London copper DI Tom Thorne has been entertaining us since his debut in Sleepyhead (2001). His creator, Mark Billingham, (left) has developed an enviably reliable repertory company of other players who share the stage with the main man. There is his best mate Phil Hendricks, a pathologist who, despite being gay, supporting Arsenal against Thorne’s beloved Spurs and having piercings in places where most folk don’t even have places, is the voice of sanity in Thorne’s often chaotic world. Thorne’s love interest (from whom he is currently living apart) is Helen, another police officer, but one who works in the traumatic world of child protection. Nicola Tanner is Thorne’s professional partner and they have history, but not one that either reflects on with much pleasure. Tanner’s partner Susan was brutally killed in a previous episode, and her death hangs over the pair like a pall.
Their Little Secret begins with the much-loved trope of an apparent suicide which is viewed with suspicion by the central character. This time, however, it is slightly different. When a woman goes fatally head-to-head with an underground train, there is no suspicion that she was physically pushed, but Thorne believes that something traumatic – and criminal – tipped her over the edge in both sense of the phrase. He discovers that she had been targeted by a conman who had relieved her of a large sum of money and then disappeared, leaving her heartbroken, ashamed of her own gullibility and with her self-respect shredded. Despite the reluctance of his boss to spend any more time (and money) on the case, Thorne discovers that Philippa Goodwin is not the first victim of the conman.
In an ostensibly unconnected narrative thread, Billingham introduces us to a Sarah, a vulnerable single mum who is anxious to gain the approval of other mums with whom she waits at the primary school gate twice each day. They seem confident, successful and financially comfortable. Sarah tries to join in with their daily sojourn at a pretentious ‘artisan’ coffee shop after the morning school run, but she still feels like the outsider. Her world is just herself and her son Jamie, and she struggles to compete with the gossip and banter that fly like sparks between Karen, Caroline, Savita and Heather. Until. Until the day when, sitting apart at her own table in HazBeanz, Sarah is chatted up by distinctly fanciable slightly older fellow. Almost instantly, Sarah finds the others anxious to swap phone numbers in return for daily updates about the new romance.
So, we can all see where this is going, yes? Sarah is about to become the latest victim of the romantic predator who Thorne and Tanner will eventually track down and bring to justice? At this point, I will disengage from the plot so as not to spoil things. Suffice it to say that Billingham plays the Pied Piper, and we are the innocent children of Hamelin.
If you are new to the world of Tom Thorne, don’t dismiss this book as just another police procedural. Yes, the atmosphere of the Incident Room, the evidence gathering, the financial pressures and the grim fare of the police canteen – everything is just as it should be, authentic and convincing. But Billingham gives us so much more. Thorne is, in some ways, unlovely. He can be insensitive, self-centred and, it has to be said, something of a slob. His impulsiveness has got him – and others – into bother on more than one occasion, and as for his musical obsession with the lonesome highway world of Hank Williams, you must be your own judge. Earlier novels in the series told of Thorne’s impotent distress at the decline of his father as dementia took hold and turned a fine mind into mush. As middle age peaks and ‘the other side’ beckons, he still dreams of his mum and dad. He is not alone.
There is poetry within the pages of any Tom Thorne novel. It may be brutally comic, and it may be poignant and stark. Thorne recalls the first suicide he had to attend:
“It had been a teenage girl, that first one. A slip of a thing dangling from the branch of an oak tree in Victoria Park. A ripped blue dress and legs like sticks and the muddy heels of her trainers kissing.”
On a grimly humorous note, Thorne/Billingham has a sour take on the pretentiousness of the middle class London enclave of Shoreditch:
“ It was all a little ….full of itself for his liking. ‘Dirty’ burgers, whatever they were, and shops knocking out overpriced tat that was probably meant to be ironic. A few too many gastropubs serving parsnip dust or garlic foam and more artisan bakeries than you could shake a shiitake mushroom at.”
Their Little Secret is a masterpiece of misdirection, suspense and contains as convincing a portrayal of insanity as I have read in many a long year. Tom Thorne is the perfect hero for our troubled times. Emotionally and professionally, he ploughs a lonely furrow, but his honesty and – sometimes clumsy – care for those he loves are deeply moving. Their Little Secret is published by Little, Brown and will be available from 2nd May.
More of Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham here.