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Friday, 24 April 2015

FFB - The Burning Girl

This is the fourth in Mark Billingham’s series about his character Detective Inspector Tom Thorne (2004), but it can be read without reference to the earlier novels.  Billingham has picked up a number of awards for his writing.  Since his first book Sleepyhead was published in 2001 he has garnered high praise from critics and readers alike. 

Thorne’s patch is London and it’s obvious that Billingham knows the territory and describes it well. This is the dark side of England's capital city and it’s brimming with nasty characters.  He knows some high-ranking officers on the flying squad and the murder squad who look over his manuscripts for him, so his accuracy on police procedure is good.
Some cases don’t seem to go away, even after eighteen years.  In 1986 Rooker, a particularly unpleasant man, was charged with setting alight a school-girl, Jessica.  She was horribly disfigured and after many painful skin-grafts she committed suicide. It transpired that Rooker had burned the wrong girl, his real target had been the daughter of the local gangland boss, Kelly.  This is no consolation to Jessica’s grieving father.  Yet now, after all this time, Rooker confesses that he didn’t actually commit the crime... Thorne investigates and meets Jessica’s best friend, Alison Kelly, who is still traumatised with guilt. 

Nothing is black and white in Thorne’s world.  As the books progress, we learn more about Thorne – as Billingham has put it, ‘to peel away a different layer with every book.’

Thorne’s also coping with his father suffering from senile dementia – these scenes are quite amusing in a sad funny way and are gently handled by ex-stand-up comedian Billingham.  When we read Jessica’s diary notes, we empathise with the poor brave girl: her character shines out of these few pages, no mean feat for any writer to achieve. 

To complicate matters, two North London organised crime gangs are at war, the Ryans and the Turkish family, Zarif.  There are convoluted connections between the Ryans and the Kelly family.  Memories go back a long way, as do grudges.  Into this simmering mix is dropped a vicious contract killer. 

Thorne doesn’t do a great deal of detecting but by his actions he becomes the catalyst that ignites both sides into murderous retaliation. 

Bruised by the murky world he inhabits, Thorne tries to do the right thing but finds time and again that he must cross his self-imposed line if any kind of justice is to be served.  He is a very human copper and we can believe in him.

Crime fiction remains ever popular and the Thorne novels are certainly worth your attention if you like your crime dark and meaningful.
His twelfth Thorne novel was published in 2014 - The Bones Beneath.

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