Mark Billingham's BLOODLINE

Raymond Garvey killed seven women before he was arrested, condemned and imprisoned. He died of a brain tumor while still in prison. Fifteen years later, someone is killing the children (now young adults) of Garvey’s victims.  The police force, with DI Tom Thorne as lead detective, must help find and protect the next potential targets while trying to identify and catch the killer.

I’ve finally got to the part of my reading pile where Mark Billingham's Bloodline had been waiting since sometime last year --it's the paperback format. The book was actually published in 2009, in the UK and Canada, but will be released in the US this coming July (with a different, gorgeous cover) by the recently launched imprint Mulholland Books

When DI Tom Thorne and his pregnant girlfriend, detective Louise Porter, learn that their unborn child is “not viable” as the doctor puts it, work is the only thing that can keep Thorne’s mind away from a conflicting range of sudden emotions, while giving him a semblance of normalcy. He just wasn’t expecting to get a case that would be far from the usual routine. It will take him instead into the twisted mind of a determined killer who is so confident and in control that he leaves his DNA at each crime scene along with slivers of X-Ray, like pieces of a telltale puzzle.

What makes Billingham's series of crime novels highly entertaining and also very engrossing is the cast of characters. Billingham, a former TV actor, stand-up comedian and scriptwriter in the UK, knows how to create complex characters that are so believable they follow you around if you put the book down, and they stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. From the main protagonists, Thorne and his girlfriend, other coppers and potential victims, to a supporting cast of friends and the serial killer himself, it all looks like a pointillist’s painting: from a distance it is alive and colorful; as you get closer all the rich and expertly drawn details are revealed.   

One of the great things about Mark Billingham (one of my favourite UK authors) is that he actually gets better with each book. Most writers aspire to that but it’s already a challenge just to keep up with constant quality and originality. After writing seven novels in his terrific DI Thorne series, Billingham came out with a standalone book titled In the Dark; simply his best book yet. I don't know if it's because he could finally get away from a certain pressure or restraint of writing about and for his Thorne character, but I felt that Billingham just let loose in this one; he delivered a great piece of crime fiction, one of the best from the UK in the last three or four years. He deservedly received comparisons with George Pelecanos and Richard Price for that one. It might be difficult for him to keep getting better but right now Mark Billingham is sitting right beside the Connellys, Lippmans, Rankins, etc. He’s earned it and I think he’ll stay there for a good while.
Billingham followed In the Dark with Bloodline, a more than satisfying book for the patient readers who like to approach a plot from different angles; the suspense grows slowly and surely towards the last 60 pages where it becomes a heart-pounding race for the killer. Billingham has built a brilliant, intricate plot full of emotionally charged moments: the late into the night talk that Thorne has with Carol Chamberlain, him finally opening up about the loss of the baby, about his fears and uncertainties regarding fatherhood, her telling him about her husband’s rapidly failing health due to cancer and how she welcomes any work that will take her away from a dying man; also, Thorne’s and Porter’s moments at the hospital and at home, how they each personally felt about their loss and their relationship; the breathless moments of Debbie Mitchell and her son Jason both at home and running away, and of course the chase and the investigation bring their own moment of suspense and intensity.

Bloodline is almost perfect.

The only thing that bothered me a little was the killer’s journal. A few segments dispersed throughout the book where we enter his mind. Although they were well written, I didn’t learn much from these nor did it change my perception of the killer nor reinforce the suspense of the story, except when we learn his true identity, right before Thorne and the rest of the police force do. That moment was brilliant and a true surprise. The other journal excerpts only slowed the pace of the story for me, and I found myself reading them quickly. I don’t think Bloodline would have been poorer without these segments. After all, there were only 5 or 6 of them, usually only 2 or 3 pages long, so it’s not much out of a 460-page novel. Aside from that, Billingham had my attention at all times.
DI Thorne is back again in From the Dead, published in August 2010 in the UK where the book has just been put on the long-list for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, an award that Billingham won twice before (in 2005 for Lazybones and two years ago for Death Message). The book is also available in Canada but probably won’t be in the US until next year. In the meantime, if you're not convinced about Mark Billingham (and even if you are) go read this piece called "Why Mark Billingham is a Badass" written by George Pelecanos:

You can also visit Mark Billingham at:

JF (May 2011)
Reviewed from personal copy

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