as to possibly catch his accomplice seems daft , and ill thought out to me. It's almost unbelievable, and it was Tom's mistake.

It's a long story, but a real page turner, and the writer held my attention throughout. Theres were lot of strands to the story, a few surprises, and it all bulit to a terrific climax at the end - especially for DS McEvoy.

Tom seems to alternate between bouts of 100% self confidence, and bouts of mild depression, where he considers jacking it all in. I'm afraid it's familiar territory - have I been reading too much crime fiction ?

Finally a word about Tom's dad, who likes a joke and provides some of the humour of this book. At the end, its black humour indeed, for the father.

All in all, a strong story from a popular series by a good writer. I'll certainly read on to see what happens next. Somehow, though, although I enjoy the books, I don't particularly like Tom Thorne, the man. Perhaps this will change as the series progresses.






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Lazy Bones,     (2003)


I read this book in Mar, 2017.

This is book 3 of Mark Billingham's series featuring DI Tom Thorne, an able London detective but not one who has too many friends. Tom is divorced from his wife, and doesn't have a girlfriend, but in this book he meets Eve Bloom, a good name for a florist. She seems very keen on Tom, but somehow Tom seems to be holding back. He likes Eve, is attracted to her, but seems too lazy to stir himself and do something about it. There is a break in at his house, his music centre and his country and western music are stolen, and his bed matress is soiled and has to be thrown out. He can't ask Eve back until he gets a new matress, but somehow he never gets round to replacing it. Of course there is a lot more to this part of the story - is Eve who she says she is, and is some sort of premonition holding Tom back ? It all becomes shockingly clear in a terrific climax.

All the usual cast seem to be here - Tom of course, and his colleague/friend DC Holland, and his pathologist friend Hendricks. Holland and his wife Sophie are about to be parents, but Holland is leaving Sophie alone at home , is in denial, and out drinking with the lads. He comes to his senses before the end of the book. DS Yvonne Kitson is a new face, a super efficient copper, but she too is not all she seems to be. And finally we meet a former DCI, Carol Chamberlain, who had to retire far too early, but is now called back to work on "cold cases" - in the "crinkley squad." She is the one who spots the clue that rescues Tom's latest investigation. I am sure we will meet Carol Chamberlain again in future books.

There are two stories here, one told in flashback, but why we are being told about the flashback story remains a mystery for most of the book. A woman is raped, but is not believed by the police and later by a jury, and the rapist walks free to celebrate with his friends whilst the poor woman's life is destroyed. She cannot leave home any more, and ceases to function, and in a cruel twist is killed by her husband who then commits suicide - their double deaths leaving their two young children orphans. So many people have let down these youngsters - Mark and Sarah - it's them against the world.

The other story is about some vigilante character who is going round killing and raping convicted rapists. He (or she, but surely it must be he) seems to know when rapists are released from prison back into the community, and then is ready to strike.

I thought it was a very good story - Mark Billingham is an excellent writer and the whole story was very skillfully structured. Just what was happening became slowly apparent to us, the readers, slightly before Tom Thorne worked it out, and so, at the terrific climax, we knew that he was in great danger long before he did. And Holland was miles away sitting drinking tea with an old lady, in no rush to see the photos she had looked out for the police.

Tom's dad is still alive - his dementia not yet too extreme. Tom also gets a new car - a yellow BMW - his pride and joy. Instead of going by himself on a date with Eve, Tom takes Holland along too , anxious to show him the BMW. It's a strange action, but it turns out it's just as well that he did.

All in all, a good story that I really liked. Roll on book 4.






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The Burning Girl,     (2004)


I read this book in Mar, 2017.

This is book 4 of Mark Billingham's series about a London detective, DI Tom Thorne. Up to now, I have been quite impressed by this series, but in the end I was very disappointed in this book. I didn't like the ending where the bad guys win, and I don't like it when police officers go private and resort to torture to get a conviction. I am talking here about DI Thorne himself, and his chum the retired (but now working on cold cases) DCI Carol Chamberlain.

The book started off quite well with what looked like a strong story about gang protection rackets, and one gang - The Ryan gang - trying to move into another gang - the Zarifs - territory. Gang warfare has broken out, they are killing each other and one madman is carving X's on the back of his victims. There was also a strong back story of about 20 years ago involving former DCI Chamberlain - this was the dousing with lighter fuel of a young girl called Jessica Clarke, and the cruel setting of Jessica alight. She ran screaming through a public park - a flaming torch. She survived the agony of the severe burns and later medical treatments, but was hideously disfigured and she later killed herself, unable to live with everyone looking at her. To make matters worse it was a case of mistaken identity - Jessica's best friend was Alison Kelly. Her dad was a protection gang leader who "retired" all these years ago and left his gang empire to his deputy Billy Ryan - and now the Ryans are fighting the Turks - the Zarifs.

In the back story, DCI Chamberlain got her man - Gordon Rooker confessed and is currently still in prison serving his sentence. But now someone is stalking Carol Chamberlain - and in phone calls he taunts her with details of the burning girl that only the perpetrator would know. DI Thorne is working on the gang warfare cases, and there is plenty of friction when an old adversary now DCI Tighan is more or less in charge of the case. The Zarifs are Turkish businessmen. The clan is headed by old Akran Zarif, but his three sons and daughter now seem to be running things. There is no real success nor hope of success in convictiong any of the gang members, and the police investigation is cancelled - not enough time and resources to do everything. But Thorne is determined to get justice for young Jessica, and he and Carol take things into their own hands and the story starts to get stupid - in my opinion.

Switching to Tom Thorne's private life, Hendricks is still sleeping on the couch at Tom's place. DC Holland is not getting enough sleep, but loving fatherhood. Tom's dad Jim who has dementia is still alive and behaving badly but Tom is doing what he can to help Jim cope. But, early in the book, Jim almost burns his house down - he thought he would make chips, lit the gas, but then wandered off and forget. He had a lucky escape on that occasion, but Tom didn't really get round to doing anything to make a repeat impossible - and there is bad news just at the end of the book. But was it another accident, or were the Zarifs getting even with Tom ?

So all in all, I didn't like this story, but we can't expect every book in a series to be a winner. I will read on, and see what happens.






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Lifeless,     (2005)


I read this book in May, 2017.

This is book 5 in the DI Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham, set in London. Mark is a terrific story teller, and this is a cracker - but slightly different in that Tom Thorne goes undercover for all of the book, sleeping rough in London with the drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally disturbed. I am impressed that Mark can write so convincingly on the down and outs in London - he seems to have done his research well.

Tom Thorne is in a bit of a sad state, and he is not acting. He seems to be spiralling downwards. It's some eight weeks after Tom's dad's death, and Tom is depressed - hit by a mix of guilt for not acting sooner and getting his dad into a care home, and the realisation that he will never know if Jim Thorne's death was an accident, or retribution by one of Tom's enemies. Tom returned to work too soon, was not coping, and was put on "gardening leave" - "I don't even have a window box" protests Tom.

There is a serial killer attacking the down and outs on the London streets, and the police have no clues. Somehow Tom persuades Brighouse and Jesmond to let him go undercover secretely and live on the streets. All too soon Tom completely looks and acts the part. He is drinking too much, and in a terrible state. But he makes friends on the streets in two young junkies - Spike and his girlfriend Cath. Tom has few friends on the Force - save for now DS Dave Holland, and the pathologist Hendricks, but Tom finds a cammaradarie on the streets. In their own inadequate way they try to look out for each other. But this is not overdone - there are no heroes here.

There is a strong army connection to the killings, and it's Tom who solves the case in a most unexpected way at the end - just when the case seemed to have gone cold, and the killer escaped.

But in spite of this success, its not clear what the future might hold for Tom Thorne. Is he still on gardening leave ? What sort of job could he possibly fit into ?

Dave Holland's marriage seems to be heading for the rocks. Dave loves his little daughter dearly, but he and his wife seem to be leading separate lives. It doesn't look good. DI Yvonne Kitson is a very able, but under-appreciated member of the team trying to win back repect after an ill considered affair, but can she ever be "one of the boys"?

It will be very interesting to see what happens next for all of them - and this of course is the strength of a series.






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Buried,     (2006)


I read this book in June, 2017.

This is book 6 in Mark Billingham's series featuring DI Tom Thorne and set in London. It is a series by a good story teller that is growing on me. The main character is a troubled policeman with a chip on his shoulder - a great detective who makes mistakes, doesn't know how or when to show respect, and seems to go through life annoying people and making enemies. In spite of all this he does somehow seem to have acquired a good set of friends - DS Dave Holland who saved his life, DI Kitson who made a personal life mistake but is turning into an excellent copper (and alas, under the influence of Tom Thorne, starting to bend the rules), DCI Brigstone, Tom's thoroughly decent boss, and Phil Hendricks, the pathologist. For all of these there are personal stories that we get to follow - Dave's marriage problems, Kitson, a woman in a lad's world, and Phil Hendricks quarrelling with partner Brendhan over whether they should adopt a child.

The story opens with Tom back at work, but desk bound and bored. Brigstone offers Tom a change of scene - they are short staffed on the kidnap section, will he agree to help out. Tom jumps at the chance. He is working with DI Louise Porter, respects her expertise, and slowly Tom and Louise start to hit it off. It's a pity that Tom seems to be having back problems, though. The friendship and the back problem collide at the end of the book, with a pointer to the next instalment - will Tom's back recover, will there be a future romance ?

There are three main stories, and of course they turn out to be related. Luke Mullen, the son of a retired high ranking policeman, has gone missing, but there is no ransom note. Tom is not even sure that it's a kidnapping, and he can't get too excited about the case. He is used to hunting for murderers, but there are no bodies. Well there soon are, and so Tom's old special crimes unit gets involved. And so Holland and Tom are out working on a case again - although Tom and Louise seem to be the main team. Poor Luke is terrified, an intelligent lad held captive by a psychopath. Can he be rescued in time ? The second story is about a paedophile Grant Freestone who has served his time, and is now out of prison. He is accused of killing Sarah Hanley, but protests his innocence. And the third story is about someone who beat up and sodomised a young asian lad - it's Kitson's case, but Dave Holland spots a public schoolboy who matches the assailant's description and tells Kitson. The police had checked with the local state schools, but didn't think to check at the "posh" school.

The main story is Tom and Louise's kidnap case. It gets complicated when the bodies of the murdered kidnappers turn up - but poor Luke is still missing, and then it gets even more complicated. Luke's family is the family from hell. The mum and dad snarl at each other, and we find out why. As usual there is a strong build up to the climax, and then there is a further climax - it seems the story doesn't want to end. Good well written stuff, but I'd have preferred a neater (single) ending.

Finally, although Tom's dad Jim - who suffered from dementia - died in a house fire some while ago, he still turns up in Tom's vivid dreams. Sometimes he is offering advice, and sometimes he is telling terrible dementia jokes ("one benefit of dementia is that you never need to watch a repeat again"), or singing a duet with his friend Victor. The net result is that Tom is getting next to no sleep - but perhaps there is hint at the end that Jim may be departing. I will miss him.

So it's a good story, well told, in a series with strong, interesting characters. What's not to like ?






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Death Message,     (2007)


I read this book in June, 2017.

This is book seven in the DI Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham. It is set in London, and is a really good series.

First let's deal with the plot, and then we will get on to the more interesting back story of what's happening to Tom Thorne and his colleagues. Hopefully you are reading these books in the correct order, and will have already met Akran Zarif (
"The Burning Girl" ) and Stuart Nicklin ("Scaredy Cat" ).

The book opens with Marcus Brooks, in prison, having bad news broken to him by two policeman. He is getting out in 3 weeks and is looking forward to seeing his partner and young son again, but the bad news is that they have been killed in a hit and run. The story is about his seeking revenge for their deaths - and he considers all concerned in their death are equally guilty so he has a long list. There are now a few twists which include drugs smuggling, biker gangs, and two corrupt policemen who had fitted up Marcus - he was a thief, but didn't commit the murder he was sent to prison for. A further twist is that Nicklin was in the same prison as Marcus, and had helped him prepare a list of those Marcus has to get even with. Nicklin also wants to hit back at Tom Thorne, and adds the name of one of Tom Thorne's friends to the list. Just to make it even more interesting Nicklin persuades Marcus to send a picture of each prospective victim to Tom Thorne, sometimes just before, sometimes just after their death. Tom tells Brighouse about the first photo / victim, and so gets the case, but lots of other police departments are involved too. Tom has to hand over his phone to IT, and so has to get a spare. Next Brighouse is under internal investigation, and in this connection Tom's phone, now returned to him, is being monitored. And so the spare comes in handy - it is to this that Marcus is now sending the death photos, and Tom is communicating unofficially with Marcus. Why is Tom risking his career once again - read the book ? It all builds to a terrific climax when Tom has to save his friend - who turns out to be the opposite of grateful. And then there is a second climax when Zarif is mentioned. Quite a few scores are settled, but some will have to wait for future books.

Now to Tom's and the others private lives. Tom and Louise are still seeing each other / sleeping together sometimes at Tom's flat, sometimes at Louise's. Tom's chum Hendricks had split from his partner Brendan because Hendricks wanted to adopt / start a family, but Brendan did not. In a strange echo Louise and Tom find themseles in the same situation. Lousie is amazed to find she wants to become pregnant, and wants to talk about her feelings but Tom is a man, and can't talk about his feelings - his head is too complicated / muddled. He keeps things to himself - always has, always will. It gets to the stage that Tom and Lousie may break up. Louise is asking Tom what he knows are very important questions, but he doesn't know what Louise wants him to say. It's a classic example of the gender gap, and its handled very well here.

Tom is soon in trouble with his concealment of his contacts with Marcus, and Louise and Dave Holland help to rescue him. As suggested in the previous book, Tom's dead father Jim is haunting Tom's dreams less than before - but just at the end Tom finally gets an answer as to whether Jim's death was an accident or murder. Marcus and Tom now have a shared enemy, and Marcus knows how to deal with enemies.

It's a big, complicated story very well plotted and it all fits together nicely. Mark Billingham tells and writes a good story.

Finally, I was surprised that there was no mention of DCI Chamberlain in this book - I thought she was starting to be one of the main characters, but she plays no part in this story.






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Bloodline,     (2009)


I read this book in July, 2017.

This is book eight in Mark Billingham's excellent DI Tom Thorne series. I have been a bit slow to appreciate just what a good series this is. Bloodline is a terrific story with a series of climaxes that are simply stunning. The serial killer Tony Garvey has been following a brilliant plan and has out-thought the police and DI Thorne. Its a well crafted book and it all works perfectly.

We open with a prologue when we first meet Debbie and her brain damaged son Jason. They are on a bridge for Jason to watch the "puff-puffs" but has Debbie come to the end of her tether - is she about to end it all taking poor little Jason with her? How could he manage without her? Next, we discover that there is a serial killer around and soon we find out what his victims have in common. Now we meet Debbie and Jason again - Debbie is one of the potential targets on the serial killer's hit list. The body count rises, two others on the hit list are under police protection, but is this enough to foil a serial killer with a brilliant game plan? And then at the end, we meet Debbie and Jason again, but do they both survive ? Read the book to find out - it comes recommended.

Switching to Tom's private life there are big developments. Tom and Louise are very much still together - in fact Louise is pregnant. Sadly the embryo dies ("is not viable"). Tom always has difficulty explaining how he feels about things, but now both Tom and Lousie in their bereavement have this problem in spades. We also meet ex DCI Carol Chamberlain. She and Tom had been getting on well, but it seemed to have cooled in the previous book. Now we find out why - it was Carol who did the torturing to get crucial information, with Tom watching but not interfering. In turn it was this that lead to Tom's dad's death. But time has passed, Tom calls in Chamberlain again, and she again finds the crucial key to the serial murders. Happily Tom and Hendricks are pals again, DS Holland is a great no 2 to Tom, and DI Kitson is a good friend, and very able detective. Put it all together and its a great team of strong characters headed by the strongest DI Tom Thorne.

I can't really say much more without spoiling a great story. As I said, a real page turner.






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