Time of Death | Mark Billingham | 2015, Pb 2016 | Little, Brown | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
Detectives Tom Thorne and Helen Weeks are on holiday in the Cotswolds, more than ready for a good break and enjoying the chance to learn to know each other even more deeply, away from the stresses of the busy London incident room. But their peace is shattered when they learn that two girls have been abducted in the Warwickshire village of Polesford and a local man has been arrested, refusing to reveal their whereabouts. The man is Stephen Bates and his wife Linda is an old school friend of Helen’s. Helen might not have seen Linda for years but she knows she must go to her. And so begins Tom Thorne’s busman’s holiday. Concerned to provide Helen with all the support she needs, Tom does his best to keep himself occupied while Helen sits with Linda and her two teenage children and that means poking his nose in where it’s not wanted. It’s not too long before he’s managed to irritate the officers in charge of the case but by then matters have taken a turn for the worse – a body is found.
Time of Death is the first Mark Billingham novel I’ve read but it’s a story that works well on its own. Thorne is on unknown turf, he’s not even suppose to be involved in the case, and it’s Helen who initially seems to play a more prominent role as she comforts her old friend and tries to help the two troubled children. But Tom can’t help himself and, as he passes the time scrutinising the villagers, wheedling out their secrets, his years of experience tells him that something is wrong. Later in the book Tom’s joined by old friend and pathologist Hendricks whose charismatic presence, it must be said, lifts the novel up a notch.
The investigation into the abduction of the missing girls is a fascinating story which contains its fair share of surprises, made all the more shocking by the fact that we witness events through the eyes of outsiders Thorne and Weeks. The impact of such a crime on a small, close community is keenly felt. So, too, is its impact on Linda’s family. Linda and her children are put through hell on earth and it’s this which takes the novel into more unusual territory. Tom wonders why Helen should want to care for Linda when neither has made any attempt to keep touch over the years. This is a question that bothers us as well and, as the truth is revealed, we are rewarded with a novel that isn’t just an exciting crime puzzle but also a complex and sensitive investigation into some very dark places.
While I enjoyed Time of Death very much, I suspect that I would have liked it even more if I had read it with a knowledge of this well-established series to back it up (this is the thirteenth outing for Thorne). There are strong hints of a recent case that caused Tom Thorne (and Hendricks) enormous grief and it is clear that this ‘holiday’ is overdue and much needed. I liked what I discovered of his character and I particularly liked his relationship with Helen, the delicate dance that both perform as they try to do their best for others and themselves, and with Hendricks. The novel is very well-written and the mystery thoroughly satisfying – I didn’t guess what would happen and that’s always a bonus. It’s always good news to discover a new author and I will be following this series for sure as it continues.