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Cry Baby: A Tom Thorne Novel

Review

Cry Baby: A Tom Thorne Novel

Mark Billingham notes in his acknowledgements to his 17th(!) Tom Thorne novel, which is set in the mid-1990s, that it is a historical work. To apply proper perspective, that time is (relatively) early in Thorne’s career, predating the events that are recounted in SLEEPYHEAD, the opening installment in the series, and 10 years after his first important --- and heartbreaking --- case. Billingham has demonstrated from the start of his literary career that he is incapable of writing badly, but CRY BABY is a cut or two above the pack, one of the best of his worthy efforts thus far.

The book begins with a 1996 tour of the mind of Detective Sergeant Thorne, one that includes nightmares and emotional baggage. The former is caused by a case a decade or so previously in which he delayed following up on his instincts, indirectly leading to the deaths of three children. The latter is the result of the dissolution of his marriage (the first of many examples of his misfortune in love, documented in the novels that have gone before). These elements are fleshed out, with more revealed in dribs and drabs, throughout the narrative.

"Billingham is a master at demonstrating how lives can be complicated by falsehoods... If you enjoy mysteries, police procedurals or just plain wonderful writing, then you need to read CRY BABY."

However, it does not take long for CRY BABY to get to the heart of the matter. Two friends --- single mothers of somewhat different circumstances --- have seven-year-old sons who are best buds and are playing together at a local park. When one mother leaves the scene for a moment, the other is distracted for a very short time, allowing the boys to leave her field of vision. Only one returns. The other is long gone. Thorne is brought into the thick of the investigation, which of course is prioritized.

Thorne’s prior failure provides him with extra motivation, even as he is distracted by office and police force politics, as well as the property division occasioned by his divorce due to his wife’s infidelity. It is the missing boy, though, who occupies his thoughts and time. Thorne is determined not to fail again. However, some people are lying, which sends him and his team off in the wrong direction, sometimes for no reason.

Billingham is a master at demonstrating how lives can be complicated by falsehoods, which become so deeply embedded with the truth that the two are rendered indistinguishable to the extent that both must be rooted up to their mutual detriment. This results in Thorne getting wrongfooted practically to the conclusion of the book, where he is left to clean up what occurs, for better and for worse. CRY BABY ends with one of the saddest sentences that I have read in quite a while. No peeking.

This is the perfect novel for newcomers of the series to start with, given that (almost) all of it occurs prior to the previous 16 installments. As for those who have been along for the ride since the beginning (or close to it), it fills in gaps that we didn’t know were there, including how at least one longstanding character entered the proceedings and has never left. If you enjoy mysteries, police procedurals or just plain wonderful writing, then you need to read CRY BABY.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 7, 2020

Cry Baby: A Tom Thorne Novel
by Mark Billingham

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802149464
  • ISBN-13: 9780802149466