Newcomer Billingham debuts with a rote but easily digestible thriller, a British serial-killer tale that, we’re told, is already an international bestseller.
Charlie is a combination of Jack the Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer: he’s got some pretty sophisticated medical know-how and he’s out to create zombies not for sex but for some whacked-out notion that he’s saving people. The curtain rises on his first successful execution of a difficult procedure: drugging his victims (the easy part), and then kind of massaging/suffocating them until the arteries to their brains split and produce a stroke that leaves them completely paralyzed, which is what has happened to Alison Willetts, Charlie’s first success after several botches and a wake of bodies. Detective Tom Thorne understands Charlie completely. Thorne is your average tough DI with a habit of drinking and a history that needs redeeming. And it’s not long before he’s all over Charlie. The killer is obviously a doctor, and Thorne’s got one in mind, the oh-so-teasingly named Jeremy Bishop. Bishop is a smarmy whinger, and he’s an ex-fling of Thorne’s new fling Anne, who cares for Alison now that she’s an invalid. So Thorne’s suspect is also his romantic rival. And, as it happens, Bishop was Thorne’s anesthesia man for a hernia operation a few years back, and of course the killer has been sending Thorne smarmy, whinging notes. But the mystery won’t be solved unless Alison—whose point of view we occasionally enter; don’t worry, she’s in pretty good spirits considering her life is now worse than death—regains motor control over one of her eyelids and reveals the killer in what’s bound to be a Helen Keller–esque scene. Billingham’s prose is lively but takes no risks, and why should it with a tried-and-true formula?
Thorne doesn’t come close to, say, Helen Mirren’s DI Tennison, but there’s more than one wanker and plenty of bollocks to go around.