Love Like Blood, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown; 1st June, 2017)
There are times when books transcend genre, and are quite simply great books. Love Like Blood is one of those books. Yes, it fits comfortably into the DI Thorne series, developing and deepening our understanding of Thorne, Hendricks, Kitson, et al. Yes, it is crime fiction, a murder mystery, a thriller, with a sprinkling of police procedural on the side (I really don’t envy the marketers who have to decide on these increasingly casuistical distinctions), but those labels don’t begin to describe it.
In Love Like Blood Billingham looks with anger and compassion at honour-based violence in contemporary Britain and especially at so-called honour killings. DI Nicola Tanner, on the hunt for a pair of killers who she is convinced are behind a series of apparently unconnected deaths, comes home one day to find her partner brutally mutilated and murdered. Bereft and on compassionate leave, she has only one thought on her mind – revenge against the men who had wanted to silence her, but had instead killed Susan. She enlists Thorne’s help. He becomes involved, first off the books and then, as things escalate, officially. Billingham cleverly avoids the potential for easy stereotyping by having the hub of the exchange between the killers, the middlemen and the ‘dishonoured’ families a multi-faith group, bringing together Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, making it clear that a violent response to disobedience and deviation has its roots less in any religion than in does in particular cultural norms. It is not a didactic book, though it is certainly a book from which much can be learned, but Billingham does include at the end a straightforward Author’s Note in which he sets out some of the research behind the book: “The results of a ComRes poll carried out by the BBC in 2013 state that over two thirds (sixty-nine per cent) of young British Asians across all the major faiths believe that families should live according to the concept of honour, or izzat. Three per cent believe that the ultimate sanction of honour killings is justified, including the same number of Muslims and Hindus, but rising to four per cent for Sikhs and Christians.”
All this to say that Love Like Blood is a complex, subtle book, looking at highly challenging issues. It is not, though, an ‘issues’ book, nor in any way polemical. As with all the Thorne series, it is rooted in the humanity of the central characters, their weaknesses, their courage, their humour. Tom Thorne is a flawed man, but a man we can trust, and it is through his eyes that we see the bulk of the story unfold, as he deals doggedly with the limitations of his understanding and of his legal powers. But we don’t only have Thorne’s perspective – the killers, the go-betweens, the families, and the broken-hearted DI Tanner are all given their own distinctive voices, each involving the reader ever more deeply in the fears and obsessions that lie at the heart of the book. And the more we care, the more we worry as it seems as though nothing will save those targeted by the hired killers, nor bring justice for those they’ve already murdered. And the ending is completely right, and utterly unforeseen. A gripping, artfully paced and deeply compassionate crime novel, true in the way that only fiction can be. Absolutely brilliant, and very, very clever.