The first death is personal.
British author Mark Billingham begins the first chapter of Bloodline, his ninth novel about London homicide Detective Tom Thorne, not with a gory murdered body but with the news that an unborn child "is not viable."
The baby is Thorne's. The mother is his girlfriend and fellow cop, Louise Porter, who finds out during an early-pregnancy ultrasound that the fetus she is carrying has died. As hospital workers briskly schedule a D&C, Thorne mordantly contemplates that phrase "not viable" and how he might use it when informing people their loved ones have been murdered: "Fine, so it made the victim sound like an android, but that detachment was important, right? You needed the distance. It was that or a few more empty wine bottles in your recycling bin every week."
Thorne knows all about the importance of distance. But Billingham shows us just how difficult such distance is to maintain. The loss of that baby — a baby that was a surprise, and that both Thorne and Porter were still uncertain about — will reverberate throughout Bloodline, a story filled with broken and tangled connections between parents and children.
It doesn't take long, though, for the plot to get to a gory murdered corpse. At first it looks to Thorne like a simple case, just your everyday lethal domestic violence: Emily Walker, 30-ish, killed in her own kitchen, no sign of forced entry.
But there are odd details. She was beaten, but a plastic bag over her head suffocated her. In her hand is a scrap of film. And, oddly enough, her mother was murdered too, 15 years before.
Pretty soon other bodies are turning up with those same plastic bags and scraps of film. Thorne and his colleagues discover that, put together like a puzzle, the film bits are a scan of the brain of a serial killer, Raymond Garvey, convicted of brutally murdering seven women.
But these new murders can't be his work. He died in prison a few years before — the film pieces are from the X-ray image of the massive brain tumor that killed him.
The victims have something else in common: Every one of them is the child of one of the women Garvey killed.
Thorne and his colleagues race to find the remaining sons and daughters of Garvey's victims. Two of them prove difficult to track down — Graham Fowler is homeless, and Andrew Dowd has recently left his wife and set off on a back-country hiking trip, cell phone turned off.
Debbie Mitchell is easy enough to find, but getting her into protective custody is another matter. She is the single mother of a mentally impaired 8-year-old son who is totally dependent on her, and she is loath to take him out of his familiar surroundings. Trying to reason with — or frighten — Debbie so she can be hidden from the killer, Thorne can't help but reflect on her devotion to her son and his own feelings about parenthood.
Rounding up the potential victims is just part of Thorne's work, of course. Finding the killer is even more urgent, and Billingham skillfully ratchets up the tension as the person the police are hunting begins to taunt them. The book's final portion is a tautly crafted explosion of violence and sudden twists.
Billingham draws a complex and intriguing character in Thorne and surrounds him with an interesting supporting cast, like his best friend (and Louise's), Phil Hendricks, a tough, tattooed, gay CSI with a wicked sense of humor and an implacable sense of integrity. For the challenges of this case, Thorne calls in a retired investigator named Carol Chamberlain, who looks like someone's nice old auntie but combines a brilliantly devious mind with a fierce willingness to do whatever it takes to catch a killer.
Billingham, who is also a standup comic and children's book writer, is a bestselling author in Britain, where the 10th book in this series, From the Dead, has already been published and a TV series, Thorne, has been made from the early books. Bloodline promises to bring him, and Thorne, a bigger audience on this side of the pond.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.