Mark Billingham is a standup comic. I am unfamiliar with his stage work, and perhaps it's just as well, as I would have come to SCAREDY CAT (and, for that matter, his debut novel SLEEPYHEAD) with some preconceived notion that it would be at least quasi-comedic, that Billingham would possibly be a British Donald Westlake. For all I know, Billingham may be the funniest man on the planet, but you couldn't prove it with SCAREDY CAT.
SCAREDY CAT is an almost unrelievedly grim police procedural, though the setting is not a fictionalized New York City but rather modern-day London. The novel focuses on a series of murders being investigated by Team 3 of the unimaginatively named Serious Crime Group (West) of the Met, London Metropolitan Police. Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, introduced in SLEEPYHEAD, is back, and Billingham continues his slow and methodical sketching of Thorne's personality. Thorne may well be one of the most quietly complex characters in modern detective fiction; just when the reader thinks he or she has a handle on him, there is a twist or a turn, and suddenly one's opinion, one's conception, needs revision. Thorne is no genius, and he knows it. This is important; he is able to admit mistakes and to turn, albeit grudgingly, on a dime to correct them, even as he is weighed down by regret.
Ah, and the series of murders. Two women are murdered in London, some distance apart, with enough similarities to convince the police that they are, at least initially, the work of the same person. The murders resemble a pair of killings that occurred several months previously in which two other women were killed on the same day, apparently at the same time. Thorne comes to the conclusion that the two pairs of killings are linked, and that there is not one killer, but two, working in tandem with each other. He is horrified to further realize that, every time one body is found, there will be another waiting to be discovered. And while the methods of the murders may be the same, the killers themselves, it seems, are very, very different.
As the reader follows Thorne and his team (a group of extremely interesting individuals, to say the least) through their investigation, Billingham describes the intricacies of the investigators, the murderers and the survivors, the relatives of the victims left behind in death's wake. And while the identity of one of the murderers is revealed relatively early, the other is not revealed to either Thorne or the reader until the very end. The result is a novel with such skilled pacing that it is almost excruciatingly painful to read it without finishing it in one sitting. Yet it is simultaneously a novel of such simple craft, such intelligence, that one wants to savor it slowly. The result is an interesting dichotomy that few writers are able to achieve.
It is not necessary to read SLEEPYHEAD prior to reading SCAREDY CAT, though a reader introduced to one will inevitably be drawn to the other. Billingham, with only two novels, has become a writer who will undoubtedly be added to many "must-read" lists. Oh, one other thing about SCAREDY CAT: this book has perhaps the saddest Epilogue I have ever read. Don't skip ahead --- you won't really get it unless you read the whole book. And you'll definitely want to read the whole book.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub