Read: July 2019
Author: Mark Billingham
Genre: Mystery / Suspense
Pages: 320 (hardcover)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
“His first three victims ended up dead. His fourth was not so fortunate…
“Alison Willetts is unlucky to be alive. She has survived a stroke, deliberately induced by a skillful manipulation of pressure points on the head and neck. She can see, hear and feel, and is aware of everything going on around her, but is completely unable to move or communicate. Her condition is called Locked-In Syndrome. In leaving Alison Willetts alive, the police believe the killer made his first mistake.
“Then D.I. Tom Thorne discovers the horrifying truth: it isn’t Alison who is the mistake, it’s the three women already dead.
“Thorne must find a man whose agenda is terrifying unique, and Alison, the one person who holds the key to the killer’s identity, is unable to speak…”
As many of you know, I’ve been searching for another mystery/crime novel that rivals Stieg Larsson sagas. When I was in Scotland, I saw a billboard for Mark Billingham and his newest release, but decided I needed to start at the beginning of the Tom Thorne series and dragged the lovely ladies along with me.
I have to say Billingham was able to capture the dogged tenacity of an obsessed detective. Tom Thorne is a veteran detective in London. As with any good detective, he has his demons he must face. His broken marriage, a strained relationship with his father and cases haunt him. Thorne does not allow his demons to overpower his reason and behavior, or possibly he does. He is constantly hearing the dead victim’s voices demanding justice. Whether it is his conscious that is dogging him or his potential mental disorder, there is more internal pressure to solve the case than external.
On one level, it’s great that Thorne is that determined and undeterred by his circumstances.
However, more telling is that Billingham was able to capture the single-mindedness that marks so many detectives who often get it wrong. I will not say whether Thorne is right or wrong in his hypothesis. However, I will say that narrow focus often leads to stagnation and potential incorrect assumptions that has led to too many people being incorrectly incarcerated (think Central Park 5, Timothy Masters, etc.). I will neither confirm nor deny if Thorne does this, but the hazard is present. Thorne is not above using unconventional methods to attempt to capture the culprit; that too, can cause some moral conundrums that may be considered unethical and entrapment if things work out the way he wishes them to.
The villain of this novel is diabolical and sufficiently creepy. Honestly, it is very rare that I don’t correctly guess who the culprit is well before the end of the novel. Billingham did have me contemplating the accuracy of my intuition and that of Thorne. The villain spends so much time obsessing over Thorne, the question is which is more important to him, tormenting Thorne or achieving his criminal enterprise. The crazy risks that the villain took will put a reader on edge, hoping that the culprit gets caught or that your favorites will not be meet a horrible fate at the hands of the serial killer. What is truly sinister is that the deaths previously caused by the killer were “failed” procedures. Seriously? How morbid is that? He is intentionally attempting to trap someone with full mental capabilities in their body. Granted his methodology does make a girl curious if we can make this happen to the people who cause me stress or are just oxygen thieves to begin with. However, I am not such a narcissist, megalomaniac or sociopath for that matter, to actively pursue deciding about someone else’s life to make them an invalid.
This leads us to Alison Willetts. While we are trapped in her head with her, she is still clever, determined and, at times, very funny. I felt for her immediately. How horrible to first believe that you were targeted for death, then to find that her state of extreme paralysis. With the help of her doctor, Dr. Ann Coburn, Alison finds a way to communicate and fights to help the investigation despite being completely helpless. In the end, I felt for her the same as I felt for Will Traynor in Me Before You. As a spectator, I was hoping against hope that Alison would rise above her condition. In the end, I respected her actions or decisions on how she would deal with the situation, taking back her own power to make any decisions for herself.
Dr. Coburn is a decent supporting character, even if she is a bit needy to me. She is clever enough to figure out a way to help Alison communicate. Dr. Coburn is in the middle of a nasty divorce and you feel for her. However, I wasn’t all that enthused by the relationship between her and Thorne. It felt a bit forced. Yes, they are both lonely. Yes, they both could use a healthy distraction from their difficult lives. I can’t put my finger on it, but I wasn’t a fan of the relationship, even though it is apparent the relationship is necessary to move the story along in certain respects. The relationship ties circumstances and relationships together, otherwise, it was undesirable for me.
Detective Holland is one of the more reasonable characters of the story. While a younger member of the detective team, he wants to go about the business of the job in an orderly, methodical and ethical manner. He wishes to go by the book, but he is also willing to learn from a respected and experienced veteran who is as unconventional as Thorne. He thinks for himself but can follow instructions within reason.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. It doesn’t quit hit five cups for me because I do have a bone of contention with Thorne’s single-mindedness. It was more obsessive than methodical and that annoyed me. However, the story was engaging and the audiobook version’s narrator gave a solid performance.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Alison Willetts, DI Tom Thorne, and Dave Holland.
Lady Esbe’s Review of the Narration: . The performance by Simon Prebble was solid. In fact, his portrayal of Alison’s frustration hit the mark.
Esbe listened to the HighBridge audio edition of this selection, narrated by Simon Prebble.
I was unfamiliar with the DI Thorne series until this month, when Lady Esbe picked this first installment as our July selection. On the one hand, this novel itself was fairly average: the mystery turned out not to be all that mysterious, the sheer single-minded bullheadedness of our protagonist ran on for far too long, and the big reveal at the end fell a little flat after all of the build-up. But on the other hand… it was only the first book of the series and already a little dated, the premise was actually quite interesting and very different from the typical crime thriller (locked-in syndrome sounds like an absolute horror), and the characters were well-written.
A hardened copper was useless. Like hardened paint.
DI Tom Thorne is an average sort of guy, which I found refreshing in a world of John Wicks, Jack Reachers, and Jack Ryans – don’t get me wrong, John and the Jacks are great, but… sometimes you just want a normal person to do normal things and occasionally fail miserably and make a fool of him- or herself. Or I do, at any rate. DI Thorne is shorter than your average hero. He’s stocky and he’s stubborn, he’s brash and a little too quick to turn to booze. But he’s good at what he does. So he does it.
And that was cool. What wasn’t so cool was spending most of the novel hearing about Thorne’s obsession with proving that the perpetrator of these vile crimes was one person, a person he had pegged as the evildoer a little before the 20% mark and with whom we are beaten roughly about the head until the 80% mark. Even when all signs are pointing elsewhere, there’s Thorne, still stubbornly pointing at this lone character, stamping his feet and screaming, “It’s him! It just has to be! It is, yes, it is, it is!” His belligerent fixation is so insistent and so constant (and at times so desperately nonsensical) that I could only come to one conclusion: it most certainly would not be that person… and if it by some miracle turned out to be that person, then there had better be a very, very good explanation as to why any of the chapters after the initial finger pointing were even necessary. In fact, it was Thorne’s constant badgering about who it must be that by the time we learn who it is (which may be the same person – you’ll have to read it yourself to find out), all I could do was sort of mentally shrug and turn the page.
I believe in the way things are. The way I am. I believe in the capacity for people to do terrible things like he did and I believe that some people can do good. I’d like to do something good. I want to do something. Most people don’t have a choice about a lot of things. They don’t choose to be unhappy or poor, and they don’t choose to lose children or get cancer. That’s just life, though, that’s just the lottery, isn’t it? It’s the same for all of us.
Dr. Anne Coburn, the specialist treating – or at least maintaining – our victim, Alison, is an intelligent professional woman whose personal life is in upheaval; she’s in the middle of securing a divorce from the rude and combative Dr. David Higgins, and their daughter, Rachel, has become sullen, sneaky, and dangerously secretive. I wanted to like Dr. Coburn, but I had a tough time warming to her – she’s clever, caring, and cautious… but she’s also just so quick to fall for Thorne, and he for her. Their relationship felt desperate and forced, they were quick to cling to one another and fell into roles they specifically verbalized they would not play: she tends to him, she comforts him, she begins mothering him, and he falls into the very brooding, boozy detective cliché he mocked at the beginning of their quasi-relationship.
DC David Holland was interesting to me, though he had only a few brief appearances in this novel. He was cool and collected in a way that Thorne simply wasn’t, and he maintained a steadfast loyalty to his mentor without ever falling into blind obedience or compromising his own opinions on the case. Alison Willetts is, of course, the most intriguing and heartbreaking character of the story. She is the lone survivor of the antagonist’s methods, the only one to become what they were all intended to be, but this character – whose body has become a prison – never succumbs to the self-pity or self-absorption that consumes all of the able-bodied people around her. She reflects on her situation, she turns her anger outwards to the nameless, faceless person who put her in this situation, and she harnesses this impotent rage to fuel her desire to help Coburn communicate with her so she in turn can assist Thorne in catching the monster who put her in that hospital bed. Her emotional fortitude is staggering, and her thoughts throughout the novel are amusing, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, and, in the end, liberating. She begins Sleepyhead as a victim, but by the end of the novel, she is its biggest hero.
While I found this first installment of the Thorne series to be fairly average, the writing was such that I would read more of the series. I did try to watch the BBC adaptation after reading Sleepyhead, and I had high hopes for it after noticing that Mark Billingham himself served as an executive producer, but not even David Morrissey and Eddie Marsan could salvage it for me – from the word “go” it’s entirely different from the novel: besides the haphazard and jumbled way focus is spread between these current locked-in murders and a previous case which has haunted Thorne for years, Thorne’s appearance is totally wrong and his personality is far too unpredictable (example: on their second meeting, he locks the staff out of Alison’s room, leans into her face, and begins screaming at her), his relationship with Dr. Coburn is somehow even more unbelievable, Holland is reduced to a sort of idiot rookie sidekick, and the perpetrator is entirely different to the point of ridiculous. If you have to pick between the novel or the adaptation, go 150% with the novel.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): DC David Holland and Alison Willetts.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
As crime novels go this was not the worst nor was it the best. To be quite honest crime novels are not really my thing unless it involves wizards, werewolves, and vampires. Real human people going around killing just has a missing je ne sais quoi factor. I had a hard time relating to anyone in this story and I also had a hard time when the author switched between characters. The hardest was when we switched from Thorne to the killer. Sometimes I was like Whhhhhaaaaattttt???? Then I realized that was not our copper but the one doing the killing. [Admin Note: this is a formatting issue specific to the Kindle edition; the print-versions of this novel include spaces when a point of view changes, but there are POV changes throughout the digital version wherein these spaces were absent.]
I felt really bad for Alison. It must be terrible to be coherent but not be able to do anything. I could not even begin to imagine. I think at one time she compares it to a coffin and I could see that. You want to say something and acknowledge what’s going on but you can’t open your own mouth to say one word. I would feel like I was drowning in my own body.
Thorne annoyed me pretty bad because he seemed to be very stubborn. There seemed to be absolutely no room for any outside opinions. It was his way or the highway. He at one time tries to say he now knows how Alison feels. Let us think about that for a minute. She is lying in a bed, barely able to breathe on her own, and can sometimes blink which is sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. You are tired, stressed out, and feel like everything is a struggle. Yes, this sounds bad but let’s revisit the “I know how it feels to be a thinking-vegetable” thing, because I don’t think he even had a tiny glimpse of how she felt.
I did not like Anne. When we had to follow around inside her head I wanted to run away screaming. Pick a side, woman. Which I guess she had her mind made up, but let me tell you something, if someone accused my best friend of being a murderer, I sure as hell wouldn’t sleep with him. I definitely wouldn’t try to keep my distance after deciding to sleep with this Joe Somebody that I haven’t known for long over my friend that I have know for twenty-five years or longer. That’s just me but to each their own….I guess.
Rachael was your typical teenage girl that you wanted to shake and say, “Just use your head, man! Stop thinking with those crazy hormones!” Having been a teenager once, I can say that was the problem I had with her, because I remember when I couldn’t think things through completely with all those crazy hormones raging. Oh well!
Officer Holland seemed like an alright guy. I was neither attached nor carrying a deep-seated hatred of him. He was alright in my book, but I felt like I didn’t know him well enough to want to buy him a beer.
Jeremy Bishop was a cocky son of a bitch. That’s all I’ve got to say about him. Well, maybe a good looking cocky son of a bitch. Now that’s all I have to say.
I think if another book was picked buy this author I wouldn’t dread reading it. I’m not going to go out of my way to read one but, again, that’s mainly because if I’m going to like reading about crime there has to be something supernatural behind it. 🙂
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): No one.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.