Friday, 2 November 2012

The Demands by Mark Billingham

The Demands / Good as Dead (2011)
Mark Billingham
Grade: C+
Genre: crime
Source: NetGalley / library 
Tom Thorne: ... (10) The Demands

Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks visits her local newsagent just as she does every morning after dropping off her son, Alfie, with the childminder. Her chewing gum, chocolate and newspaper are pretty standard staples for her morning commute into work and she always has time for a few minutes of polite conversation with the newsagent, Mr Aktar, while he counts her change. What she doesn’t expect this particular morning is to have a gun pointed at head and be taken hostage.

Mr Aktar is distraught over his son’s apparent suicide. Amin had been charged and convicted of manslaughter, yet the judge gave a sentence that was disproportionately long when you take into consideration the fact that Amin had no previous convictions and he acted in self-defence. Mr Aktar demands that Helen contact DI Tom Thorne, the officer who had been in charge of the case at the time to discover whether his theory that his son was murdered has any merit. With Helen and another civilian being held hostage at gunpoint, there isn’t much that Tom and the rest of police force aren’t willing to do.

As Tom returns to the prison where Amin was held and hears of his status as a model prisoner, as well as his imminent prospect of being transferred to a less high-security facility so that he can take a course that he wants, it makes no sense that Amin would have killed himself. Added to the fact that the nurse on duty at the time hadn’t even noticed that anything was wrong when she did her rounds, Tom knows that there’s something more sinister going on. Tom is up against the clock to unravel the mystery of what was going on in Barndale Young Offenders Institute before Mr Aktar’s short fuse blows out …

It was a very slow start, but I did really come to enjoy this book. The writing style irked me a little but it was something that I got over because the story does suck you in. You normally have something like 55 days before an e-galley from NetGalley expires and you can no longer access that book. It’s happened a couple times to me when I’m halfway (not literally) through a book if I’m not fast enough because I have too much work to do, or am reading multiple galleys at a time. It’s beyond frustrating to say the least and I do hate it because I feel like I should commit when I request a book and I feel bad if I don’t have the opportunity to finish it and review it. I had something like one hundred pages left of The Demands when it expired unexpectedly on me; I thought I had another twenty-four hours left, but I had evidently remembered wrong. It wasn’t the best of books, but I was enjoying it and I wanted to finish it because it’s not of a genre that I normally read, and so it’s always nice to get some diversity. So if you were wondering why my source says ‘NetGalley/library’, then there’s your answer: I hooked enough to get my hands on a physical copy to get the answers.

The Demands is the tenth book in the Tom Thorne series and I hadn’t even heard of Mark Billingham before I saw the book on offer on NetGalley, let alone the series. The fact that I started the series when it was already so developed didn’t hinder me much. Good authors with long series have a way of writing so that even if you start on book ten, as I did here, there’s enough of the background story intermittently thrown in throughout the book that you never feel lost or confused. Billingham managed this balance well but perhaps too well: there were times when I thought it was a standalone. I’d like to have learned more of Tom’s past and history than was provided, but I guess that just gives me an excuse to try out the other books.

The story itself is slow going. It feels like it should be fast-paced because of the urgency of the situation, but in reality I thought it was too protracted and there was too much to-ing and fro-ing. It picked up nearer the end which made it an easier and more exciting read, but it did take me quite some time to get fully invested with the characters and story. Stick with it; it’s nowhere near my favourite book of the year, but I’m glad I finished it and so you should too.

Like I said, the writing style annoyed me. There’s nothing more specific that I can pin down about it, just that I didn’t like it which is a pain in the backside, not least for me trying to explain it. When you read a lot of books, you’ll come across an infinite number of styles because everyone just writes differently. Of course there are authors that you prefer more than others and there’s some that you just don’t jibe with. Billingham sits somewhere quite uncomfortably in the middle. I’m not sure whether this is just me or if it’s a style that you get used to, but I’ll be interested to see if reading any more of his work changes my mind in the future.

We’re literally doing homicide in my criminal lectures right now as I’m writing this review, and so I’m able to look back on The Demands with hindsight and consider the criminal law aspects of the case with a more informed eye. Our criminal lectures up until this point in the term have revolved around the more academic aspects of the criminal law, such as theories of punishment and the anatomy of a crime. While interesting, it’s hard to put into context because we had yet to study any substantive law to apply it to. Now that we’ve got to the juicy stuff (and murder and manslaughter are indescribably fascinating, believe me) I’m enjoying it a lot more. The sentencing issues raised in the book as well as the prison scenes are suddenly a lot more interesting now that I know how they work in practice.

I'm very interested to see where future books will take Tom and Helen next. Both have had rough recent pasts, presumably during the course of previous novels and it seems that both have now reached something of a point of contentment in their lives that hadn't existed at the beginning of the nvel. It's always nice to see a happy ending but when you've got a series (and I have no idea whether there are to be any more books) a happy ever after isn't always what is best. If there is another book, I'll be interested to see what direction Billingham takes his characters in next.

Image courtesy of Fantastic Fiction.

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