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Death Message - Mark Billingham
Member Name: SWSt
Death Message - Mark Billingham
Advantages: Good characters and fast paced plotting keeps you interested
Disadvantages: Rushed ending, worrying potential character development for Thorne
Death Message is one of the most recent novels featuring Mark Billingham's popular police detective Tom Thorne and sees Thorne dragged into a murder investigation when the murderer starts sending him text pictures of his victims. As the investigation progresses, it becomes clear the murderer is not operating alone, but is being manipulated by a dangerous face from Thorne's past.
At first glance, Death Message is a fairly standard, gritty cop tale; the kind you could buy in bulk in any branch of any bookshop. Thankfully, though, whilst it's not particularly original, it has a couple of aces up its sleeve to help differentiate it at least in part from all the other crime novels that litter our bookshelves: a breakneck pace and the main character.
So let's start with Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. Like the rest of the book, at first glance, he appears to have little to separate him from all other modern fictional policemen. A slight maverick loner who struggles to get on with people and obsesses over his job, there is nothing here we have not seen plenty of times before. Indeed, if anything, he is becoming more clichéd as the novels progress. To try and differentiate "their" character from the mass of other fictional detectives, modern authors have started giving their characters little foibles or personal demons to battle (e.g., drug addiction, alcohol dependency). Up until now, Thorne didn't have any of that - he was just a slightly grumpy, but effective policeman. Yet even that is changing in Death Message, as he appears to be giving him an addiction to online poker games. To my mind, it would be a mistake to go down this path since it could mean that Thorne starts to get lost amongst all the other similarly themed crime books which feature flawed lead characters.
Still, Thorne remains sufficiently different to make him likeable. For a start, he is a grumpy old man and has several rants about modern day annoyances (people who refer to the "7/7 bombings", for example, rather than saying 7 July). Such asides are usually irrelevant to the main plot, but they make Thorne appear more human and add a little bit of humour to the otherwise somewhat grim plot (and also had me nodding in agreement on several points. Clearly I am a Grumpy Old Man too, as Mrs SWSt often points out). It also means that Thorne comes across as a real person, someone who can be incredibly frustrating, highly intelligent, thoughtless (or even deliberately) rude, highly loyal and maddeningly arrogant - sometimes all at the same time! In other words, he's like 99% of the human population - a fact which makes him far more interesting to read about than the artificial characters which often populate the crime novel.
I did feel that Death Message was a slight regression on the previous Thorne books. Some of the themes he constantly reuses are starting to wear a little thin, and enjoyable though Thorne's "grumpy old man" routine may be, you sometimes wonder why someone can't create a policeman who is well adjusted and has a happy family life
The same is true of the other characters. They are neither "perfect" nor "terrible"; each has their strengths and weaknesses whether they are on the right side of the law or not. By now, Billingham has built up a core of regular support characters and it's good to see that these all behave in the same way in this book as they have in previous outings. There is none of the modern literary affliction where characters suddenly completely change the way they behave purely at the whim of the author's latest plot. Staunch, solid, policeman for example, do not suddenly become mass murderers purely to allow a plot twist to occur (something fellow crime writer James Patterson is often guilty of).
Even the "bad guys" are far more nuanced than the type of criminals you normally encounter in this genre. Some are family men who are nevertheless capable of some very nasty actions; others are hardened career criminals, who are capable of surprising acts of kindness. Even the main killer is dares to be different. For once, he's not driven not by "voices" or religious mania or even childhood trauma. He has very emotional reasons for his murder spree and through careful character development, you end up feeling a great deal of sympathy for him.
The other main thing which the book has going for it is that it is ludicrously readable. Billingham clearly knows a thing or two about pacing. He starts the book with a sequence which immediately piques the reader's curiosity and the pace rarely flags from that point onwards. There are regular plot developments (both for the main plot and the sub-plot) which keep your attention, whilst some carefully balanced plot asides help to develop the characters and stop the book from being purely plot driven. The plot proceeds at a cracking pace and with each new plot development, you're hooked all over again, wanting to see the impact this has on the murder investigation. This can make it quite a difficult book to put down; there were several times when I thought "I'll stop at the next chapter", only to still be sitting there several chapters later.
The book's biggest letdown is probably the ending. After a tense, skilfully handled investigation, the ending feels rather rushed. The final denouement, which finally reveals the real power behind the murders, is all wrapped up with almost indecent haste. Less than 20 pages later after the big breakthrough everything is all wrapped up and the book ends. After such a patient, well-paced build-up, this was all rather disappointing and anti-climactic and took some of the gloss off an otherwise very good book.
It's probably a good idea to read these books in order. I've lost track of the number of Inspector Thorne books there have been to date, but each new one does make reference to the previous crimes investigated by the team. It's not absolutely essential (I appear to have missed one out somewhere, because Death Message contained references to a few events I wasn't aware of) and each of the stories does stand on its own. However, you will get the most of the book if you are aware of everything that has happened in the life of Tom Thorne and his colleagues.
If you've read previous Thorne books, then you'll definitely enjoy this one. Billingham takes the characters and style he has used so successfully before and applies it to this latest novel. If you've not read any Thorne books before, I can still recommend it, but you'd be strongly advised to track down the others in the series before tackling this one.
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: Fun, but not essential