IN THE DARK by Mark Billingham (McArthur & Company), 370 pages, $24.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
British crime writer Mark Billingham's departure from his critically acclaimed Detective Inspector Tom Thorne series just goes to prove the author's scope. His new thriller, In The Dark, is edgy, smart and absolutely gripping.
A drive-by shooting on a rainy London night turns three strangers' lives upside down. The story unfolds from the viewpoints of Helen, a pregnant child protection officer whose boyfriend is suspected of being a dirty cop, Theo, a gullible young gangbanger trying to keep his family together, and an enigmatic crime lord called Frank.
Two weeks away from delivery and officially on maternity leave, unlikely heroine Helen delves into the investigation, determined to get to the truth before her baby is born. Young men start dying, and it soon becomes apparent that someone is doling out their own form of justice.
As Theo begins to suspect that things aren't what they seem, Helen struggles to hang onto her belief in her baby's father.
There isn't a superfluous scene in the book, and Billingham's talent for empathizing with both a heavily pregnant woman and a teenage street dealer is no small thing. We can feel Helen's lumbering physical discomfort as she tracks down witnesses and the soul-killing inevitability of Theo's life in South London's brutal housing estates.
Billingham is a master of the plot twist. Early on there's a very clever turnabout that sets off a string of violence, and a final surprising revelation keeps us in the dark right up to the last page.
Wonderful stuff for crime-fiction junkies and one of the best reads of the year.
Billingham reads on Tuesday (October 28), 8 pm, at the Brigantine Room.