Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
In a past life Inspector Tom Thorne must have done something very bad because there seems to be scarcely a day in which he does not wake up to find he is being sent back to prison. Usually he is being sent back to interview some scroat doing time for some ghastly offence who has information about some more ghastly offence happening on the outside. Those trips have the benefit that Thorne gets some time to himself, driving to and from our hellish gaols.
Not this time. This time Thorne has the prisoner in his car, and sometimes even attached to him. That is despite the scum prisoner being Stuart Nicklin, a manipulative psychopathic murderer. It is, though, because Nicklin has finally decided he wants a trip to a Welsh island to help identify the location of a body: the body of a fellow youth offender who disappeared when both were inmates of an experimental unit there. Offenders and institution seemed to last almost no time at all, perhaps because the organisers did not realise that you cannot reform a recidivist.
Thorne comprehends that Nicklin probably has an ulterior motive but he does not know why or what. It may involve Jeffrey Batchelor, another killer, though scarcely Nicklin's usual choice of buddy: Batchelor was convicted of murdering the lad whose dumping led his daughter to suicide. Nicklin has demanded that Batchelor come along and Batchelor has agreed. Batchelor does not seem happy but then he has never been happy since his daughter died, let since alone his consequent act of slaughter. It would be a very unusual person who was: someone like Stuart Nicklin.
As the party travels, first in motor convoy and then makes the crossing by small boat, Thorne's colleagues make enquiries. What can Stuart Nicklin's ailing, elderly mother tell them about her son, what do his semi-literate letters reveal about the contents of his twisted mind? What has Batchelor told his wife about his prison life and his hook-up with Nicklin? Or what about those who cannot speak? What is happening to them? Or what are they doing?
Nicklin has more surprises, more disclosures to make that keep the party on the island, only for them to find that bad weather and missing ferrymen have trapped them in the dark.
That is where a story synopsis must end.
It is where my reservations begin, as that point comes quite late in the book. Mark Billingham has given himself a challenge: the idea of being trapped on an island is not new and many authors begin with the thesis rather than come to it about four-fifths of the way through. It means that we spend a lot of time on the psychology of the threatening events rather than the action, and that we have to believe that Stuart Nicklin is another Hannibal Lector in the making. Thorne, admittedly, does not know how bad Nicklin can be, but when he allows himself to be distracted by a colleague's throwaway chat-up line, and remains so, he is not concentrating on the job in hand as strongly as he should. On the other hand, Thorne may be as good as policing gets – he is honest, struggles with contemporary problems such as budget cuts and reduced staffing, and like most of us finds himself without a signal for his mobile telephone at the worst possible time.
Unlike most of us, though, Thorne's ferry has stopped running not because the ferryman has not been paid but because he is dead, leaving Thorne on the wrong side of the Styx.