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Don't Fear the Dark
on 12 February 2015
I've been a fan of Mark Billingham and his DI Tom Thorne character since his debut novel. Like many series do, though, I did feel that a couple of the more recent novels suggested that Billingham was running out of ideas of things to do with Thorne. So it was a minor relief that his latest novel "In the Dark" was to be a standalone one, even if early optimism was dulled by the rather clichéd tagline "...it's where fear lives", which didn't seem quite in keeping with Billingham's normal style.
Late one night, a driver sees a car travelling with no lights on. Being a good citizen, she flashes her own lights to warn them. Unfortunately for her, travelling in the car are some gang members putting one of their number through an initiation. The car turns around and coming alongside, the occupants shoot at her, causing her to swerve off the road and kill a man standing at a bus stop.
This sets off a chain of events. The victim was a police officer, which puts them on high alert, determined to find the person who killed one of their own. However, it seems that this may have been a dodgy copper with a link to some shady characters, who are also out for revenge and aren't constrained by the same rules as the police. The victim's partner, a police officer on maternity leave as she's 8 months pregnant, is also keen to find out more, especially as it appears that her partner was keeping secrets from her.
This is typically Billingham, throwing the reader straight into the heart of the story and moving it on from there. From the first page, you know this is going to be a story about gangs in London, but it soon becomes apparent it will go deeper than that. As more and more information comes to light, the story becomes more rounded and you get to follow the main characters as they set about life and death matters.
For a while, the story read a lot like the film "Kidulthood", seeming to be mostly about life with the gang and following them. But at a point where I was starting to think it was maybe getting a little dull and wondering how things would end, there's a sneaky little twist that threw away any thoughts of how the story may end and pushed it off in an unexpected direction. This was at a point where I simply had to know what happened and I ended up turning down a good night's sleep as I felt compelled to see how things ended. This is also typically Billingham, drawing the reader in and then totally hooking them.
Billingham's strength is in the realism of his stories. He takes real life, weaves it with strands of fiction and comes up with a story that you could quite feasibly see on the news, or as part of a storyline in "The Bill". The use of language with all the characters seems quite realistic and helps keep the groups distinct from each other. Billingham always keeps the pace high and the action flowing and there is very little here that feels wasted; everything is important later on, even the parts that you don't realise are important until it's nearly too late.
The major downfall here is in the characterisation. Whilst the groups of people who feature here; the police, the gangs and those involved in killing the gang, within these groups each individual member is not well drawn. Billingham doesn't seem to work well in helping the reader visualise the characters, so they all seem quite faceless; or in the case of the pregnant woman, faceless with a large belly. This does make it quite difficult in knowing exactly where sympathies should lie as a reader, especially as there is no good and bad here, just different levels of bad.
Fortunately, the pace of the story and the high action level prevented me from worrying about this too much. There were a couple of points where I got characters mixed up with each other, but this didn't happen all that often. There were also a couple of points where I had to check back for the exact role of some of the minor characters, as they were mostly sketched over and tended to blend into the background until they were needed to add to the story, a little like the chorus in a Shakespearean play. Again, this wasn't a big enough distraction to ruin the story, but it was enough to unsettle the flow of reading, especially as the pace and intrigue was kept fairly high.
Ultimately, though, this is a gritty crime drama, certainly in keeping to Billingham's normally high standards. Existing fans will chuckle at the realisation of who the DI they call "Spiky Bugger" is and newcomers to Billingham's work will likely be impressed. It's a little like the news; only in more depth and with a much greater entertainment level .
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