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Review: Death Message

DEATH MESSAGE. By Mark Billingham, Brown, €15.00.
Published September 9th, 2007, The Sunday Business Post. Review by Alex Meehan

When it comes to creating fictional detectives, there are some basic rules of thumb that the majority of authors adhere to. Generally, fictional crime fighters should be middle-aged and, thanks to their love of coffee and junk food, a bit on the porky side.

They should have difficulty dealing with authority figures, and should always be prepared to go their own way when it comes to investigating crime, even if it means bending the rules to breaking point.

Finally – and this is imperative – they should find it virtually impossible to sustain a successful relationship due to their workaholic tendencies and the fact that underneath all their macho bravado, they are essentially tortured souls.

It’s a tried and tested formula that has worked brilliantly for authors like Ian Rankin (John Rebus) and Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), and now English author Mark Billingham is staking his claim with Tom Thorne. Death Message is Billingham’s seventh Thorne novel; the first, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001.

It can take quite some time for a crime author to build up a large fan base – this is one of the most saturated of all literary genres — but the payback is that when they do, these new fans will generally buy up their entire back catalogue. On the basis of Death Message, there are some few readers who will probably do just that, although others may still require some persuading.

Billingham has taken the title of his book from the term used by police who have to break the news to families that a loved one has been killed, and the novel opens with three policemen doing just that to Marcus Brooks, a convicted killer who is two weeks away from being released from jail.

Fast forward a few weeks and Tom Thorne receives a message on his mobile phone containing a photograph of a recently murdered man. Another photo follows shortly afterwards, but it’s with the third message – video footage of an as yet unharmed fellow cop – that the plot really picks up pace and Thorne finds himself drawn into Marcus Brooks’ unrelenting but meticulously planned quest for revenge.

Brooks is easily the book’s most interesting character and through him Billingham provides great insight into the mind of a man for whom the loss of his partner and son has proved unbearable.

Unable to sleep for longer than two or three hours each night – and then only in ten to fifteen minute bursts – Brooks spends his nights walking the streets of London, taking comfort from the simple mundanity of putting one foot in front of the other.

In a series of letters to his dead partner Angie, he recounts tales of his new life, interspersed with reminiscences about their time together and his current mission to avenge her death. In time Brooks takes Thorne increasingly into his confidence, eventually claiming that he was framed for his original crime by a fellow copper.

There’s no doubt that Mark Billingham has produced a well-paced, exciting crime novel with plenty of twists, but with the exception of Brooks many of his characters are unsympathetic and uninteresting. In particular Thorne’s girlfriend Louise is difficult to warm to, while his best friend Phil Hendricks, a gay pathologist, doesn’t really feature enough for us to us to get to know him very well.

In Tom Thorne, Billingham has the makings of a great crime detective, but he will need to pay more attention to character development before he joins the ranks of Rebus and Dexter. However there’s certainly enough merit in Death Message to suggest that it may not be too long before he does so.

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