This is Mark Billingham's debut novel featuring the stout figured DI Tom Thorne, just turned 40 and on the trail of a psychopath who kills a number of women `by accident' until eventually he is successful in his most unusual objective : to leave them somewhere in between life and death. The murders are errors on his part while he perfects his technique. Early on we are presented with a prime suspect, or at least someone who Thorne is convinced is the killer, so this novel becomes less of a whodunit as much as a "did he or didn't he?" - and I for one was never completely sure about the answer until hundreds of pages later and the moment of revelation.
Despite the serial-killer storyline, Mark Billingham successfully manages to create a `novel' twist to the well-worn theme by making it clear that all of the murders were mistakes, at least in the mind of the perpetrator who has something of an obsession with Thorne and in addition to making direct (but anonymous) contact with the determined copper he seems to want Thorne to be the one who finally nabs him. Thorne has emotional scars of his own, dating back several years and which unknowing to him have served to shape his personality both as a detective and as a man. All is eventually revealed, and very disturbing it is. Thorne's something of a maverick, sometimes part of the team but often the cavalier, maybe he's on the verge of some kind of burned-out breakdown but just when you think he's going off the rails, he gets back on track again.
Having read Lazy Bones, Scaredy Cat and The Burning Girl in times past I have gone about Mark's work (which all feature DI Thorne) in the wrong chronological order but in a way I feel that I'm the better for it - Sleepyhead is probably the strongest of the story lines and it is convincing, consistent and authentic from start to finish. Yes, even the finish is thoroughly well planned and delivered, dare I say it had the faintest of links to The Silence of the Lambs (by Thomas Harris), in that finale when the doorbell rings and we all expect the FBI to burst into the house of Buffalo Bill but clever time and location manipulation surprised us when the said Bill opened the door to Clarence Starling - I mention this mainly because there is reference early on in Sleepyhead of this exact moment (in the film, and possibly the book), so we are given a hint of the structure of the ending but guess what.....I missed that, so I was taken by surprise. Glad I was too.
Mark Billingham says that writing dark, violent novels such as this and the others in the Thorne series serve as a suitable counterpoint to his very different other life as a stand-up comedian; well those lives are clearly poles apart, because surely the opposite of standing up is lying down, and in Sleepyhead there's quite a lot of that going on.
For me, Sleepyhead is Mark's best novel, it's a highly impressive debut and I hope he returns to these very high standards again in the future. Lazybones delivered much of the same, I think it slipped just a bit with Scaredy Cat and more so with The Burning Girl; Lifeless was better and Buried was Billingham back to his best - although Sleepyhead remains my favourite for now (it was also voted the favourite among Mark Billingham fans on a poll on his web-site).
As for you - I suggest you buy the whole lot, all six. You won't be disappointed.