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by Mark Billingham
Little, Brown, August 2008
384 pages
14.99 GBP
ISBN: 1408700697

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Helen Weeks is pregnant. Very pregnant. She's stuck in a cramped flat with noisy neighbours and a partner who doesn't seem overjoyed at the thought of the pending arrival. Mind you, that's partly Helen's fault, as she's been playing away from home. Things get even worse though, when a violent death changes her life for ever, and puts her at risk as she tries to find out the truth.

IN THE DARK is a (presumably) standalone outing from the author of the excellent DI Tom Thorne series (Thorne, aka DI Spiky Bugger, makes a cameo appearance in the book).

It's a story that could have been lifted directly from the newspaper headlines – gun crime in London, gang violence and bystanders caught up in what happens. Shots are fired at a car one rainy London night, and it swerves onto the pavement, killing a man at a bus stop. Police assume it's gang warfare. But then people take the law into their own hands and the body count rockets.

Billingham's a first-class story-teller and IN THE DARK counts as a page-turner. But ultimately it just falls short of what the author has achieved in that consistently strong Thorne series.

I remain undecided about Helen. She's a gutsy character who hauls all round London despite the fact the baby is due, putting herself in danger as she tries to unravel what happened that rainy night. But the pregnant woman gimmick feels a bit Fargo – or like the brilliant Comic Strip cop show spoof Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, where every detective cliché was present and correct!

I can't shake off the feeling that the plot would have worked perfectly well without Helen being pregnant. It's OK to show a strong female character without going overboard on private life, and the impending sprog angle just seemed to add one unnecessary layer to an already complex character. Her affair is glossed over far too quickly, though.

The one character I did want to see more of was Theo, the young gang member who has dreams of bettering his life and escaping from the sink estate with his girlfriend and baby son, but who gets caught up in peer pressure and fast-moving violence.

The promised final twist isn't really that dramatic, and Billingham requires you to make a couple of leaps of faith with him and the characters along the way. And if you like your tales tied up at least semi-neatly, you'll twitch at this one – it's the kind of ending where you wonder whether the publisher forgot to print the last few pages.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, August 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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