The last Mark Billingham book I read was In The Dark, which I found a refreshing and successful change for the author, both in writing style and in taking the focus away from his regular character DI Thorne. It wasn't a change that was to everyone's taste however, so while I was slightly disappointed to find that Good As Dead is back more or less to the standard procedural of crime investigation with Tom Thorne back in the driving seat, that's still not a bad place to be, demonstrating as it does the author's strong authentic characterisation and awareness of the contemporary issues relating to police investigation. Often that's in relation to the difficult areas of race, social, political and internal police affairs, but Billingham also introduces a few interesting touches of its own here in what turns out to be an intriguing case.
At the start however, Good As Dead seems like it's setting up a fairly standard situation, when the Indian owner of a cornershop, seemingly fed-up with the daily hassle and abuse he has to put up with from young kids, cracks and barricades himself into the shop, holding a couple of hostages at gunpoint. One of the people being held is police officer Helen Weeks (introduced in In The Dark), and it's no coincidence either. The man, Mr Akhtar, is actually upset about the death of his son Amin, who recently died in a prison cell. Akhtar doesn't believe the official verdict of suicide and he's going to hold the siege for as long as it takes for DI Thorne, who was involved in the original case, to find out the truth behind his boy's death. Time is of the essence and, looking into the matter, Thorne - with help from his regular team of officers - indeed finds that something isn't quite right about the case. Not only is it difficult however to find any evidence for what he believes to be the reality of the situation, but he isn't sure that the boy's father will be at all appeased by what he finds out.
That much seems like standard police procedural, but it gradually becomes clear that things are not that straightforward. What is also not straightforward or regular is Mark Billingham's treatment of the subject. Billingham is not afraid to delve into contentious areas in the matter of police investigation - Thorne, Weeks, Hendricks, Holland and Kitson are all human and prone to lapses of judgement - or in the area of race and social issues that reflects the reality on the streets of the London and the UK. Sometimes this is evident in just simple little touches and humour that reveals a lot about the characters, and sometimes, it gets right to the heart of prejudices, discrimination and criminality on a bigger scale, revealing the complications that make handling of such matters politically sensitive as well as personally hazardous.
Good As Dead has two things going for it then that help it rise above just being an average crime procedural. On the one hand, you have a character like Thorne, who reacts like most people would in relation to what happens here and occasionally has moments when he would like to take the law into his own hands (and the reader would love to see him do it), but he knows, on balance, just how far to push this. Secondly, Billingham orchestrates events brilliantly, even in a regular investigation and a siege situation, bringing the resolution around to an immensely satisfying conclusion. You really can't ask for more than that