Die of Shame | Mark Billingham | 2016 | Little Brown/Atlantic Monthly Press | 448p | Review copy (US edition) | Buy the book
Every Monday evening, five people meet with their therapist Tony in his London house. They couldn’t be more different from one another, coming from all walks of life: a respected anaesthetist, a rich, bored and bitter housewife, a rentboy and gamer, a loner, and the newcomer, a young woman who works in a supermarket. They all share one thing in common, though, and it unites them, even the therapist – they know all about addiction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an addiction to food, alcohol, drugs, gaming, shopping, or more than one of these, but each of these people has had their lives changed by their addiction. It has brought them together into this group. They call themselves a family. But when Tony sets each of them the task of revealing their biggest shame, it turns out that saying too much, knowing too much, can get you killed.
Die of Shame is a standalone crime novel by Mark Billingham and, although it doesn’t feature the ever popular DI Tom Thorne, to my mind it certainly doesn’t suffer from it. This is a fascinating murder mystery in which a member of a small group of people is murdered and it’s pretty clear from the outset that one of the others did it. There are a few other possible suspects, the odd red herring, as we get to know the background of Tony, Chris, Caroline, Diana, Heather and Robin, but the story very much revolves around these six. We also don’t move away too far from a few key locations, such as Tony’s house where the sessions take place and the pub where the five ‘patients’ meet afterwards to unwind and dissect the last meeting – all to non-alcoholic drinks, of course.
The big exception is DI Nicola Tanner, the officer in charge of the case, who is quite a character in her own right. A fascinating character, possibly my favourite of the book. She’s not likeable, she has no need to be, but she is increasingly intriguing as we learn more about the way she lives her life and her painful efforts to control it. There’s a strong sense here that we’re one step ahead of Tanner. Tanner isn’t allowed into the sessions as we are, she has to pick up the pieces afterwards.
Die of Shame is a tightly structured mystery that moves between the ‘Then’ and the ‘Now’, not using chapter breaks, just splitting the story between the past and the present. Tony is constantly trying to impress on his group the need to understand the significance of ‘Here and Now’. This process of moving towards self-awareness is very much evident in the structure of the book and its plot.
I found Die of Shame so difficult to put down. As each member of the group reveals more about themselves, the tension and unease, not to mention the violence, grows. There are secrets everywhere here, whether inside a house or within the mind, and they’re being forced out, slowly extracted, as Tanner waits to catch the fallout. The novel also presents a sensitive look at the cause and effect of addiction, a powerful hungry force that does not discriminate, leaving its victims altered, damaged, vulnerable. Above all, this is a great mystery and I couldn’t wait to discover the solution. When it came, it did not disappoint.
Time of Death