The art of inducing fear in a reader via the printed page is a speciality of only a few skilled craftsmen. Mark Billingham is such an author, and Sleepy Head
is such a book. The blurb on the jacket warns that we are in for a disturbing experience and that is precisely what we get: "He doesn't want you alive. He doesn't want you dead. He wants you somewhere in between".
The killer who Billingham's protagonist Tom Thorne is up against is a particularly creepy specimen: he has savagely killed three victims but his fourth, although alive, is perhaps not so fortunate. She has undergone a deliberately induced stroke and although all her senses are intact, she is totally unable to move or communicate. This hideous condition, called Locked-in Syndrome is, however, quite possibly the killer's first miscalculation ... or is it? Soon the dogged Thorne (given to distrusting his own abilities) is playing a cat-and-mouse game with a psychopathic killer. And the brilliant and sadistic killer is just as interested in leading Thorne a merry dance as he is in fulfilling his degraded obsessions.
All characterisations here are spot-on, even the killer (although one wonders just how many more hyper-intelligent psychopaths readers will be prepared to take) while the British setting is handled with intelligence, the horrific set pieces with real élan:
His head moved up, through the hole and into bright white light. He blinked quickly to adjust and opened his eyes. Thorne's last thought, before his body turned ice cold and began to shake quietly, was that he'd been right to be afraid...
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From Publishers Weekly
In a variation on the serial killer theme, newcomer Billingham's villain doesn't want to actually kill his victims (those who do die he considers mistakes ) so much as induce massive strokes that will leave them cerebrally conscious while otherwise in a completely comatose state known as locked-in syndrome. Combining elements of both police and medical procedural thriller, the novel follows frayed, middle-aged London detective inspector Tom Thorne as he chases down a series of red herrings, gradually becoming more and more obsessed with the killer's masterpiece, 24-year-old Alison Willetts, and the seductive doctor, Anne Coburn, who cares for her. This romantic subplot becomes entwined with the main plot as Anne's colleague and paramour, Dr. Jeremy Bishop (whose amusement with Thorne's growing infatuation with Anne reveals a particular sort of passive-aggressive sadism), fuels Thorne's rising suspicion of him with verbal jousts. Billingham, a TV writer and stand-up comic, manifests a competent enough hand with plotting and dialogue, particularly at romantic moments ( Now, this carpet has unhappy memories and I'm still not hundred percent sure I've got the smell of vomit out of it... You smooth-talking bastard ). Overall, he displays a solid grasp of the form, though not at the gut-wrenching level of such peers as Mo Hayder. Billingham excels in characterization, however, and it's likely that readers will develop empathy for his conflicted protagonist and the compassionate physician who takes justice into her own hands.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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