I first read a book by Mark Billingham when I was given a proof copy of Scaredycat at the London Book Fair and read it on the train on the way home. I thought that it was an impressive novel, though a bit too sensational for my tastes. I’ve read at least one more of his novels since then (In the Dark, which his publisher does not class as crime), but am amazed to discover that he has now completed ten crime novels altogether.
I began Rush of Blood when I was on my own on Wednesday evening and completed it on Thursday (as we might say in Yorkshire: ‘It were that good!’). It is a very fine book indeed. I’d describe it as a psychological thriller rather than a crime novel. (Scaredycat is as well, but, as I’ve said, much more overtly violent.) It tells the story of how three British couples meet at a tawdry, manufactured beach resort in Florida. Although there are tensions between them from the start, they agree to have dinner together on their last evening at the resort. Earlier that day, a thirteen-year-old girl who is intellectually disabled goes missing. Among the many touches of genius in this book is the way by which Billington indicates that she is ‘slow’ and shows others’ reactions to her limited mental capabilities without actually applying any medical or ‘politically-correct’ terms to her condition. Her worn-down but amusing middle-aged single mother is also extremely well-drawn.
The British couples return home, but are somehow drawn to each other, perhaps because they ‘shared’ knowledge of this event. The girl’s body is not discovered until some weeks later, by which time they have set up a schedule of dinner dates at each other’s houses. Although they have given statements to the American police, the discovery of the body prompts further action. A trainee British detective, Jenny Quinlan, liaises with Jeffrey Gardner, the much more experienced black American detective on the case, and volunteers to interview the three couples again. He directs her to ask just some basic questions to fill in the gaps in his original statements, but Jenny is both keen and driven (she is a little bit reminiscent of Clarice Starling) and probes much deeper. In the process, she discovers that each of the three couples lied about their exact whereabouts at the time when the girl disappeared. The omniscient narrator (Billingham handles this technique well) reveals further flaws about each one of them and anomalies in each of their relationships, expanding on their characters just enough to tell the reader that any one of the individuals or couples could have committed the crime – or it could have been someone else altogether: the girl’s mother admitted chatting up a good-looking man several times during the days leading up to her disappearance.
I did guess who did it, but only a few pages before the end. Yet the denouement is not forced in any way: the trail of clues that Billingham lays is entirely logical when reviewed in retrospect.
I have two minor quibbles, both of which concern shortfalls in editing. Almost every time two or more people are gathered to discuss something, Billingham says that they ‘lean in’ to each other; and he uses the adjective ‘stupid’ on just about every page. At first, it is just a kind of catch-phrase of the girl’s mother and perfectly acceptable used like this, as one of her speech mannerisms, but eventually it is extended to the thoughts and actions of more or less everyone in the book. All authors have these blind spots: there is a word or phrase at the back of your mind that keeps on popping up and you have no idea how many times you have used it. A good editor will spot this. For me, these small blemishes caused a minor irritation in what is otherwise a superlative read. I now plan to read some of the crime novels that Billingham wrote after Scaredycat. Whatever impression they make, I am convinced that Rush of Blood will be the novel in which he transcends the crime genre. He will always be a great crime writer, but this novel makes him a great writer full stop, by whatever standards he is judged.