I had a text from a friend last week saying that she had just managed to catch up with the most recent of Mark Billingham’s novels about Met Detective, Tom Thorne. Extremely gently, I broke the news to her that he had a new one being published the very next day! However, in most respects Cry Baby doesn’t actually take Tom’s story any further forward, because with one exception (two if you count the initial dream) the action is set in 1996, a date easily worked out from the many references to the European Cup matches being played during that summer. As a result, those of us who have followed Tom’s career from his first outing in Sleepy Head are able to fill in some of the background to aspects of his life that we have come to accept as givens, especially the breakup of his relationship with his wife, Jan, and the first steps in his friendship with the pathologist, Phil Hendricks. The focus of the book, however, is on the story of a missing child, seven year old Kieron Coyne, who is snatched from a local park while playing with his friend Josh Ashton.
Despite coming from socially very different backgrounds, the two boys are the best of friends and they are linked by the fact that both have absent fathers. Josh’s mother, Maria, is divorced from his father, Jeff, while Cat Coyne is bringing up her son on her own because her husband, Billy, is serving time for attempted murder. The boys don’t see as much of each other as they would like because catchment areas mean they can’t go to the same school and this appears to disturb Josh far more than it does Kieron. Josh’s behaviour is causing real concern and this is something that both his mother and the reader should have paid close attention to very early on. But, we readers don’t always notice those things that we ought to, or interpret them properly, or give them due weight and police officers, being human like the rest of us, the same is true of them. When a witness describes seeing a boy dressed in the same way as Kieron, getting into a red car with someone he seems very comfortable with, Thorne and his fellow detectives neglect to give sufficient importance to one particular aspect of the man’s evidence. Of course, matters aren’t helped by Tom’s immediate boss, DI Gordon Boyle, latching onto the fact that Cat’s next door neighbour was once arrested for a sexual offence and the situation is complicated even more when Dan Meade turns up claiming that he is Kieron’s real father. Thank goodness Cat has Billy’s sister, Angela, a market trader, to stand by her and ease the situation between husband and wife.
Or does she? Because if the novel is about one thing it is about not relying on appearances; about how often we can be mistaken in what we believe to be the truth concerning other people. The force of this is brought home to the reader in 2020 as Thorne muses on the concept of ‘stranger danger’.
He remembered his conversation about it with Simon Jenner, and a book with that title doing the rounds, not long after he joined the force. Jimmy Savile on the front. A trustworthy face off the telly telling a story about nice fluffy rabbits to make the warnings a little more kid-friendly.
What you see isn’t always what you get.
Simon Jenner is Kieron‘s form teacher and if I was his Head, I would be worried about the attention that he appears to be paying to Cat. Is he a suspect? A vital clog in the plot? Or simply a red herring? When you think about it, red herrings are all about appearances too.
In actual fact, I worked out very early who was behind the abduction, but as I thought it had happened for totally the wrong reason, I suppose I can’t congratulate myself for something that was almost certainly pure blind luck. And, probably because I formed my opinion so early on, I also doubted my original conclusion several times, although I never changed my view that the person I suspected was a seriously nasty piece of work. Perhaps appearances don’t always deceive, at least not those which are so clearly superficial in their nature.
Why Billingham has chosen to go back in Thorne’s past in this way, I don’t know. In one sense it isn’t really important. The crime is the central feature of the novel and the period in which it happened to a large extent irrelevant. One thing that it does allow, however, is a retrospective view on the outcomes for the people concerned. Once a story like this has vanished from the papers the public in general tends to forget that those who lived through the experience are never going to be quite the same again and that this is true not only for the victims but also for the serving officers who have had to witness events and try to come to terms with the outcomes of the decisions that they made. For them, the well worn children’s fallback, and then I woke up and it was all a dream is more likely to surface in the shape of a recurrent nightmare.
With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and Netgalley for a review copy.