Sleepyhead is the first book in the DI Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham. It is yet another British detective murder-mystery series, this time set in London, and has multiple similarities to many other British police procedurals by the likes of Ian Rankin (John Rebus), Stuart MacBride (Logan McRae), Robert Bryndza (Erica Foster), Adrian McKinty (Sean Duffy), Val McDermid (Tony Hill & Carol Jordan), Peter Robinson (Alan Banks) and Susie Steiner (Manon Bradshaw).
Of course the first thing these books have in common is the promotion system (Detective Constable, Detective Sergeant, Detective Inspector, Detective Chief Inspector, etc). Another aspect these books have in common is a protagonist who either has a colorful past or problematic character traits (and in many cases, they have both). A third common feature all of these British police procedural mystery books have is the frequent consumption of copious amounts of alcohol and tea.
Tom Thorne definitely falls into the category of a main character who has a colorful past and problematic personality. When we (the reader) meet Tom in Sleepyhead, there are cryptic references to the Calvert case, apparently an old case which clearly still haunts and troubles him. When we find out about his latest case, which involves the murder of multiple women by someone using a similar modus operandi (stalking a single woman, being invited in to their abode, injecting them with a very specialized anesthetic and then inducing a stroke, which in all but one case is fatal) we learn that Tom has a reputation for being somewhat of a lone wolf and a loose cannon. Even though Tom acts on his hunches a lot, he’s not always wrong. For example, he figures out that the victim who survived the latest attack is not a failure by the serial killer; the “locked-in” state is what the perpetrator wanted to happen. It was the losses of life that were unintentional.
The problematic aspects of Tom’s personality reveal themselves pretty extensively as the story precedes. He quickly latches on to a theory of the case and identifies a prime suspect for which there is almost no confirming evidence, a fact none of his superior officers will let him ignore. He enters into a romantic (and sexual) relationship with a very close friend and confidant of this suspect. When the perpetrator (and target of his investigation) starts directly interacting with Tom through notes and a physical attack Tom gets himself re-assigned to another unit but continues his investigation (focused on the suspect he is convinced is guilty despite the absence of evidence).
One notable feature of Sleepyhead is that the writing is significantly more lyrical than what is typical in the British police procedural/murder mystery genre in my experience.
In some ways I think this attention to style over substance is a problem sometimes. For example, I felt that there were several key action scenes in Sleepyhead where instead of clearly stating what action was occurring, the text actually obscured what was going on and this forced me to read the passage more than once.
Another notable feature of Sleepyhead is the inclusion of a first person perspective from one of the early victims of the perpetrator (the one who survived but now is “locked-in” her body with no control over it except for the ability to blink).
Overall, I found Sleepyhead to be quite compelling, although I was somewhat repelled by Tom Thorne’s character and often annoyed by the ornate nature of the prose at times. However, the cleverness of the plot and the deployment of the suspense and mystery elements were impressive enough that I am looking forward to exploring the rest of the books in this popular series.
Author: Mark Billingham.
Paperback: 432 pages.
Publisher: Avon Books.
Date Published: May 1, 2003.
Date Read: March 15, 2018.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆ (4.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).