Thursday 24 March 2011

Brighton Book Bargains: First Editions of The Burning Girl, Buried and From the Dead by Mark Billingham

Following on from yesterday's crop of Mark Billingham Lewes Book Bargains, and rounding off a run of posts on Mr. Billingham and his Tom Thorne crime novels, today I have for you the promised Brighton Contingent of the Billingham Book Bargains, all of which were purchased in that seaside city's branch of Oxfam Books (as you'll see from the price stickers on 'em), and all of which were almost certainly cast-offs from the at-the-time-ailing British Bookshops. And they are as follows:

A UK hardback first edition of The Burning Girl, published by Little, Brown in 2004. This is the fourth Tom Thorne novel and is about a turf war between London gangs and a series of copycat killings inspired by a schoolgirl who was burned alive twenty years ago, and the gradually emerging links between those two strands. Unfortunately there's no cover credit on this one, so I can't tell you who designed the dustjacket; it's entirely possible it was either Little, Brown's Creative Director Duncan Spilling or the imprint's Art Director, Sean Garrehy, who between them seem to have created the lion's share of the covers for Billingham's books. Spilling certainly designed the jacket for the next Brighton Bargain:

Which is the UK hardback first edition of Buried, published once again by Little, Brown, this time in 2006. The sixth Thorne novel, it's about a kidnap rather than a murder: a teenage boy goes missing and Thorne is drafted in on special assignment to the police kidnap unit. I really like the jacket on this one; it's not quite so descriptive as other Thorne novel covers, and there's some nice embossing on it as well, which makes it quite a tactile object. Not that I spend large amounts of my time lovingly fondling my books, of course. Ahem. Next!

A UK hardback first edition of From the Dead, published by Little, Brown in 2010, which makes it the most recent Thorne thriller. This one is about a woman who is released from prison after serving ten years for conspiracy to murder her husband, only to find that the man she paid to have bumped off is very much alive. The jacket was designed by Sean Garrehy, and it's another pleasingly subtle piece of work.

So, those are the Brighton (and Lewes) Billingham Book Bargains. I'm still missing a couple of the Tom Thorne novels, including, crucially, 2005's Lazybones, the third book in the series, so until that turns up in a local charity shop, I can't really progress any further past Scaredy Cat (gotta read them in order, obv). Which is why, as I mentioned yesterday, I'll probably read Billingham's standalone novel In the Dark next. Oh, and see below for a comment from Mr Billingham himself.

And that is yer bleedin' lot for this week, chiefly because tomorrow is my birthday and I've got better things to do during the day than post little-read missives about books. Like, er... visiting some secondhand bookshops, for instance. Oh shush. It's my birthday and I'll spend it how I like. As for next week's blogging, I'll have a random selection of posts on, most likely, Kate Atkinson, James Blish (possibly), and one or two other authors besides. Toodle-pip!

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Lewes Book Bargains: First Editions of Death Message, Bloodline and In the Dark by Mark Billingham

So then. Thus far in this run of posts on British crime fiction author Mark Billingham and his series of novels starring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne we've had an irritable, overlong essay on his debut novel, 2001's Sleepyhead, and how it compares to the Sky One TV series Thorne: Sleepyhead, and another, perhaps even more irritable but not quite so long essay on its 2002 sequel, Scaredy Cat, and how it stacks up against the Sky One TV series Thorne: Scaredy Cat. Now it's time to turn to some Lewes – and, to follow, Brighton – Book Bargains, i.e. first editions of a number of Billingham's books I've bought in Lewes (where I live and work) and Brighton (which I often visit) charity shops recently.

All of them, I'm pretty sure, were cast-offs from British Bookshops, the chain of South East shops which went into administration at the start of the year. Seems the outlets in Lewes and Brighton – and presumably elsewhere – had a clear-out of their stockrooms when, to use a local gang colloquialism, shit went down, and the multitudinous charity shops in the area were suddenly overwhelmed with hardback novels published over the past five years or so. So while British Bookshops going down the pan was a bit of a bugger for the people who worked in them and the towns where they were situated (losing any bookshop in this day and age is to be regretted), on the plus side at least I ended up with a bunch of cheap firsts, mostly for a quid a piece.

Happily, both the Lewes and Brighton branches have been reprieved, having been bought out by WHSmiths (it's been an unhappier ending for the stores who weren't bought by Smiths). In fact, I believe the Lewes one is due to reopen any day. It may even be open now; I shall have to rouse myself from my torpor and pop up the road to have a look. And to commemorate its return to trading, here are those British Bookshops Billingham Book Bargains, Lewes Contingent (all bought in the big Hospice charity shop near Waitrose, I believe):

A UK hardback first edition of Death Message, published by Little, Brown in 2007. It's the seventh Tom Thorne novel; in this one Thorne starts receiving photos of murder victims on his mobile phone, sent by a killer recently released from prison. The jacket was designed by Duncan Spilling, Little, Brown's Creative Director, who has, as we'll see, designed quite a few Thorne covers.

Spilling is a respected name in book design circles; this post by Amanda Craig singles him out as someone who seemingly takes the trouble to read a book before he works up a cover for it – a method of research you'd think most designers would follow, but few actually do. In this report from the 2009 Bookseller Cover Design Seminar Spilling himself is quoted having a go at the practice of designing covers without even a title to work from, which is a ridiculous state of affairs. His choice of image for Death Message – a blood-streaked mobile phone – may be a little obvious, but that's no bad thing, and it certainly hews to the plot of the book.


A UK hardback first edition of Bloodline, published by Little, Brown in 2009. The eighth Thorne thriller – and therefore the direct sequel to Death Message – in this one a blood-stained sliver of x-ray is found in a murdered woman's hand; it turns out the woman's mother was also murdered fifteen years before by a serial killer named Raymond Garvey. When further murder victims are found similarly clutching x-ray slivers, it becomes clear someone is targeting the children of Garvey's victims. The dustjacket design here is by Little, Brown's Art Director Sean Garrehy.

And finally, and originally published in-between the above two books:

A UK hardback first edition of In the Dark, published by Little, Brown in 2008, with a jacket again designed by Duncan Spilling. This is Billingham's only standalone novel, so it's not part of the Thorne series, although Tom does appear in a minor role. I dimly recall reading somewhere that this is the book Billingham's most proud of, simply because it's his only non-series work; it's about a shooting in London which results in a car swerving into a queue at a bus stop, and the subsequent clash between aging gangsters and teenage upstarts (shit went down, slight return). The novel received excellent notices when it was published, and I may, in fact, shuffle it to the top of my Billingham to-read pile, partly for a reason I'll outline in the next post, but mostly because it's supposed to be dead good. Indeed, Ali Karim in this interview with Billingham for January Magazine compares it favourably to George Pelecanos. To which I can only respond: sold.

Next up: those Billingham Brighton Book Bargains... which now boast a comment from Mr. Billingham himself...

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Mark Billingham's Thorne: Scaredy Cat; A Review of the Novel and the Television Adaptation

If you've just joined us, this week I'm blogging about British author Mark Billingham and his series of novels starring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne: serial killer catcher, country music lover and all round miserable bastard. (That's Thorne, not Billingham. I think.) Yesterday I looked at the first book in the series, 2001's Sleepyhead, and the Sky One TV show it inspired, 2010's Thorne: Sleepyhead, and later in the week I'll have a bunch of Lewes and Brighton Book Bargains (which, for the uninitiated, consist of me crowing unattractively about cheap first editions I've picked up in those salubrious Sussex towns).

But today it's the turn of the second book in the series, 2002's Scaredy Cat, and the 2010 Sky TV series it inspired, i.e. Thorne: Scaredy Cat. And the first thing to note is that Billingham's sophomore effort is a better book all round than its predecessor. The confidence the author evidently gained in the writing of Sleepyhead is apparent from the off: Scaredy Cat is more focused, more propulsive, and actually works better as a story. And so, for the most part, does its television adaptation – right up to the point where it pisses it all up the wall.

I'll come back to how and why it does that in a bit. First though, the broad strokes of the plot. Scaredy Cat (the novel) finds DI Tom Thorne newly installed as second-in-command of Team 3, Serious Crime Group (West), with Detective Chief Inspector Russell Brigstocke (whom Thorne has known for ten years) in charge and Detective Constable Dave Holland and Detective Sergeant Sarah McEvoy bringing up the rear. Ostensibly Team 3 has been set up to investigate crimes that fall outside the remit of other parts of the Metropolitan Police Force, although the rumour is it's really been instated because no one knows quite what to do with Tom Thorne.

The team have one case open – a series of increasingly violent robberies at hotels – when they're tasked with solving a new murder, that of Carol Garner, strangled at her home, leaving her three-year-old boy, Charlie, on his own for two days with only a discarded chocolate wrapper to sustain him. But there's more to the case, because straight after murdering Carol, the same killer apparently strangled another woman. And when a further two victims are found, this time stabbed to death, Thorne begins to suspect he's dealing with not one killer, but two...

Of course, we the reader(s) are almost a step ahead of Thorne, because parts of Scaredy Cat are actually told from the perspectives of the killers, Stuart Nicklin and Martin Palmer. Indeed, the novel opens with Nicklin as he stalks Carol (pulling a neat switcheroo of expectations in the process), and then flashes back to successive moments from Nicklin and Palmer's childhoods, also involving another friend, Karen McMahon. The hold Nicklin has over Palmer is frighteningly plausible, and this in essence is what the book is all about: power, or the lack thereof. We follow Nicklin in the past, as he embraces his violent urges and divests himself of his identity, so that even when the hapless Palmer eventually gives himself up, distraught at the horrific nature of his crimes, he can't identify Nicklin because he has no idea what Nicklin's name is now (and neither do we, until the very end).

Some of this apparently has its basis in Billingham's own past. In 1997, Billingham and his writing partner, Peter Cooks, were held hostage in a Manchester hotel room, kept bound and gagged by three masked men and eventually robbed. From that episode, Billingham got the themes of power and fear, and the notion of tandem serial killers working together (not to mention the parallel – if underdeveloped – hotel crimes). I didn't know all that when I was reading Scaredy Cat, but it does help explain why it's so much more convincing than Sleepyhead (that, and Billingham's increasing confidence as a novelist, that is). It also makes for an extremely forceful, assured and credible narrative... which is why it's all the more frustrating and infuriating when, quite unnecessarily, the TV adaptation dispenses with that theme in a wantonly destructive and dunderheaded act of defenestration.

Before it does that, Thorne: Scaredy Cat actually makes a decent fist of adapting the novel. There are the expected minor alterations: Sarah McEvoy becomes Sarah Chen, and the hotel subplot gets worked into the main plot – probably because Billingham himself does little with it in the book, forgetting about it for the most part and quickly resolving it towards the end, although its denouement does provide a plot-required character moment for the increasingly paranoid, cocaine-addicted Sarah. And instead of DCI Brigstocke we get Eddie Marsan reprising his role as DCI Kevin Tughan. There, though, it's all to the good, because Marsan is even better this time out and also has the best line of the show, which he blurts out after Thorne explains his two killers theory and offers as evidence previous murderous partnerships like Venables and Thompson and Brady and Hindley. To which Tughan responds disparagingly: "Ant and Dec, Robson and Jerome, Donnie and Marie, Mike and Bernie fucking Winters!"

No, where the series really goes off the rails is in the third and final episode. In order to deal with that, however, I think I'd better throw in another one of these:


Now, I can't state this for certain, but I suspect I began to get an inkling of what the writers were intending to do earlier than the third episode. In the novel, Thorne's thoughts often return to the traumatised Charlie, wondering how he is, but the TV show keeps returning to him for a different reason, namely confusion over whether he saw one killer or two. This is made explicit in the third episode, when pathologist – and Thorne's mate – Phil Hendricks shows Charlie a combined picture of a photofit of Stuart Nicklin and a photograph of Martin Palmer, upon sight of which Charlie begins screaming... and at which point my underlying sense of disquiet turned to outright dread. Surely the writers couldn't be setting up what it looked like they were setting up... Could they?

But as Palmer, Sarah Chen, Thorne, Holland and, for some unfathomable reason, Hendricks (played by Aiden Gillen – which, come to think of it, explains his presence at the finale: can't very well leave a big star like that hanging around back at HQ, now can we?) all converged (don't do it) on the patch of wasteland (don't you dare do it) where Nicklin was supposedly going to show Palmer (please I'm begging you DON'T DO IT) Karen's grave, I realised that, yes (oh bollocks), they were really going to do it (oh you silly sods). Because not only do Thorne and Hendricks discover the grave of Karen... they also uncover the grave of Stuart Nicklin.

That's right: Nicklin only exists in Martin Palmer's head, as a split personality.


Exactly as they did with Sleepyhead, at one stroke the writers of Thorne: Scaredy Cat – stand up and take a bow, Dudi Appleton and Jim Keeble – utterly undermine the story's theme and make a complete mockery of everything that's gone before. It is, in effect, a variation on that dreadful get-out clause, It Woz All A Dream. The writers, producers and director might just as well have taken the closing scene from Boxing Helena and stapled that on instead.


So there you go. That, in an overly wordy nutshell, is Thorne: Scaredy Cat. Still, no matter. The novel remains a cracking read, and by all accounts each subsequent book only gets better. And in the next couple of posts in this Billingham bonanza, I'll be showcasing some of the first editions of those novels I've picked up in charity shops over the past few months....

(And skip along to here to see a comment from Mr. Billingham himself on this post and its sequels...)

Monday 21 March 2011

Mark Billingham's Thorne: Sleepyhead; A Review of the Novel and the Television Adaptation

Welcome to another week of themed posts on Existential Ennui (better get used to the idea; there's plenty more of these to come). And the theme this week, you lucky bleeders, is Mark Billingham, specifically his series of books starring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. As with most of the more contemporary fiction I read, I came to Billingham late in the game – earlier this year, to be exact, when I picked up first editions of the first two Thorne books at the Lewes Book Fair. I'd been aware of the novels for some time (in a book I oversaw last year – 500 Essential Cult Books – we included Sleepyhead in the selection), but to be frank, they belonged to a subgenre I had little interest in, namely detective fiction.

So, a caveat before we get stuck in: despite the crime fiction bent of this blog, I'm really not a fan of detective stories or whodunnits. I'd rather read about the crims than the coppers – Parker, Ripley, Dortmunder – and as for guessing the identity of the killer, frankly, I couldn't care less. In fact, sod the guessing games: just tell me a story from the killer's perspective (stand up, The Killer Inside Me). So if my meandering ramblings on the Thorne books strike you as a little... off, bear in mind it's probably because I haven't read a lot of novels in this particular category.

Now that I've got that out the way, this week you can expect a couple of posts on the initial two Thorne novels and how they stack up against the, as we'll see, somewhat less successful Sky TV show they gave rise to (an approach inspired by a comment Book Glutton left on this post about Justified, and one I similarly employed for this post on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), along with some Brighton and Lewes Book Bargains. And let's begin with the first book in the series, 2001's Sleepyhead, wherein we meet our hero, Tom Thorne, 41 years of age, three years divorced, childless, living alone in a one-bed flat in Kentish Town kitted out with furniture bought "one wretched Sunday at IKEA".

Thorne is all about his job, an obsession that's left him with a reputation in the Metropolitan Police for being an awkward bastard and someone who it's best not to associate with too much if you want your career to go anywhere. Or at least that's what Thorne's right hand man, Detective Constable Dave Holland's wife reckons, believing that Thorne represents "an unhealthy future for him in the force". Thorne's only real friend is Phil Hendricks, a police pathologist, with whom Thorne spends the occasional evening watching football on telly and drinking beer. But other than that and a touching interest in dance music (country and western is his true love, mind), his every waking hour is spent trying to catch killers.

His latest case is a serial killer whose MO is to target women in their homes, drug them and then give them strokes by kinking an artery in their necks. Except the fourth victim, Alison Willetts, has survived the procedure and is currently hooked up to a ventilator in hospital, unable to speak or move, a casualty of locked-in syndrome. The consensus is she was lucky to have survived... And then Thorne finds a note underneath his car windscreen wiper from the killer, explaining "practice makes perfect", and suddenly the DI grasps that Alison Willetts wasn't a mistake: "She's the first one he's got right."

For me, Sleepyhead was a book of two halves – or, as that bloody grammatically challenged pub in Sydenham would have it, Two Half's – or, and perhaps more accurately (make your mind up, Jones), three thirds. I've never read any interviews with Billingham about the writing of it, but it felt to me as if he only really started getting into his stride a third of the way in, when Thorne is bludgeoned and drugged by the killer and has a hallucinatory flashback to the case that made his name (which centred on one Francis Calvert, with whom Thorne had shaken hands and realised at once that Calvert was a serial killer). It's as if Billingham alighted on the notion of locked-in syndrome as a hook on which to hang the plot, and built the rest of the book around that, feeling his way through, sketching in the characters as he went, trying to work out exactly what he wanted the thing to be and do.

It's only when Thorne fixates on anaesthetist Jeremy Bishop as the prime suspect that the novel gathers pace (that Bishop is a friend of Alison's doctor, Anne Coburn, with whom Thorne strikes up a romantic relationship, only serves to further complicate matters). Even so, there's still much to admire as we wait for the story to get into gear. There's a frustrated, desperate but highly amusing running commentary from Alison, a prisoner in her own body but still able to think and feel; there are occasional interjections from Thorne's dad, prone to phoning his son merely to crack terrible jokes; and there's Thorne himself: dour, driven, frequently angry, his own worst enemy.

Most of those characteristics can still be seen in the television incarnation of Thorne, although in the shape of David Morrissey, Tom isn't quite the solid, chunky type depicted in the novel (his nickname in the book is the Weeble) – even if Billingham apparently always pictured Morrissey as his lead. Indeed, the TV adaptation – broadcast as the three-part series Thorne: Sleepyhead on Sky 1 in the UK (and now available on DVD) – is like an alternate universe, where everything's just a little bit more glam than it is on the page. Thorne's flat is swankier than it is in the book; the coppers' base of operations isn't quite so grubby (although it is faithfully cavernous); and as for the characters, not only is Thorne himself rather more svelte than we've been led to expect, but Phil Hendricks changes from a Mancunian goth to a twinkle-eyed tousle-haired Irishman (Aiden Gillen) and Anne Coburn becomes the frankly gorgeous Natascha McElhone. Don't get me wrong, McElhone is a fine actress, and she's excellent in Thorne: Sleepyhead, but I dunno: she's not really how I pictured Anne.

All this is ultimately forgivable: it's commercial telly, after all, and bankable stars no doubt helped the series become the hit it was. What's less forgivable are some of the liberties taken with the story. It's not the minor alterations that rankle, things like Thorne's mum still being alive, or Thorne blundering straight into the scene of a crime at the start of the show; it's the fundamental reworking of Thorne's past, specifically the Calvert case, and the resultant changes to the storyline, the consequences of which completely alter the shape of the work. The only way to discuss those properly, though, is to reveal certain elements of the plot, so if you're intending on watching Thorne: Sleepyhead and wish to remain unsullied, stop reading now. In fact, let's throw one of these in for safety's sake:


Still with me? OK then. Here's the deal. In the novel Sleepyhead, Thorne is haunted by his experiences on the Calvert case, fifteen years previously. Having shaken his hand, and as a result believing Calvert to be the serial killer Johnny Boy (the Pretty Boy Killer in the show), murderer of gay men, Thorne goes to Calvert's flat and finds Calvert's wife dead in the kitchen and Calvert's three little girls similarly slaughtered in their bedroom. Finally he finds Calvert himself, also dead, having shot himself in the head. Thorne can't help but feel this gruesome scene was his fault, that when he and Calvert shook hands, Calvert could tell that Thorne knew he was Johnny Boy, and acted accordingly. It's a powerful bit of backstory, and helps to explain why Thorne is the way he is.

In Thorne: Sleepyhead, this same scenario also plays out as a flashback, except Calvert is still alive when Thorne gets to the flat... and it's Thorne who pulls the trigger that blows the back of Calvert's head off. This is covered up by Hendricks, who arrives soon after, and as a result of that, once the cover-up unravels in the present day, Hendricks – who is gay – comes under suspicion for the current murders by both DCI Kevin Tughan and by Thorne.

Now, I'm no Billingham purist (I can hardly claim to be that having only read two books out of a series of eight). If the changes wrought by the TV adaptation had been for the better, or even merely moved events in a different but equally compelling direction, I'd have had no problem with them. But I really can't see the point of saddling Thorne with what is in effect a summary execution in his past. I mean, how bloody tortured do we need the poor bugger to be? And as for Phil being the killer, well I'm sorry but that's just daft.

There is, however, one last ignominy to be meted out. Having pissed about with the plot and introduced an ill-considered extra bit of backstory for Thorne, the writers then go and change the identity of the killer. Not only is it an alteration so baffling I struggled to comprehend the basis for it, one which in a single stroke essentially removes the killer's motivation for the crimes, but it's also a dreadful example of that hoary old TV 'tec plot device, the Oh-No-It-Was-That-Minor-Character-We-Met-Earlier-All-Along-You-Know-The-Shifty-Looking-One-Lurking-In-The-Background Reveal. Seriously, I defy you not to point at the screen and shout "HIM! HIM! IT'S HIM YOU USELESS GITS!" the moment the murderer makes his first appearance. So, enjoyable though much of the show prior to this revelation is, witty though the script may be (in places), and fine though many of the performances are (Eddie Marsan is great as Tughan), in the end it's all torpedoed by that hamfisted, mishandled revelation.

It's a shame, because Sleepyhead the novel is a decent read. It smacks slightly, as I say, of an author finding his way, and there's the occasional cul-de-sac that could have been excised (Thorne being accused of molesting Alison for one), but that's fine. It's a debut novel, and any (minor) missteps are ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer force of the prose. Thorne: Sleepyhead, on the other hand, smacks distinctly of a production losing its way, and the missteps only serve to undermine what could have been a great piece of television.

But there is, unfortunately, worse to come. Because while the second Thorne book, Scaredy Cat, is a definite step up from its predecessor, its TV adaptation, Thorne: Scaredycat, manages to plumb even greater depths of pointless plot tinkering...

(And skip along to here to see a comment from Mr. Billingham himself on this post and its sequels...)