RUSH OF BLOOD - Mark Billingham RUSH OF BLOOD

Mark Billingham (www.markbillingham.com)

Little, Brown Book Group (www.littlebrown.co.uk)

£16.99

Released: 2nd August 2012

Six Brits – three couples – meet at the pool of a Florida Keys resort while on holiday, and become friendly over the course of the two-week holiday. On their last day, a child goes missing – a fourteen-year-old girl with special needs, a fellow guest at the resort. Two months later the couples get together for dinner back home, and conversation is dominated by the girl, and the fact that she has still not been found. When Jenny Quinlan, Trainee Detective Constable with the Metropolitan Police, visits the six with some follow-up questions, the group begins to splinter, and tensions rise. They have all, it seems, been less-than-honest with the local police when questioned on the scene. The disappearance of a second girl in Kent under similar circumstances causes Quinlan to dig further: all of these people had means and opportunity in both cases and she can find no reason to believe that any of them are innocent.

Rush of Blood (my first Mark Billingham, surprisingly) takes no time to getting to the point and plunging the reader headfirst into a cleverly-constructed mystery that keeps us guessing to the very end. The action moves from London – where our six protagonists prepare to meet up for dinner for the first time since they met in Florida – to Sarasota – where Detective Jeff Gardner is still trying to find a break in the case of the missing girl – and, through a series of flashbacks, to the resort where the three couples meet and the girl disappears. Additional viewpoints – Jenny Quinlan and the first-person narrative of the murderer – serve to show these characters from different angles, and to deepen the mystery surrounding them.

Billingham sets out his stall early on – this is not a mystery novel that is designed for the reader to solve. Each of the six protagonists have something to hide, and any one of them could have taken the girl on that last day in Florida. While he never holds anything back from the reader, he obfuscates the facts by phrasing them ambiguously:

Half an hour later, one of the couples is in bed and both he and she are reading: a novel that had been discussed on a television book club and the autobiography of a northern comedian. Another couple is making love, and, although the cabins are detached, the walls are thin and on a still night such as this one the sound carries easily from one to another, so they take care to keep the noise down.

The third couple is arguing.

This “one couple, another couple” style is something he uses throughout, and to wonderful effect in the unmasking of the murderer at the end of the book – it is several pages before the reader is let in on the identity, prolonging the suspense, and giving us one last chance to change our mind as to who we thought it might have been.

The characters are all stereotypes (the surly builder with the short fuse; the obnoxious “lad” with an eye for anything in a skirt and a seemingly endless repertoire of tasteless jokes; the excitable, gossipy housewife), but they come with enough padding to lend them some credibility and realism. It’s difficult to find a redeeming feature in any of them, but this makes them very compelling characters to read about, and the discovery that all of them have lied – to a greater or lesser degree – to the Sarasota Police keeps the reader glued to the page despite the fact that they’re a thoroughly unlikeable bunch.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Rush of Blood is the first-person narrative of the murderer. This puts us inside the head of a very disturbed – and disturbing – individual with some very interesting views on the equality of man and the inadequacy of the law. Once again, though, Billingham presents this to the reader in such a way that it provides no definitive answer as to the identity of the murderer.

I felt – I still feel – that punishing me for what I’d done would be wrong. That seemed blindingly obvious, even then. I was positive that if I was ever caught, the powers-that-be would see sense pretty quickly. Once I’d explained, as soon as they’d been made to understand about…fairness, then any kind of punishment wouldn’t really be an issue.

Rush of Blood is a smart mystery coupled with an examination of the human condition, and our relationships with each other. It’s a gripping and entertaining read and Billingham maintains firm control throughout. The characters come to life through natural dialogue and individual tics that make them interesting to the reader. The fact that any one of them could be a suspect keeps the reader on their toes and it’s impossible to make a guess (“it was him!”) and stick with it throughout the course of the novel. A brief appearance by series character Thorne provides a bonus Easter Egg for long-time fans of Billingham’s work, but this is a standalone novel and, as such, is an excellent place to start. Be careful, though: it’s impossible not to get hooked. A wonderful, entertaining read that will make the ideal companion by the side of the pool.

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