Somehow, this is the ninth in the DI Tom Thorne series - doesn't time fly. I still think the author has yet to top his first, though (Sleepyhead), for creativity, but for professional style and flair this is a well-rounded and polished effort.
The main story is about a woman released from prison ten years after being found guilty of conspiring to murder her gangster husband, whose body was found in a burnt-out Jaguar. Very soon she starts receiving photographs of him taken recently, showing him to be very much alive and well. At first the 'widow' appoints a flaky and amateurish private investigator to find out what's going on, and to find her missing teenage daughter who had been in foster care during the imprisonment period. It's not long before Thorne gets involved, still smarting from what he and his colleagues perceive as a miscarriage of justice in an unrelated missing teenager investigation and murder trial. The 'undead' gangster appears to be living it large in Spain, so that's where Thorne heads, helped by the Spanish Guardia Civil.
It's a good story and well-told, with interesting sub-strands such as Thorne's relationship with his live-in girlfriend Louise, but it's a little light on tension or suspense. Not much in the way of mystery or thrills either, come to think about it. Deep into the novel, I realised that what few unanswered questions that still prevailed boiled down to these: Who sent the photographs, and why? And that was rather unimportant anyway, and predictable as it turned out. So what this tale depended on, as is often the case with crime fiction series, was the enigmatic draw of its leading character Tom Thorne. I have to say that, having read every single one of the nine in this series, he remains slighly aloof to me, rarely rising above the status of being an ordinary detective. Recently I've read the latest efforts from Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbo, featuring leading men Harry Bosch and Harry Hole respectively, and I find both of those characters markedly more readable and magnetic than Thorne. With Thorne, the story has to be good because I consider his character to be too bland (relative to others in this genre) to carry a novel with a lightweight story. Fortunately the story in From the Dead is interesting, and to an extent compensates for character weaknesses. It's a bit rich for Lee Child to compare Thorne with Morse and Rebus - as he does on the front cover dustjacket - yes, Thorne is now a TV 'star' but won't have had much exposure on Sky2.
Having said that, From the Dead is a good book, I'm not sorry I bought it and I quite enjoyed reading it. I can't help but feel, however, that Mark Billingham missed an opportunity to create something with more impact by catching the reader unawares with a shock twist late on. I was hoping for one, but it never came; the evolution of the story was very much in keeping with expectation. There was a twist in the sub-story, about the miscarriage of justice, but this was the wrong way round in my view. In the end though this author should be praised for his successes over the past decade, he's now a firmly established top-ten crime fiction writer and this latest offering won't do his image any harm at all. I just wish that, next time out, he would take more risks, push more boundaries, cut back on the one-liners and give us more in the way of shocks and reader deception. It's what I buy crime fiction for.