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Lifeless    by Mark Billingham order for
by Mark Billingham
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William Morrow, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Detective Inspector Tom Thorne has returned to work in Lifeless, Mark Billingham's latest suspense-filled mystery, but Thorne has been placed on so-called 'gardening leave' in the department. Because of his supervisors' concerns about Thorne's emotionally charged and cognitively distracted state following his most recent cases (and following his father's tragic death two months ago in a house fire), the department has relegated Thorne to a safe but tedious desk job.

However, as we join the action of Billingham's character-driven thriller, Thorne has just undertaken his most unusual assignment. He has willingly abandoned the relatively comfort, solitude, and safety of his home - and he has eagerly abandoned the stifling monotony of 'gardening leave' - and he now simply lives on the streets, posing as a rough-sleeper, an indigent homeless person adrift in the heart of London. Having gone undercover on a covert operation designed to smoke out an apparent serial killer who has been targeting London's homeless men, Thorne is under tremendous external and internal pressure to solve the case and stop the killings. Two men have already died - having been kicked to death - and a third clings tenuously to life in a hospital. The victims seem to have very little in common except for the facts that they are each in their 40s, they each have similarly unique tattoos, and they have been found with 20 notes pinned to their bodies.

The attacks have raised many questions: Were the victims selected randomly? Were they selected by an assailant who was 'following a very selective strategy'? Were the victims targeted by someone they knew? And what about the unsubstantiated suspicion on the streets among the rough-sleepers that it might have even been a policeman who was responsible for the attacks?

Thorne and the two others in the police department who are involved in Thorne's covert assignment have no answers to the questions, and they have very little to go on. Quite gradually, though, Thorne and his colleagues realize that an atrocious incident that took place far away from London fifteen years ago is the surprising key to solving the case. As the past intrudes relentlessly upon the present - both within the case itself and within Thorne's own tortured psyche - and when another rough-sleeper victim has been murdered, Thorne realizes that he must move much more quickly and carefully through London's mean streets. He is, after all, in a unique position to solve the case. He is also very much in harm's way.

A provocative tale of murder and horror, Lifeless is a deftly plotted excursion into London's seamy, down-and-out world of rough-sleepers. With the body-count escalating and the mystery deepening, the novel's deliberately paced action explodes at the end into a series of fast-paced scenes as Billingham pulls out all the stops in this well-done thriller. Gritty and complex, Lifeless confirms the author's reputation as one of the top writers of British police procedurals and crime novels.

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