Sunday, July 02, 2006

BURIED By Mark Billingham

Little Brown, May 2006, ISBN:0316730505, £12.99

Mark Billingham is probably the best mainstream writer the UK Crime Scene has to offer. Straddling with ease the line between bestselling thriller and darker, edgier material, Billingham has been high on my list since The Burning Girl took everything we thought we knew about the world of DI Tom Thorne and turned it on its head.

More than most, Billingham understands that a great novel is all about character and Buried continues the trend of giving us not simply a staggeringly well plotted, darkly cynical police procedural but a cast that resonates with the reader and a protagonist who grows and changes over the course of the novel.

As the Thorne cycle continues, Billingham's writing has become more confident, moving beyond the slightly familiar templates that made up the first three books. While these seemed typically British (London, serial killers, police protagonists) they made up for this with a well rounded central character in Thorne, whose grumpy demeanour and love of Johnny Cash (as well as his brief flirtation with a more Techno sound in the first novel: a musical flirtation that Thorne, perhaps along with Billingham, seemed quick to dismiss) made for an engaging and always interesting protaginist. But now the plots have swiftly moved beyond the typical, and the territory Billingham has explored in the past three Thorne novels have moved away from conventions and begun to take on a life of their own, becoming as intriguing as the protagonist Billingham uses to explore these twisted events.

With The Burning Girl, the first sign of Billingham's maturity as a story teller - and his desire to take real risks, especially with the ending of the book - came through. It was a promise he built upon in Lifeless and continues with Buried. There is a real feeling that events could take a turn for the worse at any moment and there is every possibility that our heroes could fail. It is this sense of urgency that marks Billingham out above many other writers. Indeed, even the smallest things are beginning to have consequences for our hero and that sense that any detail could be more important than you realise is played to the full here.

The saga of Thorne's father that took on true significance in The Burning Girl has not only tested Thorne's resolve but revealed a side of the detective that feels truly vulnerable without ever turning to schmaltz. In Buried, this recent loss is still playing on Thorne in ways that make the reader worry for the DI, personally and professionally. Its far from soap opera - everything in this novel feels connected - but by gently allowing Thorne's personal life to develop alongside his professional, Billingham has created a series character worth following.

It would be remiss, of course, not to mention Buried's twisted plot which plays not only on parental fears (the kidnapped son) but also secrets long held, power and control and, of course, the perrenial favourite of all crime fiction: guilt. While the British crime scene is over crowded with procedurals and series, Billingham stands out from the crowd not simply because of his powerful writing but also because he is unafraid to approach his subjects head on and to allow his characters to truly face the possibility of failure.

If you've already read Billingham, you'll want to pick up Buried before even reading this review. And if you haven't, then I recommend you head out to the bookshop and pick up a copy right now.

Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, June 2006