Cry Baby by Mark Billingham

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Cry Baby is the latest novel by one of the great names in the crime genre and particularly in the tradition of British crime fiction.  The author – Mark Billingham – has now written seventeen novels with his protagonist Tom Thorne at the heart of each.

In an interesting twist, Cry Baby is a prequel – that is, it predates the other novels and is set in 1996 when Tom Thorne was a Detective Sergeant.   In 1996, there were no mobile phones, computers were basic, there were no CCTV cameras and no Google maps.  As the author says: ‘I was actually writing a piece of historical crime fiction, albeit one that features A-Zs [paper road maps], video recorders and smoking in pubs’ [435].  The absence of twenty-first century technology, which is now taken for granted, is an important factor in how Cry Baby unfolds – especially in the last few chapters.

At first glance, the story is a simple one.  Two mothers – friends – are sitting in a park with their seven-year-old sons Kieron and Josh who are playing among the trees.  The boys are playing hide-and-seek but then one – Kieron – suddenly can’t be found.  What exactly happened is obscured because Kieron’s mother Cat had just gone to the public toilets and Josh’s mother Maria is surreptitiously smoking a cigarette.  As the cliché says: ‘I only took my eyes off them for a second’.  However, true or not, it was long enough for Kieron to disappear from the park.

The police are called and Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is in charge of the case – although he answers to Detective Inspector Boyle who is described by one character as ‘the fat one with a face like a bag of spanners’ [421].  There are tensions between Thorne and Boyle partly due to Boyle’s incompetence and partly due to Thorne’s preferred method of detecting – that is, relying on good police work and intuition.

There are a number of potential suspects for the abduction and each is chased down by Thorne.  It is a challenge for the armchair detective to consider who among the ‘likely suspects’ may be the villain.  Few readers will anticipate the outcome.  One or two of the suspects become victims themselves – although how and why must remain within the pages of the novel.  Suffice to say that at least one character is playing a dangerous double game.

As in the best crime stories, each of the main characters has a backstory.  Thorne’s wife left him for a sandal-wearing university lecturer and he has parents whom he does not see as often as they would like; Josh’s parents are divorced and he is troublesome at school; Kieron’s father Billy is in jail for attempted murder; and Kieron’s mother Cat has a past which suddenly intrudes into the present with serious consequences.  The particular circumstances of each of these backstories are developed further through the novel – all of which adds a genuine depth to the characters and a cohesiveness to the story.

The two boys – Josh and Kieron – are also significant players in the story; not only because Kieron goes missing but because their thoughts and feelings are described with considerable sensitivity and understanding as they play out their parts.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the dynamics between the two mothers after Kieron is abducted.  The issues of blame and guilt are explored as Cat and Maria struggle to accept what has happened; and Cat considers whether she can bring herself to reconnect with Maria and resume their friendship.

Cry Baby is not only a psychological drama – it is a solid police thriller which sets out the investigation process as it occurred in the pre-technology era.  But, as in the best crime stories, there are plot developments which will surprise and confound even the most attentive reader.  Mark Billingham is a master in this genre and the story is well-crafted and told.  For any reader who is new to the Tom Thorne novels, Cry Baby is certainly an encouragement to read them all.

Mark Billingham has won the Old Peculier Award for Crime Novel of the Year – twice – and has won the Sherlock Award for the Best Detective created by a British writer.  Two of the Tom Thorne Novels – Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat were made into a series on British television.  A series based on the novels In the Dark and Time of Death was broadcast on the BBC.

Cry Baby

[2020]

by Mark Billingham

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 4087 1242 9

$32.99; 433pp

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