The Burning Girl
by Mark Billingham
Published by Little, Brown (UK)
368 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan
Quite at odds with its title, Sleepyhead -- British novelist Mark Billingham's 2001 debut work -- in fact woke readers up to what this stand-up comedian-turned-novelist could do in the crime fiction department. That eerie yarn featured a maniacal serial killer who, after accidentally dispatching three victims, finally induced an intended stroke in his fourth. He left her in a condition known as Locked-In Syndrome -- unable to communicate or move. The novel also introduced series protagonist Tom Thorne, a world-weary but justice-driven London police inspector. Even more importantly, though, Sleepyhead first illustrated what would be a constant characteristic of Billingham's books: his ability to write empathically from the victim's viewpoint. That depth makes the Thorne series stand out among more standard thrillers. While Sleepyhead was driven by a great premise and a fast-paced plot, each installment since has showcased a growing awareness of character development and the use of back story. Billingham is definitely not a write-by-numbers author.
His latest book, The Burning Girl, is the fourth Thorne outing and goes well beyond being a great read, to showcase Billingham as a great writer.
This may well be a career-making novel, more potent, more profound and more personal than any of its predecessors. It leaves behind the inventive serial slayers of Billingham's earlier novels to explore the underbelly of organized crime. Here, we find Detective Inspector Thorne having grown beyond a crime-fighting Van Helsing into a man of unexpected complexities and compassion. It's gratifying to observe this progression of Billingham's work.
Retired Detective Chief Inspector Carol Chamberlain is still plagued by a horrific case from her police past. Twenty years ago, a man stalked a group of girls hanging out on a playground after school. Then he suddenly crept up from the bushes behind them, covered young Jessica Clarke in lighter fluid, and set her aflame. Jessica survived, but wished she hadn't, for she was sentenced to a life of disfigurement and painful isolation. Meanwhile, her confessed assailant -- Gordon Rooker, a career hit man for the north London gangs -- was quickly apprehended and sent away to prison. Chamberlain was the arresting officer, and thought the case closed. But did she really have all the answers?
The former DCI is terrified when, out of the blue, she starts receiving charred pieces of fabric, just like the material Jessica had been wearing on the day she was torched, along with anonymous phone calls from a man who claims he was actually the one responsible for that two-decades-old attack. At the same time, Rooker says he's determined to tell the truth about the whole tragedy. With nowhere else to turn, Chamberlain -- who's worked with Thorne before -- asks him to help sort out these mysteries.
Tired of dealing with a rash of slayings that appear to be the result of north London gang rivalries, DI Thorne sees doing this favor for Chamberlain as a relief. Hah! Little does he know. From the outset, Thorne realizes there is nothing straightforward about the Clarke girl's burning, except Rooker's continued presence behind bars. As the story goes, Rooker set fire to the wrong child -- his intended target was Alison Kelly, the daughter of local organized-crime boss Kevin Kelly. When the DI confronts Rooker with questions about Chamberlain's anonymous phone calls, the convict adamantly denies the caller's claims that he, rather than Rooker, was responsible for lighting up little Jessica:
'You can be sure. I set fire to that girl. That's basically why I'm here.'
Nevertheless, Thorne knows there's more to this than meets his eyes. It doesn't take him long to start looking for connections between the Clarke assault, Rooker's impending parole hearing and the latest spate of gang warfare. For him, there's no delusion of coincidence in the fact that one of the people caught up in this warfare is Billy Ryan, the husband of Alison Kelly -- and her father's chosen criminal successor. Ryan's henchmen are rapidly becoming extinct as the Turkish mafia stretches its legs across London, infringing on his territory. But Thorne worries that this is only surface violence, that there is something beneath the façade of the burning girl case that waits impatiently to convert heat into homicide. As this twisted tale winds along, the DI might be excused for wishing that he had only another serial killer to capture.
Billingham's books have never been "merely" crime fiction. They are always about people -- the mistakes they make and the price they must pay for those mistakes. As with Sleepyhead, in which the author personalized his story with the narrative of a coma patient, in The Burning Girl he quotes liberally from Jessica Clarke's diary:
Shit Moment of the Day
Like his fellow Britons Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder, Billingham shows his skill partly in the multi-layered interactions he sets up between his protagonist and other cast members, as well as his increasing ability to transport the reader into each fictional scene. Thorne struggles to do what is right; his humanity propels The Burning Girl beyond the mundane and into the superb. He could easily have become another taciturn, anti-social lead detective with nothing better than a constant internal dialogue to keep him company. Instead, this country-western music-loving DI is given dimension and depth by being endowed by his creator with humor, sympathy for the victims of crime and a demonstrable trustworthiness.
The ascendant grimness of this novel is cut beautifully, in part, by Tom Thorne's comical exchanges with his temporary roommate, gay and bald pathologist Phil Hendricks. When, for instance, the DI comes in from a late night on the job, Hendricks moans, "Dinner will be ruined." Billingham doesn't use Hendricks in the typical sidekick role. Rather, he is a foil to Thorne's intensity, an intelligent sounding board for the DI's suppositions. In Thorne, Billingham offers the, uh, perfect straight man.
Also imparting levity to The Burning Girl is a back story about how Thorne's father is making a slow but steady decent into Alzheimer's-induced dementia. The Tourette's-like outburst his father bellows when the two of them are at a bingo hall, and Thorne's horror-cum-amusement at it all, are endearing beacons in the darkness of this book.
After Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat and Lazybones (the last being one of January's gift book picks for 2003), The Burning Girl only confirms that Mark Billingham can write superlative thrillers that are also police anti-procedurals. His work is a must for anyone who craves crime fiction that's as shallow of artifice as it is deep with human emotion. | August 2004