Coaxing information from reluctant sources is all in a day's work for homicide investigators. But in Mark Billingham's new thriller, Die of Shame, Nicola Tanner, a London police detective, is up against an unusually solid wall of silence.
Tanner is investigating the murder of 32-year-old Heather Finlay. The victim was estranged from her family and had few friends — how few can be measured by the fact that she was fatally stabbed in her own kitchen, but her body wasn't found until more than two weeks later, and then only because a neighbor complained of the smell.
Just about the only connections Heather seemed to have were the other members of an addiction therapy group that met weekly at the upscale home of their therapist, Tony De Silva. So Tanner goes to De Silva and the group hoping to find information that might solve Heather's murder.
Although the group isn't an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it's modeled in some ways on that organization, especially its emphasis on confidentiality: What happens in group stays in group.
Even when a crime has been committed? De Silva claims therapist's privilege, and the group members argue that they don't know whether they actually have knowledge related to the crime, so they don't know what's appropriate to reveal — as Tanner's colleague calls it, Catch-22.
Die of Shame is a standalone departure from Billingham's bestselling series about another London cop, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne (although Thorne's best friend, pathologist Phil Hendricks, has a funny cameo). Before turning to writing crime fiction full time 15 years ago, Billingham was a TV writer, actor and standup comedian.
In those prior professions, he seems to have honed a beautiful sense of timing. Die of Shame is all about exquisitely controlled revelation that builds suspense and keeps the reader guessing, and second-guessing.
Billingham skillfully shifts the narrative between present and past and among all the main characters: Tanner, De Silva, Heather and the other members of the group. They're a diverse lot — whom we know for most of the book only by their first names, because that's how it is in group — with varying addictions in their past.
Robin, an anesthesiologist, got into trouble helping himself to prescription drugs from the hospital pharmacy. Diana dealt with a nasty divorce from her wealthy husband first with alcohol, then with compulsive shopping. Chris is an often-homeless gay prostitute and former heroin addict who has channeled his compulsions into porn and video games. Heather, too, was a heroin user as well as a gambling addict. And the group's newest member is a young woman named Caroline whose food addiction led to obesity that caused severe knee pain — and a painkiller problem.
Then there's De Silva, who is also a former addict, dating back to his days as a successful rock musician. After the drugs ended that career, he studied to become a therapist — work he enjoys, even though he feels restless about the fact that the posh house where he treats his clients is paid for mainly by his wife. And then there's his daughter, teenager-from-hell Emma, whose painfully described eating disorder he blames himself for not curing.
One technique De Silva employs with the group is a kind of shame therapy. Working from the assumption that addiction can be a way to cope with past humiliation, each member is asked to reveal to the others the most shameful thing from his or her past. Coming in the latter part of the novel, those scalding stories — about bullying, sexual abuse, blaming another for one's own wrongdoing — heighten what we've learned about each character.
The more we know about them, the clearer it becomes that just about anyone in the group might have had some reason to kill Heather — and just about any one of them might be capable of it.
Tanner is a dogged, by-the-books investigator, not at all like Billingham's sardonic, risk-taking Thorne. (She actually enjoys filing out forms and reports.) But she does have a human side. Dealing with the addiction group hits close to home for her because her partner, Susan, has been knocking down bottles of wine at an alarmingly increasing rate. And she admirably pursues Heather's case despite the fact that it's low profile — no political profit to be had from solving the death of some lonesome junkie.
And despite her no-nonsense approach, Billingham gives us his usual measure of sly wit, as when Tanner and her colleague, Dipak Chall, pass a coffee shop full of people typing away on their laptops. Chall guesses they're all writing novels.
" 'Write what you know. That's what they say writers should do, isn't it?'
" 'Is it?'
" 'Well, if that's true, how come there aren't a lot more novels about losers who spend their lives sitting in sodding coffee shops?' "
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.