The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham is the 12th Tom Thorne novel where the Detective Inspector must escort the very serial killer he caught on a trip to Bardsey Island where the killer will reveal his burial site (available May 27, 2014).
Tom Thorne is out of his element, out of his city, and largely out of control. He’s forced to escort a convicted serial killer, Stuart Nicklin from Scaredy Cat, to a remote island in search of long-missing bones.
It begins as a simple police procedural: bureaucrats have been given an opportunity to close an old case and they’re keen to close it.
The chief constable’s got this MP on her case. The papers are all over it. This woman needs to know about her son, to get...closure or whatever and as far as I can see there’s no good reason why we should be doing this.”
“Him,” Thorne said. “He’s the reason why not.”
Nicklin’s not only requested Thorne to accompany him, but that an additional prisoner come along to prevent “any sort of ‘accident.’” Thorne’s none too happy about it, but he’s relieved to be a Detective Insptector again and thus obligated to file the necessary paperwork and follow the necessary procedures and do his proper duty. Even if he doesn’t understand it.
“So, why you?” he asked.
It was the same question Thorne had asked Brigstocke, that Helen had asked Thorne as soon as he’d told her what was happening. The same question Thorne had been asking himself for the last six weeks. Before he had a chance to tell Holland that he couldn’t think of a single reason that didn’t scare the hell out of him, the gate opened and the only man who knew the answer appeared.
Why Thorne isn’t the only question that only Nicklin can answer, and those questions hang over the characters for the majority of the book. Why now? Why the other prisoner? Why tell them about the dead boy at all? The only question they seem to have an answer for is why they have to drive and take a small fisherman-operated ferry instead of a helicopter: budget.
Meanwhile, buried in all those whys is some sinister plan, something Thorne won’t know anything about until it’s far too late.
He checks for a pulse. He leans close to the man’s face and waits for a breath, holding his own while he listens.
“Talk to me, Dave.”
“Shit...there’s nothing,” Holland says. “Just blood...”
Overall, the book is a slow-building gothic tale of manipulation and evil that’s heavy on atmosphere. Not so much a high-octane thriller as a simmering suspense, with each seemingly quiet little scene building to something creepy and terrible.
Those familiar with Thorne from prior books may have an easier time nailing down his personality, but the setting—largely Bardsey Island—consistently steals his thunder. Rumored to contain the bones of 20,000 saints, largely deserted, accessible only by small ferry that only runs in good weather, hidden from the mainland by a mountain, and short on phone reception, Bardsey has been the idyllic retreat of birdwatchers, spirituality seekers, poets, and nature lovers for many years. It’s also the perfect place to commit murder and not have anyone find the body for twenty-five years.
A minute or two later, they were rounding the peninsula and Thorne got his first look at their destination.
“There you go,” Morgan said. “Bardsey Island. Well...that’s what the English call it.”
“What do you call it?”
“Ynnis Enlli in Welsh. Island of Tides. Bloody tricky ones at that...”
Approaching as they were — from behind the mountain that dominated one side of the island — the first view was of cliffs and the snowflake specks of wheeling seabirds against the black crags. The island was shaped like a giant, humpbacked tadpole; no more than a mile from end to end and about half as wide. Thorne looked up at the cliffs, the hundred-foot drop on to the rocks, but having studied a map, he knew that where they would be coming ashore the landscape would be very different.
Throughout the book, there are glimpses of other events, other people, that all have bearing on the conclusion. Little snapshots that when laid out together create a much larger picture. A visit with Nicklin’s mother. Questions asked of the other prisoner’s wife. Someone kidnapped and injured. Someone attacked at home. A little boy named Simon who’s arrived at Tides House some twenty-five years ago and made friends with another little boy named Stuart.
It was still called Tides House.
Robert Burnham told Throne that it was a working farm, again, had been for as long as he had been warden and that the house was now occupied by a young family, who were the island’s only full-time residents. The couple had happily swapped high-pressure careers in London for long days tending hay and silage fields and watching over the island’s population of sheep and cattle. “They wanted a change of lifestyle,” he said. “Thought it would be a good place to bring up their daughter.”
“Did they check that with her?” Holland asked.
“Shame,” Nicklin said. They were gathered at the main gateway to Tides House. A cat wandered across the yard in front of them and he tried to lure it with kissing noises. “Would have been nice to go in and have a look around the place. See if it’s changed much.”
“Not sure the family would be very keen.” Thorne stared at the farmhouse. It had been painted a different color and there had been a couple of small additions built, but he still recognized it from the background of the photograph he had in his pocket.
“You banging on the door in your handcuffs, telling them you used to live here.”
Nicklin turned and looked out across the low-lying western section of the island; the large number of small fields sloped down there,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m going to be much help until we get near the edge and I’m looking back at the house, if that makes sense. That’s the best way for me to work out exactly where I was.” He looked at Thorne as if he were simply trying to explain where he might have dropped a wallet or a set of keys. “Where I did the digging.”
If you care to do some digging, you might figure out what Nickin’s up to before Thorne does, but could you figure it out before it’s too late to stop him?
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.