TIME OF DEATH by MARK BILLINGHAM (2015, Sphere, 538pp) ∗∗∗½
Blurb: The Missing: Two schoolgirls are abducted in the small, dying Warwickshire town of Polesford, driving a knife into the heart of the community where police officer Helen Weeks grew up and from which she long ago escaped. But this is a place full of secrets, where dangerous truths lie buried. The Accused: When it’s splashed all over the press that family man Stephen Bates has been arrested, Helen and her partner Tom Thorne head to the flooded town to support Bates’ wife – an old school friend of Helen’s – who is living under siege with two teenage children and convinced of her husband’s innocence.
The Dead: As residents and media bay for Bates’ blood, a decomposing body is found. The police believe they have their murderer in custody, but one man believes otherwise. With a girl still missing, Thorne sets himself on a collision course with local police, townsfolk – and a merciless killer.
This is Billingham’s 13th DI Tom Thorne mystery thriller and the series remains highly readable. As with Thorne’s last outing Billingham has moved away from the formula of the earlier series entries by taking Thorne out of his London setting – this time to the Midlands village of Polesford. The novel is primarily a study of the impact of persecution – in this case the wife of an accused child abductor (whom Thorne believes to be innocent) and the experience she has as a result with the locals the media and the police. The wife is a friend of Thorne’s partner and colleague, Helen Weeks, who has her own reasons for hating the village that used to be her home
The mystery element works less well in that it is reasonably traditional, and therefore familiar, in the presentation of the various suspects and in its race-against-time finale. The result is a detective story that coasts on Billingham’s confident prose and the core stock of regulars – including Thorne’s irreverent and gay pathologist friend, Phil Hendricks. Billingham is keeping the series fresh by changing the settings and introducing thought-provoking themes into his mysteries and as with his other output this entertaining book will appeal to genre fans.