Bloodline Mark Billingham 352 pp. Mulholland. $24.99 Pub. Date: 7/14/2011
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
Publisher Blurb:A killer is on the loose. The victims: children whose mothers can't protect them.
The past is coming back to haunt the people of London: a murderer is targeting the children of victims of Raymond Garvey, an infamous serial killer from London's past.
When Murder Squad veteran Detective Tom Thorne, who solves the London Police Department's most difficult cases, is called into what seems like, for once, an ordinary domestic murder, he thinks he's caught a break. A woman has been murdered by someone she knows. A positive pregnancy test found on the floor beside her. Thorne plans to question the husband, arrest him and return home to deal with his own deteriorating personal life.
But when a mysterious sliver of bloodstained X-ray that was found clutched in the victim's fist is replicated at other crime scenes around the city, Thorne realizes that this is not a simple case. As the bits of X-ray begin to come together to form a picture, it becomes clear that the killer knows his prey all too well and is moving through a list that was started long ago.
As Thorne attempts to protect those still alive, nothing and nobody are what they seem. Not when Thorne is dealing with one of the most twisted killers he has ever hunted.
Kudos to Mulholland Books for providing a home for crime fiction and championing under-appreciated wordsmiths like Duane Swierczynski, Charlie Huston, and Mark Billingham, among others. The crime genre looks to be in capable hands with Mulholland as they introduce these writers to a slew of fresh virgin eyeballs, bringing police procedurals and serial killers into Grandma's living room. Good plan. Because few things are as fascinating as serial killers.
Call it part morbid fascination, part wish fulfillment, but audiences love their killers unhinged. The more unhinged the better. Throw in some cannibalism, win an Academy Award for Best Picture (like Silence of the Lambs in 1991). A currently hot trend is the serial killer as anti-hero, popularized by Dexter from both the books and Showtime series. Audiences relate to these anti-heroes, understanding why these killers do the things they do. They make sense; real-world killers don't. Logic doesn't work with violent sociopaths. It is the mystery of the human psyche that makes real serial killers interesting, our fascination rising from our inability to understand them. They are the unknown. The embodiment of random violence. Human sharks.
The downside: serial killers are like vampires in the urban fantasy genre. Ubiquitous. And played out. Novels typically focus on the cat and mouse game between the killer and the police. Police get close, killer thwarts them. Rinse. Repeat. Killers are usually highly-functional and intelligent; the stupid ones would get caught on the first page. The smarter-than-thou type killer is a literary creation, a character that actively outsmarts the police. Real killers use their anonymity as a shield, cloaking them from detection.
The serial killer in Mark Billingham's Bloodline is mainly the smarter-than-thou type, consistently outmaneuvering the police detectives in a way that would make Machiavelli beam. Billingham elevates the novel above the standard fare with two wise decisions, one is that he creates a richly-detailed and complex lead detective in Tom Thorne, and the second is a nifty bit of misdirection late in the novel. Billingham challenges himself in Bloodlines. This isn't a writer going through the motions, writing the standard crime novel. Instead, he pushes at the story's framework, occasionally exploring an atypical choice. This is a writer who is trying to put his own unique twist on the material. Which is commendable, because it shows a respect for his audience.
The police procedure feels accurate and realistic. Billingham does a nice job guiding the reader through the process, keeping it real without inundating you with the minutia of the investigation. Most police procedurals bore me, because they can be redundant. But not Bloodline. Chalk that up to Billingham's assured writing. The language of the novel is heavily influenced by the British idiom, so for a patsy-faced American like me it reads decidedly British. (Luckily, I have a British-to-Ungrateful-Colonist translator).
Lead detectives can often be flat, but Billingham introduces a subplot into Thorne's personal life that really opens up the character. Thorne isn't an all-work-no-home-life type of detective. He has to balance one of the biggest cases of his life with one of his greatest personal struggles. It makes him human. And a character the reader can clearly connect with. The minor characters—while not complex—don't resemble cliches. They are well-developed with Billingham giving each one of them their own quirks, which make them feel not just unique, but real. Characterization this strong is a rarity in the genre.
Billingham has crafted an intelligent and nicely written thriller, one that's guaranteed to provide the reader with a few cool surprises. The material in Bloodline might seem formulaic, but Billingham does enough of the little things right to make the novel worth the time.