Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.
We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.
Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.
A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.
Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.
Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.
Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.
Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.