THROWBACK THURSDAY: SLEEPYHEAD By Mark Billingham
I have just finished Mark Billingham’s The Last Dance (Sphere, 25 May 2023) and really enjoyed it. The Last Dance is the opening entry in a new series for Billingham, the first for him in over two decades. His previous books have mainly been connected to popular London detective Tom Thorne, whereas The Last Dance moves the action to Blackpool and a new detective in the form of Declan Miller.
I will be reviewing The Last Dance in the next few days, but firstly I thought I would go and dig out a review I did for Billingham’s first novel, Sleepyhead, back in 2001 when it initially came out, and before I knew what international success he would become!
Sleepyhead came out in late 2001 in Australia and I recall reviewing it for the Canberra Times at the time, although I cannot find the review. I did, however, find the review I did for the now defunct Australian crime fiction magazine Crime Factory.
In Crime Factory I said:
“Serial Killer thrillers too often rely on mere shock value rather than clever plotting or rich characterisations to draw their readers in. In today’s crime fiction market it is no longer enough for the serial killer to merely murder lots of people, he, or she, has to do so in a particularly gruesome or unusual manner.
After the beheadings, crucifixions, and even enforced gluttony of recent books, readers could be forgiven for thinking that they have encountered just about every form of mass murder imaginable, but debut British novelist Mark Billingham has managed to come up with yet another new and hideously ingenious method.
The psychopath in Sleepyhead is not trying to kill his victims, but instead to deliberately induce a stroke through the manipulation of pressure points that will leave them totally unable to move or communicate. This condition is known as Locked-in Syndrome, and it is the fate that befalls the fourth of the killer’s victims, Alison Willetts. The previous three were failures, according to the killer’s warped logic, and died from his ministrations. An astute pathologist alerts the police to the possible presence of a serial killer and it is not long before disgruntled DI Thorne is engaged in a deadly personal duel with the killer. Meanwhile, Alison Willetts struggles to communicate vital information about the killer to her doctor and the police.
Billingham’s briskly paced novel provides some interesting twists on the serial killer formula and is helped along by a series of credible characterisations and a believable backdrop of police politics. The plight of Alison also adds considerable poignancy to the story. Unfortunately, some of the plotting is straight out of the serial killer thriller manual and the book’s central premise slightly strains credibility. Nevertheless, it is a good read and Billingham shows sufficient promise to mark him as an author to watch out for.”
Looking back now, I think that my review at the time was probably coloured by the flood of serial killer thrillers that were slicing their way through the crime fiction market at the time. With so many serial killer thrillers around it was easy to lump them altogether and not appreciate them individually. What strikes me now is how well written Sleepyhead is and how quickly Billingham dives into the basic set-up. I had also forgotten the power of the final pages. Thorne matures as a character as the books go along, and becomes more interesting in the subsequent novels. Sleepyhead is not as good as the later Thorne novels, such as The Burning Girl and The Bones Beneath, but is still well worth going back and having a read, or a re-read!