Time of Death (Tom Thorne 13) by Mark Billingham

Nothing new under the sun…

🙂 🙂 😐

time of deathTwo schoolgirls have been abducted in the small town of Polesford, where Helen Weeks grew up. Helen and her partner DI Tom Thorne are on holiday when the news reports that a man has been arrested for the crimes, although no bodies have been found. When Helen realises that the man is the husband of an old friend of hers, she insists on going to Polesford to offer support. At first reluctant, Thorne soon finds himself interested in the investigation and at odds with the local police.

I read the first few books in the Tom Thorne series but lost touch with the series several years ago. While there is clearly a running story arc over Tom’s relationship with Helen, this book works perfectly well as a standalone. Past cases are referred to but not in a way that affects the understanding of the plot of this book.

My first impressions were pretty favourable – the serial killer storyline is increasingly hackneyed but Billingham tells the story well, and I initially liked the characters of both Tom and Helen. Although I picked up along the way that their partnership is fairly new, it was refreshing to have the detective in a seemingly stable, loving relationship. Thorne has some baggage from past cases, but is a functional detective, well able to handle the pressures of the job, and oh joy! He doesn’t have a drink problem! In fact, early on in the book Billingham has a sly dig at the cliché of the angst-ridden drunken maverick of current crime fiction.

Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham

There’s nothing terribly original in the storyline, and it’s pretty slow in places with a good deal of repetition. However Billingham keeps the tension flowing for the most part by skilfully casting suspicion on most of the male characters in turn. It’s interesting to see the story from the perspective of the family of the accused, although they’re all so unlikeable I couldn’t develop much sympathy for them. And it all leads up in the end to the usual thriller ending.

Overall, for the quality of the writing and storytelling I’d have rated this quite highly but for two things. The first is the ridiculous amount of unnecessary bad language, which is constant all the way through. Most of it is fairly low-level, simply a sign of a lack of imagination and facility in the author’s use of vocabulary, but some of it is pretty strong. And of course it adds nothing to the story.

Mild spoiler alert!
(You might want to skip the next paragraph if you’re planning on reading the book.)

But the thing that annoyed me more, especially after Billingham mocking the maverick cop cliché himself, was that Helen and Tom suddenly turned into violent criminals halfway through – beating up a teenager in front of his friends (who fortunately seemed to be the only teenagers in Britain without smartphones to film it on) for the heinous crime of spitting, with no repercussions. (Did I mention Helen’s job is to deal with child victims – good grief!) From that point on, the book lost any credibility and the characters lost any appeal for me. If every fictional police officer must be a violent criminal, the least authors could do is try to make it believable. (Hint for all the brutal and corrupt fictional police officers out there – take your victim up a dark alley, alone, and check there are no CCTV cameras around. It’s hardly rocket science…)

(End of spoiler)

To sum up, a standard serial killer police procedural, quite well-written, slow in places, with lots of swearing, a bit of angst, the obligatory child abuse angle, and some gratuitous and silly police brutality. Same old, same old…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

Book 8
Book 8

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

47 thoughts on “Time of Death (Tom Thorne 13) by Mark Billingham

  1. Potentially interesting POV that I have never come across yet: “written in the perspective of the family of the accused.” But it all comes down to the writing and I sense this did not ‘really live up to your expectations’ with regard to creativity. Thanks for the balanced review!

  2. That is a really interesting idea, to write from the point of view of the accused’s family. That, at least, adds a little innovation. Still, I honestly think I’ll give this a miss. I, too, appreciate a detective who’s not the stereotypical drunken, demon-haunted sort. But I”m a bit over the serial-killer plot line, at least for now, and this one doesn’t seem to add a whole lot of innovation. Thanks for your thoughtful, candid review.

    • Yes, the point of view was intriguing and probably the best aspect of the book for me. But the rest really had nothing much new to add to the whole serial killer thing. Like you, I feel I’ve read enough serial killer books now – unless everything else about the book is so good it makes up for that strand.

  3. I like the idea of viewing the story from the perspective of the accused’d family, that does sound quite novel. In this type of book I can accept some bad language in the name of ‘realism’ but there is never any excuse for gratuitous use, I think. It’s personal taste, I suppose, but I don’t really like it. Had to laugh at our heroes randomly beating up some spitting teenagers – that is probably every cop’s dream at least once in their career but you’d never, ever get away with it!

    • Yes, that was the thing I liked most and what attracted me to the book really. I don’t mind the odd bit of bad language too, but when it just goes on and on I find myself screaming at the author to use a bit of imagination! Haha! I know! When I worked at the school we regularly wanted to beat the boys to a pulp for spitting at us – it’s worse than being punched somehow. But we managed to restrain ourselves… In this one, they reacted as if no kid had ever spat at them before – and the male detective justified the beating with a ‘he deserved it’. Uh-huh! Try that one on in court!

  4. *laughs* There’s nothing wrong with a beating! I’m sure they were just being warriors and being mildly spicy. But it does call into question the child victim thingy.

    So, what happens to the schoolgirls? Did they fight back and win?

    I wonder what he’s leaning on.

    • Tut! You can’t go around beating up teenagers! Sadly. It does indeed – were they victims of her, I wonder?

      *laughs* Yes, they stabbed them with their mascara brushes and beat them with their pork-pie hats. It was brutal!

      The head of a leprechaun?

      • Well sometimes they deserve it! They’re so hard to talk to, don’t you know. Probably were. In fact, I bet on it!

        A mascara brush doesn’t sound fierce, or big either! A throat strike is all it takes, you know, you know.

        *laughing lots* That’s it! I imagine the leprechaun is very cranky, though.

        • *tries hard not to laugh* Poor old Professor! Young things can be difficult for the elderly to understand, true enough! Fortunately, being only 21, I can still get down wiv da kids when necessary.

          I bet Amelia’s mascara brush is HUGE!!! Girls don’t do throat strikes! Not subtle enough…

          *laughs too* Rightly so, I feel!

          • *laughs* You’ll have to teach me all the secrets soon, ’cause I fear my reputation might be suffering from it, don’t you know.

            Well, I’m not sure what a mascara brush is, but if you say so, you must be right. Girls should! It’s a good tactic. I do them.

            Which means, the leprechaun will be taking him over the rainbow, soon…

            • *laughs too* OK the first step is to learn to dance…

              *nods* Always right! Well, but, see, if I ever need to attack someone, I’d just ask you to do it for me…

              We can but hope, but it seems a little unfair on Dorothy!

            • Really? Can’t there be an easier step? I don’t know any dancing teachers, either.

              Me? And the first thing I’d do: neck strike. They’re glorious. ‘Cause all sorts of gurgling.

              Well, bad things happen when one gets taken over the rainbow.

            • No, I’m afraid not! I’ll teach you, don’t worry – you should see my hip-hop!

              Of course you! Why know a warrior and not use him? But that souns awfully vicious…

              They do? Tell me more…

            • Hip-hop! I’m strangely fascinated, the sudden. What’s it like?

              Oh, you know you’d do it, too! Hector would just use a sword, or something.

              Well, Leprechauns aren’t nice. They’re like…why, they’re like gnomes, don’t you know.

            • *laughing* They’re not pants! It looks like a skirt/pants mixture! Wasn’t the dancing odd?

              Well, I suppose that’s true. But swords! Don’t you have a bit of a hankering for one?

              You told me that yourself, didn’t you?!

            • *laughs too* Cool, eh? It looked as though having long dreads was a fairly essential part of the whole thing… let’s stick to the cotillion, eh?

              Yes, I do – but I fear I probably shouldn’t be trusted with such a thing…

              Yes! But you didn’t have to agree! *frowns gnomishly*

            • Well, I don’t know! With the cotillion, one has to wear weird Darby pants and then go in circles all the time.

              You know, that’s a very good point. I’ll make sure you only get pocket knives or something.

              *laughs* I’m not sure what to do now…

            • But you’d look so gorgeus in Darby clothes! And mostly it’s just walking about a bit, which is one of your major skills!

              Hmm… pockets would ruin the look of my ballgown…

              *preens* I’d say I won then!

            • Walking is one of my skills? Now how do you figure? But I’d be so…stiff in that clothing! And ridiculous looking!

              You mean ballgowns don’t have pockets? *laughs* That’s hilarious.

              Yes! Definitely.

  5. I’m sorry that you were disappointed. Alas! There isn’t much new under the sun where sleuthing is concerned, so the writers must have an unforgettable distinction.

  6. Great review. I find it very difficult to enjoy a book if the main characters are essentially unlikable. They can be violent and even quite horrible, as long as the writer can show me they have some good in them, no matter how deeply hidden – a bit like Thomas Harris Hannibal Lector and Shirley Jackson’s Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in The Castle. In real life i wouldn’t want to know them, of course, but in fiction, i can be very forgiving. However, I couldn’t forgive characters, who are supposed to on the side of the good who violently attack a teenager for doing nothing more than spitting. This is plain silly and simply incredulous. So, like Margot, I think i will pass on this one this time. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Marianne, and welcome to the blog! 🙂 Yes, I agree – if a ‘bad’ character is interesting or likeable, I can enjoy them even if I wouldn’t want to spend much time in thier company in real life. Merricat’s a brilliant example! Loved that book so much. And recently Mr Heming from A Pleasure and a Calling is a truly creepy character, but the humour in the book made him a lot of fun. Unfortunately this one was just the usual maverick cop with personal problems – and ridiculous that they would do it in front of witnesses! Oh well…

      Do you blog, by the way? I couldn’t find a link for you…

  7. Another one that doesn’t sound like anything I’d care to read, FF. So naturally, I read the spoiler, too, which only confirmed my initial reaction! Too much “realism,” when other words would serve the purpose better, is lazy writing — there, I said it!

    • I’m going through a real bad patch with crime novels at the moment, but never mind – the fiction stuff is looking better! Yes, yes, yes! I agree totally – lazy! The older writers managed to tell strong stories with real villains without loads of bad language. Mind you, in this one it was the good guys who had the foullest mouths… 😉

  8. Marvellous. A TBR completely free zone. Now i might have time for the 3 books I ordered which will arrive any day soon which I wanted to read after reading and reviewing the next post scheduled on my blog. You knew anyway that the words serial followed by the word killer would leave my TBR beautifully safe. Now, had it said cereal killer I’d be rooting for Sugar Puffs as the perp. Or perhaps Coco Pops. And wouldn’t Coco Pops be a wonderful name for a 1920’s musical comedy character?

    What do you mean, no?

    Okay, I’m charlestoning out of here……………

    • Haha! It’s Weetabix I’m scared of – I hear he shredded Wheat! Sugar Puffs is innocent! Way too sweet to be a killer! I suppose I oughta muesli on down to the corral now…

  9. Unforunately, I guess, any time that I see that a novel is about a serial killer, I know I will not read it. We know that serial killers exist. But they seem to be about 80% of the guilty populace in mystery stories now. Serial killers are either unnervingly psychotic, or repulsively sadistic and sociopathic; neither sort interests me as a subject for fiction. But I know that these stories are quite popular. I think they are an easy excuse for not having to think of and develop a real mystery, with interesting or complex motives; and a detective who has to figure out why as well as how, and must look at the psychology of the case for his answers.

    In addition to the classic mystery writers, I like some of the “hardboiled” writers, too; the ones who write well and invent webs to untangle. But these serial killer ones take away the why (the killer is deranged), most of the how (no Gideon Fell locked room cases!); and thus leave the mystery reader with only the matter of the detective unearthing and confronting him (it is 99.5% a him in these cases; no women suspects to even bother with). So I would not want to read them for “mystery elements,” which only leaves the possibility of exceedingly rare great naturalistic writing, which will of course be grim and depressing. It is a shame that not many writers have the imagination to write a really interesting crime puzzle. My two favorite mystery writers are Agatha Christie, who of course wrote the cleverest mysteries and often with acute psychological insight; and Ross MacDonald, who was a wonderful writer with a realistic tone, and yet created very compelling and even byzantine psychological mysteries.

    • I know – I do tend to agree with you about serial killers. It was OK when it was ‘new’ but it’s all been done a thousand times now. And in this one, he didn’t even really go into the motivations or make any real attempt to bring anything new to the table. But I’m struggling to find many decent crime current crime writers, so I keep trying…

      Agatha Christie definitely, for me. And I do enjoy some of the historical crime series – at least then there’s an interesting setting even if the plots are recycled. CJ Sansom is brilliant, and I’ll be reviewing a book from a Scottish author soon whose series I’ve very much enjoyed. And there are a few current authors I enjoy – Jane Casey, Belinda Bauer and Sharon Bolton – mainly because they are actually good writers, so the quality of the writing makes up for any other issues usually. And of course my old favourites Ian Rankin and Reginald Hill… I’m very British-centric when it comes to crime fiction – don’t know why really, I just always feel more in tune with them somehow.

      • You will be happy to know that the “On Beulah Height,” the Reginald Hill novel that I ordered, has arrived; and just now, “I Am Legend,” by Matheson, which of course is not a mystery, but which I ordered along with the Hill novel, so I am putting them in the same paragraph. I will read Matheson’s book first, and then Hill’s; and then if I like it, I will ask you to suggest another one by him. 🙂 And for my part, if you have somehow not read all of the Ross MacDonald mysteries from, say, 1959 on, I can virtually guarantee that you will like them. Maybe skip ‘The Galton Case,” which is perhaps not up to the level of the others, which are brilliant.

        • Oh, I hope you enjoy them both… but I’ll settle for one! If you like the Hill then I can recommend about another thirty or so – that should keep you busy! I’m planning on reviewing another must-read tomorrow as well – though you may already have read it. Well, it’s lucky you said that because, after you recommending Ross MacDonald before, I picked one at random for the wishlist, and it happened to be ‘The Galton Case’ – I shall hurriedly change it for another! But I’m so backed up with review stuff at the moment I have no idea when I’ll get to it – must get control of my TBR!

      • Assuming you have not read them, I would recommend, “The Chill,” :”The Underground Man,’ “The Zebra-Striped Hearse” (perhaps my favorite), :The Ivory Grin,’ :Sleeping Beauty.” “The Instant Enemy.” Just amazingly good mystery fiction. And while I can well imagine that you have an imimense amount of books to be read, these stories read so quickly, and are so engrossing, that any of them will be a nice respite.

  10. I never got in to these. I’ve come to the saddening conclusion that I don’t really like modern crime novels – too old, I suppose. I need the heroes to be goodies, and the baddies to be the criminals.

    • I don’t think it’s just us – I reckon we’re part of the Silent Majority (been reading too much Nixon!). I get zillions of comments on Amazon from people saying thanks for warning me, whenever I comment on maverick cops or excessive swearing, violence etc. But people who don’t like these things don’t read the books so don’t leave reviews – so it looks like everyone loves them. On the whole it seems most reviewers choose only to write positive reviews – skews the market, I suspect.

  11. My father always looked down on people who swore excessively, saying they were to be pitied because of their limited vocabularies. I probably won’t read this, but enjoyed your review.

    • I totally agree with him – it’s laziness. The great authors of the past managed to write novels with realistic characters without having them swear all the time. I just find it tedious…

    • See, I think more and more people are going back to the classics exactly because so many modern crime books aren’t nearly as entertaining! But I’m reading one at the moment which is looking good… so far…

  12. Oh dear – I don’t mind bad language in books but that sounds very lacking in imagination. I wonder why his editor didn’t pick it up. A good and fair review, though!

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