This is a book I’ve had sat in my tbr for a while now. I had all good intentions but like with so many other books, time just got away from me. A few weeks back I had a good few hours to kill driving to Stirling and back to attend Bloody Scotland so I figured what the hell, bought the audio book (I’m slowly collecting the entire Tom Thorne back catalogue that way any how) and set it to play. As soon as we’ve taken a quick look at the book blurb, I’ll let you know what I thought.
The Official Book Blurb
A BLOODY MESSAGE
As DI Nicola Tanner investigates what appears to be a series of organised killings, her partner Susan is brutally murdered, leaving the detective bereft, and vengeful.
A POWERFUL ALLY
Taken off the case, Tanner enlists the help of DI Tom Thorne to pursue a pair of ruthless killers and the broker handing out the deadly contracts.
A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
As the killers target their latest victim, Thorne takes the biggest risk of his career and is drawn into a horrifying and disturbing world in which families will do anything to protect their honour.
Like many people, I watched the first episode of the TV series Written In Blood in which Simon Toyne interviewed Mark Billingham about the case which inspired his book, Love Like Blood. Now I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t have been moved and indeed horrified by the true story of Banaz Mahmod and the way in which she suffered at the hands of family for the simple act of falling in love with the wrong man. It is something in Western culture that we take for granted – the basic right to love and be loved by those whom we choose not those who are chosen for us. And yet in some cultures, this still remains an impossible dream. To those who disobey or ‘dishonour’ their family, a fate such as that which befell Banaz is sadly far more prevalent than any of us would like to accept.
The idea of honour killings – be it for love or some other inferred shame – is the central premise of this book. Mark Billingham has not tried to retell Banaz’s story. As he has said himself that is not his story to tell. But her story has most certainly inspired a book which becomes somewhat of a moral dilemma in the making. At the heart of this novel is real life horror dressed up here as a form of entertainment, art even. Should we really say that we enjoy it? Maybe, maybe not. However Billingham has found a near perfect balance, blending Thorne’s irresistible charm, an element of humour and the day to day mundane realities of family life, with an overwhelmingly depressing set of statistics and a case which puts the lives of Thorne’s friends and colleagues at risk. This is not a case of preaching the horrors of honour killings, although they are clearly outlined here, but it is also more than mere entertainment. Billingham skilfully gets his distaste at the subject across to the reader through Thorne’s reactions, while still leaving them the scope to make their own minds up about what has occurred.
The book opens on a fairly traumatic scene, the brutal attack and subsequent murder of DI Nicola Tanner’s partner Susan. While we are not, as readers, privy to the murder itself, the ongoing descriptions of the aftermath, the scene with which Tanner is left, are more than enough to make it clear to us what has happened without it being spelled out in all its glory detail. But just how does this fit in with the whole idea of the honour killings? Whatever the reason, for obvious reasons Tanner can’t investigate the murder herself and instead turns to Tom Thorne, a man who she has met only briefly and knows more by reputation, to help her find the answers she so desperately seeks.
The more that they look into the reasons for Susan’s murder, the clearer it becomes that it could well be linked to a series of open cases, potential honour killings, that Tanner had been working on. Could it be that her enquiries within the local Asian community had ruffled one too many of the wrong feathers. When two young Asian friends go missing after a night out, it becomes clear that this is no straight forward case of families taking revenge. It runs far deeper than that and the consequences of the investigation are potentially lethal.
Readers will be familiar with Tanner from Mark Billingham’s last novel, Die Of Shame, as she was the straight-laced DI tasked with uncovering a murderer. It is this very case which puts her in the path of Tom Thorne. She is every bit as straight talking and lacking in humour in this book, some would argue with good reason, but we also see the passionate side of her character and by learning more of her relationship with Susan perhaps come to understand the reasons for her personality more. It could certainly be argued that interacting with Thorne has a kind of humanizing influence on her and we see a more relaxed Nicola Tanner start to emerge. She will always be the work horse, focused and determined, but the pairing with Thorne is an inspired and complimentary one.
There is probably not a lot that can be said about Tom Thorne. Fans of the series already know it all. Newcomers to the series will just as quickly be hooked. There is a kind of charm to his reluctance to abide fully by the rules, and you find yourself hoping he will go out on a limb, as he typically does, in order to help Tanner. It is not fully straight forward, not written in stone that he will help, but there is one thing which puts him more in mind to help. The chance to help solve a murder which he was forced to leave open, one which may well link to these more recent murders and abductions. I really love the way in which his relationship with Helen and her son Alfie is explored, and the scenes where he begins to think about the future will truly melt your hardened heart. Remind you that not all families are bad. And his friendship with Phil Hendricks, and with this book in particular, Hendricks’ casual bantering with Tanner, provide the moments of much needed light relief you come to rely upon.
The pacing and the tone of this book are just about perfect. There is always something driving you onward as a reader (or in my case listener). I was intrigued to find out about the person or persons behind the killings. The dynamic here was most unusual and yet at the same time believable. Although there were many seemingly unconnected threads throughout the book, including the harrowing case of two small children suspected of being abused that Helen was working on, Billingham gathers them all together at the same time and pulls them in so tight that you struggle to see how they ever seemed loose to begin with. The ending is surprising and somewhat shocking, so much so that it had me completely blindsided. And the conclusion of the case is as heart thumpingly tense as it satisfying and yet also, at times, surreally calm.
Do not come into this book looking for the gratuitous. You’ll be bitterly disappointed. Don’t come into it looking for outright condemnation and contempt at the practice of honour killing, although that is most certainly the context of the novel. It is not preaching to the reader, but it does bring to our attention a most heinous, sociocultural practice which is at odds with the freedom we associate with our country. The book doesn’t condemn any particular faith, but recognises the minority belief in many faiths that honour and respect for your family is held above all else, including murder. So yes, this book left me in a quandary. Can I really say I enjoyed it? The subject matter, the idea of the honour killing, then no. In no way can I say I enjoyed that. But Mark Billingham has done a brilliant job of moving the story past this subject matter alone without sensationalising, trivialising or glamourising it in any way, providing the reader with an entertaining, if not occasionally heart breaking story that I would highly recommend you read.
Love Like Blood was published on 1st June and is available now from the following retailers.