Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham

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Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A police procedural with some great chracters and a good killer with a very inventive modus operandi, but too easy to guess; formulaic detective but vivid description of London; the style stumbles and some parts could have been edited out. Borrow definitely, buy only if you are a comitted Billingham fan.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: July 2002
Publisher: Time Warner Paperbacks
ISBN: 0751531464

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Sleepyhead is a serial-killer novel, set in the contemporary London and featuring DI Tom Thorne as the main character. It was Mark Billingham's debut as a crime writer and was received very well. I have enjoyed the novel, but I think that it had a lot of faults of the typical debut - I have now read the other instalments of the series and there are better ones out there, my favourite being Scaredy Cat (this was one that really scared me and it's not an easy feat for a pop-book!).

Thorne is one of your typical fictional detectives: a hardened but sensitive copper, pig headed, stubborn and generally very good at what he's doing and rather bad at getting on with his superiors and some of his peers. He reminds me of Rankin's Rebus which is not necessarily a bad thing but doesn't make Thorne a particularly original invention. He's divorced; listens to country music and an occasional trance piece, likes his beer and wine but doesn't smoke or drink spirits. In a post-modernist way he's rather aware of the fact that he is a typical crime-novel figure but seems happy enough with it. Thorne has a sidekick in the person of Dave Holland, a young policeman torn between following a safe course of career and doing something worthwhile. The best friend is a gay Mancunian pathologist called Hendricks - one of the best creations of the book overall.

These characters re-appear in the novels following this one and Sleepyhead does a good job of introducing them. Despite the fact that they are all rather 'of a type', they have enough individuality to produce a good framework for the main story.

There is also another rather important character in the novel: London. The feeling of particular places is well captured and anybody who knows the capital will probably enjoy matching the descriptions to their own experience of the city.

During the course of Sleepyhead Thorne investigates a series of murders in which the victim is killed by somebody skilfully applying pressure to their arteries in order to cause a stroke. One of the victims, who becomes one of the principal characters of the novel - Alison - survives in the state of what is called 'locked-in-syndrome' - conscious, able to hear, see and think but totally (at least initially) unable to communicate or move. Not before long the police learn that Alison was not a mistake, she was the killer's first success. He wants them like that, suspended between life and death, with only brain function and sensory input working; eternally bed-and-machine-bound.

The modus operandi of the killer is one of the best features of the novel. I suppose this is how serial killer books differentiate: either by the way that murders are committed or the motives/personality of the killer. Sleepyhead is definitely a 'how' book and the idea of a killer for whom a killing constitutes a failure is a truly ingenious and a very entertaining one.

On the other hand the 'why' and 'who' of the killer were a bit of a downer: I almost never can guess who the culprit is in murder mysteries, but in this case I did with no particular problems and quite early on. I am not saying it's a major disadvantage, as you never really know till the end and there was still some excitement in finding out, but readers who prefer their crime mysteries to stay mysterious till the final unravelling might find it a problem.

The novel is narrated from three main points of view: one of Thorne's; one of Alison and one of the killer; though other characters also have an occasional say. Most of its bulk is devoted to relating Thorne's side of the events, but to me Alison's parts were the highlight of the book: monologues of gutsy Geordie girl, alternately raving, raging and joking; providing commentary on the action and a poignant closure to the whole story.

Sleepyhead seems to suffer from some fairly typical debut problems: the main character is definitely still finding his voice, and the novel could do with a bit of editing.

There is a whole chunk of text related to frotteuristic exploits of a minor character on the tube, which has no bearing on the story, doesn't fool you for a minute into thinking that it relates to the killer and makes no sense whatsoever - definitely a section that should have been edited out.

Thorne has a 'skeleton' in his past relating to a case from 15 years before; this experience haunts him and to some extent explains why he behaves the way he does. The story is frequently hinted at and mentioned and eventually told in detail in one of the chapters. To me it's something that I would be happier to see as staying vague - it has no actual bearing on the current case except as an influence on Thorne and certainly its inclusion does not improve the construction.

The writing quality in Sleepyhead is variable: some parts, especially the internal monologues of Alison and the musings of the killer work very well. The chapters written in the free indirect style describing Thorne's view of the events are amongst the most strained and have a bit too many dead sentences for my personal liking. Some imagery seems to be purposefully designed to be dark and grotty, but instead ends up being almost funny: envy burns through his body like caustic soda dissolving fat in a drain. Chandler it ain't, really. And what is ersatz dross?

But nothing is so bad as to detract from the essentially escapist pleasures of reading a decent serial killer novel. Some paragraphs, especially the ones written in a natural, simple manner with a bit of pathos thrown in work quite well: These were typical murders. Ordinary killings, simple, banal and understandable. People dying because of anger or frustration or a basic lack of space. Dying for a grand cause or a stupid comment or a few pence. Wives and husbands killing with hammers and fists, or men being men with drink and knives, or drug dealers holding guns as casually as combs.

The level of gore is acceptable: Billingham doesn't wallow too much in the detailed anatomical descriptions of dead bodies even though they are there; there are also several rather bloody episodes including the climax. I would rate the gore factor as about 7 out of 10 as far as murder mysteries go, so not for the terribly squeamish, but not overdone either.

It might have been my mood, but unlike many reviewers I didn't find Sleepyhead scary. There weren't any moments when I felt viscerally moved or wanted to hide under the duvet; but then I am not particularly scared of serial killers and see them similarly to dragons and other fictional monsters.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Sleepyhead; mostly because of the unusual way the murders were committed and because of the good use Billingham made of the character of Alison. The leading characters (Thorne, Holland & Hendricks) worked OK, but the first two were perhaps bit too formulaic for my liking.

The problems I had related mostly to a stumbling writing style, especially in the sections written from Thorne's perspective; the construction of the novel could also be improved by removal of some of the scenes. Despite its faults it was certainly a promising debut and I have to say that the next instalment of DI Thorne's story Scaredy Cat was significantly improved.

Mark Billingham's D I Tom Thorne Novels in Chronological Order

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