THE LAST DANCE By Mark Billingham
For over two decades now, Mark Billingham has been known as the author of the popular Tom Thorne detective series, although he has also spiced it up with four good stand-alone thrillers.
Now in a bold move, Billingham has temporarily left his London detective behind and headed to Blackpool, and a new detective in the form of Declan Miller.
The Last Dance, (Sphere, 25 May 2023), opens in typically intriguing Billingham fashion, with a professional killer taking care of two victims in a rundown seafront hotel. We are then quickly introduced to quirky Blackpool detective Declan Miller, ballroom dancer and owner of two rats, who is returning to work early after some extended personal leave.
On his first day back, Miller finds himself caught up in the investigation of the double murder the Sands Hotel. At first glance the two murdered men, a local gangland figure and an IT consultant, seem to be completely unconnected, and the police suspect that one of them was a case of mistaken identity. But as Miller and his new partner dig into the killing, they come to realise that things are not that simple.
The reason for Miller’s personal leave comes clear reasonably soon, but I won’t mention it here, as much of the pleasure of the book comes from Billingham’s gradually unfolding of Miller’s tragic backstory. There are multiple strands to the plot, and the core mystery at the centre of the story is resolved in a clever and surprising way. The other elements are also pleasingly developed, and Billingham leaves some unresolved mysteries to tease the reader into reading the next book in the series.
The pacing of the book is good, and the secondary characters are textured and well developed, especially a young homeless girl, Finn, who plays an important part in the story. Miller is a very different character from the world weary Thorne, and his constant joking takes a while to get used to. It is clear, however, that underneath the jokes there is a very damaged figure and a good detective.
There is poignancy and sadness to the story, but also plenty of humour. Not all of Miller’s jokes hit the mark, but the ongoing commentary is amusing, and Billingham’s skewering of the rundown Sands hotel is particularly good:
“If a guest staying at the Sands was to discover something that looked like chocolate on their pillow, Miller would have strongly advised against eating it.”
Overall, I really liked The Last Dance. The plotting is clever and there is good substance to the story. I suspect that readers will be divided over Miller, but I think that he is a character that will grow and appeal more as the series develops. Less jokes will probably help, and the further development of Finn and Miller’s new partner, Sara Xiu, will assist in balancing the sometimes forced quirkiness of Miller. A solid start to a new series.
The Last Dance is released in the United Kingdom on 25 May 2023 and in Australia on 30 May 2023.