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In the Dark: A Novel

In the Dark: A Novel

Author:Mark Billingham
Release Date:2009

By G. Brian Davis | Posted 1/21/2009

The Brits love their potboilers, and among their favorite craftsmen is Mark Billingham, known for his long-standing detective series starring Tom Thorne. Departing from tradition, Billingham abandons Thorne in his latest novel, In the Dark, for the unlikely Helen Weeks, a London cop, recent widow, and expectant mother.

In the opening scene, a botched gang initiation causes a driver to swerve into a bus stop, killing Det. Paul Hopwood. His girlfriend Helen, in an attempt to reconnect with her estranged and now deceased partner, begins to research his absences from work, his long hours, and his strange social calls. Paul, as it turns out, had friends in both low and high places, and left a bending trail of loose ends behind him.

Meanwhile, freshly initiated gangster Theo finds himself in deeper waters than he can swim, having just killed a detective by accident. With cops circling closer and his friends offering little warmth or protection, Theo's world slowly collapses in on itself, dragging his family down with it.

And last among the players is Frank Linnell, a quiet, lonely, and capable mob boss, whose rage at losing his friend Paul drives him to lash back at London's reckless drug gangs, with far greater violence and speed than London's lumbering police force.

Billingham's greatest strength is in his exciting premise and unusual approach, tracing the many lives of a dead detective from several angles and allowing the grime to slowly fall away. His characters, stiff and awkward at first, slowly fill out to feel round and human, each hopelessly flawed yet ultimately sympathetic. He keeps a tight grip, allowing no reprieve from a dark, uncomfortable sense of inevitability, which keeps the pages turning.

That tension proves all the more impressive given the shamelessly sensationalized prose. How many terse one-liners can you really fit on one page before they lose their dramatic effect? Well, the world may never know, since not a page goes by without an excess of "Not long nows" and "He raises the guns." Veteran authors should know better than to indulge in such self-infatuated frippery.

Some of Billingham's plotting choices seem strange, such as a bloated, incoherent first act that fails to stir interest. Even after he finally sets the hook, his choppy style darts too quickly between perspectives and settings, occasionally meandering into unnecessary blind alleys. It leaves a confused feel to the narrative at times, detracting from the otherwise strong story. But for all of that, Billingham succeeds in delivering a silver bullet that absolves him of most of these failures--a plot twist worthy of the genre.

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