Group therapy ... and a gruesome murder
Crime: Die of Shame, Mark Billingham, Little Brown, hdbk, 480 pages, €24.99
Few British crime writers made as auspicious a debut as did actor, scriptwriter and stand-up comedian Mark Billingham. His first book, Sleepyhead, featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, was published in 2001. It received rave reviews and shot to the top of the bestsellers lists, and his follow-up novel, Scaredy Cat, and 11 further adventures featuring Tom Thorne have been equally well received.
He is one of the few writers to have won Britain's Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year twice, and Sky 1 based a successful television series on his Thorne novels with David Morrissey playing Thorne. The BBC is set to broadcast a major new drama based on two of his recent novels in autumn this year, and the Corporation will also be screening an adaptation of one of his stand-alone thrillers, Rush of Blood, next year.
Billingham remains a regular broadcaster on television and radio. He has appeared on Pointless Celebrities, Breakfast, and on Celebrity Mastermind, which he won with an encyclopedic knowledge of Elvis Costello. While Mark is by no means the first stand-up comedian to add fiction writing to their CV - Alexi Sayle, Ben Elton, Rob Newman and David Baddiel (whose appointment to the judging panel of the Booker Prize in 2003 appalled the literary establishment) spring to mind - he may just be the first to write and tour with a country 'n' western musical play called The Other Half.
The setting of Mark's new stand-alone story, Die of Shame, is a Monday night group-therapy session run for ex-addicts by North London psychotherapist Tony De Silva. The group consists of Dr Robin Joffe, burdened by the loss of his son, something he refuses to talk about; Heather Finlay, a lonely woman addicted to both drink and drugs; divorcee Diana Knight, whose comfortable world came to an end when her husband took up with a much younger woman; the waspish gay male model and rent boy Chris Clemence, who enjoys provoking the other members of the group; and newcomer Caroline Armitage, whose XXXL size suggests that her addiction is food.
The author cleverly takes his time in developing each of these characters, letting their musings in the therapy sessions fill in bits and pieces of their back stories and their fragile and often fractious relationship with the world and each other. When one of them, Heather Finlay, misses a couple of weeks, nobody thinks much of it until DI Nicola Tanner turns up on Tony Da Silva's doorstep and reveals that Heather's decomposed body has been found in her flat. She had been stabbed to death, but Tanner, for reasons of her own, refuses to give Da Silva or the other members of the group many details of her death.
The novel is very cleverly constructed. Tanner's murder investigation is conducted in the past tense, and is written as a copybook straight police procedural interspersed with glimpses of her difficult domestic situation as she tries to cope with her partner Susan's increasing problems with alcohol.
The events that precipitated Heather's violent death, however, only gradually emerge as the emotionally charged weekly therapy sessions in Da Silva's conservatory take place, and the shifting alliances and changing relationships between the patients happen in the present tense. As an intriguing side bar, Billingham introduces a classic examination of the old adage 'physician, cure thyself', as Da Silva struggles to cope with his ambitious wife's cooling relationship with him and the difficulties they share with their disturbed teenage daughter.
This is a terrific and unconventional addition to Billingham's oeuvre, packed with colourfully drawn, wittily observed characters who never lapse into stereotypes. And yes, DI Thorne does make a fleeting appearance, as he has in all Billingham's previous stand-alones, an appearance that suggests there may be a sequel to this satisfyingly unusual crime novel.