I'm undergoing somewhat of a disaffect with serial killer novels right now, so I wasn't too sure about this book, especially after The Burning Girl, which veered away from that sub-genre completely, and broke entirely new and refreshing ground for the series. The fact is that if Billingham sticks with serial killers then he's never going to better his first book (and so far, he hasn't - but his last came close). I was pleased, then, that this book, despite its initial conceit of strings of homeless people being killed, steers away that, and is ultimately better for it. (Though, I suspect, the exposited motivation for some of the killings is less accurate than the simple fact Billingham had to have them in order to maintain a selling point, an original angle.) Lifeless is a clever, topical, intelligent crime novel, another point on Billingham's arc of growing maturity that started with Lazybones.
One of the central problems I have personally with Billingham's series is Tom Thorne. While I like him, and I concede (quite willingly) that the psychological development of the character through recent books - and through this one in particular - is fascinating and excellently wrought on Billingham's part, he is nothing new or special, he is nothing that we haven't seen so, so many times before (and, to be honest, better). He doesn't extend the constant pull of interest that some other detectives do, purely because I don't feel that there's anything new in him: he seems almost to be a likeable composite of so many other detectives. I never anticipate Billingham's book because of the protagonist, as I do with Rankin or Mankell. Fortunately, Billingham's plots are usually enough to keep me riveted anyway.
Aside from the journey Thorne's character seems to be on, the real triumph of this novel is Billingham's portrait of the immense landscape of homelessness. It's superbly done. The general atmosphere, and the characters involved (particularly the young couple Spike and Caroline whom Thorne befriends) are written brilliantly, touching yet not sentimental, always emptily sad. It's never less than clear that this environment is harsh and dangerous, Thorne somewhat crazy for so willingly immersing himself in it.
It's a book that's better than I'd thought it would be, but not quite as good as Billingham has shown himself capable of. Still, it's a surprising, satisfying crime novel, with a nice sizeable dollop of societal analysis.
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