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by Mark Billingham
Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2021
400 pages
ISBN: 0802158706

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

With his debut crime novel SLEEPYHEAD, Mark Billingham rang a change on the serial killer trope that few who read it will ever forget. Now, twenty years later, he's at it again, this time giving the unreliable- patient narrator in hospital a good shake.

The rabbit hole of the title may owe a lot to Lewis Carroll, but this Alice, Alice Armitage, known as Al, shares little with her namesake. She is confined unwillingly in a locked ward of a community hospital in a north London suburb. She is there following a spectacular breakdown involving drugs, alcohol, and PTSD incurred during her service with the police force. When a fellow patient is murdered, Al is determined to solve the case despite her circumstances and despite the fact that no one, sometimes including herself, credits a word she says.

Al is frustrated at being shut out of the police investigation and humiliated at being treated as a mere witness, and a lunatic one at that. She feels compelled to engage in a by-the-book investigation, though hampered by her own instability (which she is aware of) and the deadening effects of some of her meds. But then, inevitably, another patient is killed and Al herself falls under suspicion, at least in the reader's mind.

All this might sound rather grim in a Snake Pit sort of a way, but remember that Billingham started out as a standup comedian and his books are usually leavened with a welcome helping of mordant humour. Al has a gift for inventing witty nicknames for her fellow patients and the staff and the patients themselves are often, if ruefully, aware of their own absurdities. Nor are there any Nurse Ratcheds holding sway on this psychiatric ward. Even Al, as constrained and disregarded as she may feel, admits that the staff is well-meaning and often kind though overworked.

Throughout it all, the reader will have difficulty deciding whether Al is correct in her conclusions, is simply deluded, or, worst of all, is herself the killer. It is in resolving these possibilities that the book falls suddenly and surprisingly flat. In keeping with the Golden Age locked room mystery from which this derives, everyone is rounded up in one room while the solution is revealed. And worse, the final scene is followed by an epilogue that is even less convincing and set several months later.

All the same, RABBIT HOLE is well worth your time for what it does do and how well it does it. Just be prepared for a bit of a letdown at the end.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been an editor of RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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