Book review: Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham
Their Little Secret - Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham, in case you don't already know it, likes to mess with the reader's head a little. It's not just for the sake of a neat little twist at the end of one of his thrillers, although he's often quite effective at that, but it's more in the way that he lays the ground for what develops. Their Little Secret starts out like a relatively straightforward investigation for DI Tom Thorne, but he suspects that there something strange lurking behind what seems like a common case of suicide, and since it's a Mark Billingham thriller, you can be sure he's not wrong about that.
The seemingly 'relatively straightforward' and 'common' case of course turns out to be anything but relatively straightforward or common. It starts with the death of a woman throwing herself in front of an Underground train. Reviewing camera footage, there's nothing to suggest that there is anything more to this than it seems, but Thorne has a bad feeling about it and attempts to look into what might have driven her to suicide. Inevitably it's a man, but it's no ordinary man, rather one who makes his living seducing vulnerable women and making off with their savings.
His activities however are about to escalate and justify Thorne's suspicions. Conrad has just met a woman in a coffee shop who he thinks might be a good candidate for his next adventure. Sarah is a mother who hangs in the coffee shop with other parents who gather there before collecting their kids from school. There's something different about Sarah however and Conrad suspects it, but he still can't help himself. She indeed also has an assumed identity and a secret, but to what purpose?
Well, the purpose changes and develops in an unexpected way when these two become a couple, creating a dangerous and unpredictable team. There are more victims and they aren't suicides, but who knows where or how they might strike next? Well, like Thorne's gut feeling, the reader, if they are familiar with Billingham or are just reading carefully and noticing little asides that don't fit neatly into the main narrative, will suspect that there might be something more to this case.
There's another complication that long-time readers of Billingham's DI Tom Thorne series will already be aware of, and that's the baggage that Thorne carries over from previous cases, most recently a little bit of working in a less than official by-the-book capacity that means that Thorne, DI Tanner (getting equal billing now) and Thorne's friend Phil Hendricks have their own little secret to keep. The particulars of that secret aren't as important as the mental baggage they carry away from it, and how it affects their relationships with others.
In that respect, Billingham ties things together quite well in Their Little Secret, and that's perhaps more satisfying than how he handles the resolution of the actual investigation. Having messed with his character's heads, Billingham goes a little easier on the reader this time and - shock and surprise - Thorne almost does this one by the book. Even the little obligatory twist of someone else being involved is one that you can see coming from a mile off. That's a little disappointing but perhaps a more realistic outcome, and to be honest Thorne doesn't need any more trouble or questions over his professional conduct hanging over him.
The resolution might be a little more conventional, but it certainly doesn't take away from what is otherwise an intriguing case that has disturbing resonances with other true life crime couples and there's no shortage of tension and serious escalation. As far as Thorne is concerned, when matters in his personal life are unresolved, the case raises some uncomfortable questions about power dynamics in relationships that could well carry over as baggage, along with all the rest, into the next DI Thorne/DI Tanner book.