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by Mark Billingham
Little, Brown, May 2005
384 pages
ISBN: 0316727520

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In his previous four cases, London police detective Tom Thorne has had the very bad luck to be confronted by the most horrific (and inventive) serial murders the city can produce. Now he is very close to being burnt out, pushed to the edge by what he has had to deal with and by his guilt over his father's death in a house fire, a fire that might conceivably have been set as revenge against Thorne himself.

Tom's superiors view him with alarm and recommend he take gardening leave, a peculiar suggestion to a cop who doesn't even have a potted plant to call his own. But a serial killer seems once more to be on the loose in London, this time targeting homeless men, brutally killing them and leaving a twenty pound note pinned contemptuously to their bodies.

The investigation is going nowhere, especially since rumour on the street has it that a policeman is involved. The homeless, never exactly forthcoming, are even less eager to cooperate with the cops than usual. Thorne talks his bosses into letting him go undercover on the streets to see if he can find out what, if anything, connects the victims to one another, thus providing a possible lead to the murderer himself.

What ensues is, to some degree, a double investigation, since Thorne is not only of dubious repute among the brass, but also has to remain effectively outside police circles to maintain his cover. For much of the book, he learns a good deal more about life on the London streets than he does about the identity of the murderer. It is a life he finds, well, congenial is putting it too strongly, but at least more than bearable.

Unlike some policeman, Thorne is oddly tolerant of the excesses and illegal activities of those he meets while sleeping rough and as a result, these characters emerge as real individuals, not sociological clichés. Thorne indeed becomes so involved with a few of them that some of the suspense in the book is generated by the reader's concern about whether Thorne will go back to his ordinary life when the case is solved or simply remain curled up in his favourite doorway off the Strand. In the end, both Thorne's line of inquiry and the official police investigation come together in a climax which is at once horrific and eerily reflective of the present moment.

LIFELESS marks a turn in the development of this series, which had previously remained largely within the primary domain of the serial killer novel, psychopathic psychology. There is a broader social theme here and the turn is a welcome one, as it provides greater opportunities to develop Thorne's character as well as to connect crime to its social context. LIFELESS is very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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