Book Review: The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham

The Killing Habit - Mark Billingham *****

Considering some of the cases that Tom Thorne has covered in Mark Billingham's series, you think he must have done something badly wrong this time to get landed with an investigation that involves interviewing old ladies about their dead cats. Leaving aside previous serious errors of judgement in Thorne's past, one even resulting in a demotion, there does actually prove to be a good reason to take this investigation a little more seriously.

For a start, we're talking about over 300 cases of cats being poisoned and ritually mutilated, all within a relatively small area of north London. The implication and reason for Thorne being asked to return to his old stomping grounds north of the Thames are of course that the torture of animals is a behaviour that psychologists have recognised as potentially a precursor to serial killing. That's something that DI Thorne is very familiar with, but he comes up here with an interesting new angle on an old theme. Having just met up with old colleague Phil Hendrix after a gym session, Thorne is struck with the observation that the killing of the cats might not be so much a case of 'warming up', but rather that the scale of it suggests more of a 'cooling down'.

Which means that there are potentially a number of deaths out there that haven't yet been recognised as the work of a serial killer, so there's a bit of investigation to be done. Not without Thorne and his colleagues first exhausting every possible joke of questionable taste about cats in the usual office banter. That's very much Billingham's style and he's as funny as ever here with less of the locker room sexist banter that you might have found in previous Thorne books, and the writing in The Killing Habit is as assured as ever. It's a delight to read, with flowing precise prose, authentic dialogue, mixing humour and horror that cover and reveal fascinating insights into human thinking and behaviour.

And, as is often the case, Mark Billingham is bang up to date with relevant social issues and political sensitivities that are drawn from real-life situations. The business of murder moves with the times, and police methods likewise have to try hard to keep one step ahead. Being mired in old ways of thinking and rules that restrict investigations is one of the aspects of police work that Thorne has struggled with in the past, and issues of data protection can be just as frustrating in the age of social media and on-line dating agencies that make it much easier for a would-be serial killer to gather information regarding potential victims than the police.

Billingham drawing from these relevant issues is one thing, but bringing them together is another matter and The Killing Habit demonstrates the writer's skill at its best. The case is obviously a lot more complex than it seems, as the reader will be aware of from another parallel investigation that is at first not obviously related. A former high-flying city trader, Andrew Evans has recently been released from prison and finds himself in debt to the "Duchess" for substances that made prison life more bearable. He's going to have to pay for that now with little favours that are going to make life outside prison not as free as he thought.

What ties all the various elements together, aside from some skillful plotting, is Billingham's ability to draw characters. The personal and family issues of Thorne and Tanner are there for a reason and brought up only in relevance to the case, not for some soap opera colour. It allows Billingham to explore issues of relationships and post-relationships, loss and loneliness, friendship and trust, and tie them very neatly into the wider cases of the serial killer's victims. There's consequently no so many thrills and spills in The Killing Habit since with the lack of leads Thorne has to mainly sit tight and wait for the killer to act again. By the same token, there's no ludicrous cat and mouse chasing here (plenty of dead cats though) or ridiculous twists. It's a measure of the quality of the writing, characterisation and procedural then that the tension never lessens and you're right there every page of the book. Billingham and Thorne at their best, and when those two are on form you don't get much better than that.

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham is published by Little Brown on 14th June 2018

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