Written by Mark Billingham

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Litte Brown
RRP: £16.99
Released: 18th August 2011

GOOD AS DEAD has a police officer held hostage while Mark Billingham’s DI Tom Thorne is forced to investigate against the clock. Thorne may be assigned to the Area West Murder Squad while the death he has to investigate took place somewhere beyond the M25, north near Chorleywood, but Thorne is a man prepared to go anywhere to see justice done. He is also a man treated unfairly by life – can it be coincidence that he has worked with the hostage police woman while he was also part of the squad that saw the dead boy sent to prison for manslaughter in a possible gang knifing.

Even so, the hostage taker – the boy’s father (no spoiler this, it all happens in the first few chapters) – trusts Thorne to discover the truth. For his son has died in a Young Offenders institution, though in the hospital wing, an apparent suicide following an assault, and maybe another sexual assault as well. As the original verdict, let alone sentence, seemed dubious and severe, the troubled father seems almost a pinnacle of restraint.

Of course, that father’s restraint is an appearance. That is no different, though, to Thorne’s quick realisation of the whole situation after a visit, racing from the locked-down newsagents where the stand-off continues, to the YOI. The question then becomes who would have wanted Amin Akhtar dead, and how was it achieved in the locked rooms of a prison?

As before Thorne has support from pathologist Phil Hendricks, while he can trust his assistants Holland and Kitson to cover the enquires he cannot make. With two teenagers now dead – Lee Slater, the white boy killed in the original knife fight, and now the Muslim Amin – the police must investigate the possibility of a revenge attack and go looking for Lee’s parents and friends. Meanwhile, as he visits the YOI, Thorne discovers that the Muslim inmates tend to swarm and their faith to grow, and that makes them intolerant of more moderate believers who just want to be left alone and continue their studies. Thorne must identify how intolerant.

Then there is the question of life outside. Holland and Kitson’s investigations have introduced them to Lee Slater’s surviving friends. What were Amin’s plans, and how have they worked out for his companions? Are there any clues in his former life? You bet. After the hostage negotiators hear a gun fired inside the shop, Thorne has even less time to produce the evidence and end the siege. Can you see the way it is going to end? Bet you cannot.

GOOD AS DEAD reveals itself to be a fascinating conspiracy thriller, while never achieving the level of “great”. It also has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it. The sexual background is down-played, the fire arms unit is treated as less gung-ho than their ex-army contacts (something various sieges of recent memory suggest is not the case), and muslim life outside the YOI is treated as almost irrelevant. In fact, the Akhtars seem a slightly unusual muslim family – they are Indian rather Pakistani and speak Hindi rather than Urdu between themselves, while unlike many muslim families Mrs Akhtar has worked with her husband in the family shop. Events, though, prove that Mrs Akhtar is no stereotypical woman. Luckily, neither Thorne nor I had bet on it.

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