At the end of this book, Mark Billingham is effusive in his praise for Bardsey, a small remote island of the coast of North Wales, which is the setting for his latest Detective Inspector Tom Thorne novel. It’s a testimony to what does seem to be a magical, tranquil, beautiful place. Mark Billingham is clearly genuine in his warm and fond description of Bardsey as somewhere that is a haven of peace and solitude for artists and writers and as a result he describes it as a place that is inspirational. And I don’t doubt him that Bardsey is inspirational. But to me, you’ve got to take his word for it as there’s precious little evidence of that inspiration in what I thought was a very flat, dull, and really rather stilted crime novel.
From the outset I’m happy to nail my colours to the mast of Tom Thorne – I think he’s a great fictional detective creation and till now I’ve never read a Tom Thorne novel I didn’t love. So I tried really hard to like this book – but in the end I had to face the truth – I was massively disappointed by it. It’s really desperately poor.
It has an interesting premise at the beginning. Ordinarily, if it’s not too crude a generalisation, a detective novel lays the crime out early in the book and you then read through it to find out who did it and why. In The Bones Beneath you know from the first few pages who the perpetrator is – and you then read through it to find out what the crime will be. It should be clever and brilliant – instead, the book is pedestrian and a bit predictable.
The Bones Beneath brings back the character of Stuart Nicklen, who last appeared when Thorne caught him as the manipulative psychopathic half of a serial killing double act. Now serving life, Nicklen manipulates a grieving mother and the Met Police commanders with a shocking confession – years before as a teenager he murdered a fellow young offender and buried his body on the remote island of Bardsey, an island without electricity, phones, roads and only accessible by boat across a treacherous and unpredictable part of the sea. Nicklen offers to show them the burial place on one condition – the search has to be led by the reluctant D.I . Thorne, the man who put him behind bars. From the moment Nicklen is released to Thorne’s custody on the English mainland you know he’s got an ulterior motive and so does Thorne.
So the twist in the novel’s structure, and the fact that Bardsey really is as great a setting as Mark Billingham had envisaged it would be should have made this a great read. But it didn’t work for me because of the characterisation and the plot. The character of Nicklen simply isn’t interesting enough if he’s not actually committing evil acts – this book portrays his scheming, all arched eyebrows, double meanings and goading of Thorne, but rather than it being exciting, engaging or even horrifying, I just found Stuart Nicklen bloody irritating! The usual cast of supporting characters in Thorne novels like Russell Brigstock his immediate boss, Sergeant Dave Holland his murder squad side-kick, and Phil Hendricks his pathologist mate are always so strong but here the narrow plot and the isolated location work against that and they’re little more than also-rans. The twist in the story is weak, it’s too obvious and as a result the book struggles to build any tension. The story in the end just isn’t very interesting. Worst of all having persevered with the book, I thought the ending was truly dire. It’s trite, cliched and lacks any credibility for me.
As if I’ve not shamefully giving enough of a kicking to The Bones Beneath as a story, I can’t avoid seeming to kick it again while it’s down by also criticising the author beyond the writing. But I listened to the audio-book version of this as well as reading it. Mark Billingham chooses to narrate it himself and I thought he was pretty awful. His reading voice is simply not rich enough and lacks depth. He particularly struggles to read the dialogue. As an ex-teacher it just kept reminding me of the intonation and ‘sing-song’ style that some young children use when they’re first learning to read. It was that bad!
I recently had an exchange of comments about using a book rating scale where a fellow blogger rightly said that we ought to never really rate a book less than seven out of 10 – for if it’s less than that it’s really our fault for choosing it and our fault for finishing it. And in that spirit I’m happy to take the blame, because apart from this book, I love Tom Thorne and I think Mark Billingham is fantastic, second only to Ian Rankin in my favourite crime novelist list! So I’m sorry I made the mistake of continuing with a book I just didn’t enjoy. As a tourist guide and marketing brochure for Bardsey, this book does a decent job. But as an entertaining crime novel…………..? I’ll take a leaf from Stuart Nicklen and bury it in my mind, so that it doesn’t stop me loving Tom Thorne next time round!