For those customers who boarded the Tom Thorne Express (driven by Mark Billingham) at the last station, here is the story so far. Tom Thorne is a middle-aged policeman currently – and probably permanently – of Detective Inspector rank. His home turf is predominantly North London, but he has survived being busted down to uniform, and banished to that godless region south of the Thames. He is a maverick’s maverick. Grumpy, impulsive, reckless, no respecter of seniority, but grudgingly admired by fellow officers who know a good copper when they see one. He lives with a child protection officer and her young son. His long time best mate is pathologist Phil Hendricks who is totally conventional apart from his addiction to body piercings, tattoos, and the Gay lifestyle. Of Thorne’s many vices, the one which exasperates his friends more than anything is his passion for country music, where his drug of choice is Hank Williams. Thorne tries not to give the many ghosts in his past free reign, but the spectre that haunts him the most is that of his late father, who suffered a long and ultimately fatal slide down into the hell of dementia.
Now, Thorne becomes involved in another kind of hell on earth, and one where all absent devils have been called home, all leave cancelled, and any recently retired fallen angels pressed back into duty. The fires stoked in this particular hellish pit illuminate the ghastly world inhabited by some British Asian communities who sanction murder in the name of their warped concept of family honour. Among the ghosts which inhabit the darker parts of Thorne’s memory is that of Meena Athwal. She was killed, he is certain, at the behest of her family, but her death remains unavenged in a court of justice.
Thorne is approached by a fellow officer, Nicola Tanner. Her partner, schoolteacher Susan Best, has been murdered in their shared home, and Tanner is convinced that it is a case of mistaken identity. She believes that the killers are a pair of professional murderers she is tracking for their role in so-called ‘Honour Killings’. Tanner wants Thorne’s help because she thinks his sheer bloody-mindedness and contempt for procedure will cut through the layers of police timidity caused by misplaced sensitivity to multicultural issues.
Thorne, reluctantly, agrees to help, but then two youngsters – Amaya and boyfriend Kamal – are abducted. They were planning to run away together to escape the stifling expectations of their families, but the CCTV shows them being abused by a drunken Irish lout on a train, but then rescued by a smartly dressed Asian man. When Amaya’s body turns up in a shallow grave, apparently raped and strangled, Thorne abandons any reluctance he may have felt, and begins to put pressure on those he feels may be responsible.
Billingham dedicates the book to two real-life victims of religious murder, Banaz Mahmod and Rahmat Sulemani. He barely keeps his anger in check, but is too good a writer to allow the novel to be just a diatribe against disgusting and inhuman beliefs. Still, his controlled fury burns white hot on every page. Here, he discusses motives for the killings with his boss:
“It’s hard to accept these are motives.”
“Because they’re not, “ Thorne said. “Not to you or me or to anyone else with an ounce of sodding humanity. The people we’re dealing with have different … standards. A different code. If you can kill your own flesh and blood because something they’ve done means you don’t think you can hold your head up in a temple or in some poxy neighbourhood café….”
We watch with anguish as another possible victim becomes a target for the deadly pair who Tanner has correctly identified. A teenage girl keeps a diary and, having realised that her brother Jad has taken to reading it, writes this entry:
“What makes me angriest is that Jad doesn’t believe a lot of this stuff any more than I do. It’s perfect for him, because of what he’s got between his legs. He gets to do what he likes while I’m bringing dishonour into the house because I’m not ashamed to use what’s BETWEEN MY EARS!”
The plot twists are little short of masterly. Billingham encourages us to make a series of assumptions, but then delights in confounding us as he reveals that the reality is something different altogether. Love Like Blood is the sixteenth Tom Thorne novel and I am certain that the series, which started in 2001 with Sleepyhead, will come to be seen as a classic of its kind. I have read every one of them, but can say with complete conviction that Love Like Blood is the most powerful and impressive yet.