Cry Baby (2020) by Mark Billingham

1996. Two friends meet in the park while their sons play together nearby. Until they realise that one of them, Keiron, is missing. He was playing hide and seek with his friend Josh, but no one saw him disappear.

Meanwhile Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is struggling with the memory of the time when he ignored his instinct about a suspect, only for that suspect walking free to lead to a terrible tragedy. He has sworn that he will not ignore his instinct again. But what if his instinct is wrong this time? Either way, it seems that tragedy is destined to follow Thorne around…

It’s been a while since I’ve read something by Mark Billingham. Why now, I hear you wonder out loud? Well, in a few weeks’ time, he and M W Craven will be promoting their new books at a bookshop near me, so given that I’ve devoured everything Mike has written, it seemed only fair to get back up to speed with Mark’s work.

I’ve read most of the Tom Thorne books – the first thirteen of them in fact – and I’m a bit pushed to put my finger on why it’s been five years since I’ve read another. It was a pity my memory was so fuzzy as to Thorne’s details, as this is a prequel to the series, set before the excellent Sleepyhead (or according to the latest cover, Sleepy Head…) I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot of foreshadowing that went right over my head, but I did enjoy the first meetings and burgeoning friendship between Thorne and pathologist Phil Hendricks.

I’m probably misremembering, but this book didn’t seem to have the flashes of humour against the darkness of previous books. To be fair, though, it’s hard to be funny against the backdrop of child abduction, and the rest of the subplots are dark as hell as well – Thorne never has an easy life, does he?

Nonetheless, I still found the book a compelling, if uncomfortable, read. There is one very nice piece of misdirection that basically dangles the identity of the kidnapper under the reader’s nose without them realising it, but I could have done with more time clarifying the motive. The “why” is explained, but it’s a “why” that needed a little more background to convince. And I wasn’t sure of the need for the final bit of motivation of another character’s actions, other than making the reader feel slightly sick. And the epilogue isn’t a bucket of rainbows either…

But for all the darkness, I think I’ll be back to the books again soon – and not just to get a signed copy when I go to the book event. I’ve always enjoyed the series, and while this didn’t feel like it was up there with the very best, at the end of the day I was gripped and determined to find out what was going on, caring about the characters’ fates. It did take a while to take hold, but once it did…

So not for everyone with its subject matter, but good enough to bring me back to the series.

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