Perfect strangers. A perfect holiday. The perfect murder…Three couples meet around the pool on their Florida holiday and become fast friends. But on their last night, their perfect holiday takes a tragic twist: the teenage daughter of another holidaymaker goes missing, and her body is later found floating in the mangroves. When the shocked couples return home, they remain in contact, and over the course of three increasingly fraught dinner parties they come to know one another better. But they don’t always like what they find: buried beneath these apparently normal exteriors are some dark secrets, hidden kinks, ugly vices… Then, a second girl goes missing. Could it be that one of these six has a secret far darker than anybody can imagine?
From the outset I will say that I am a steadfast fan of Mr Billingham, having read all the books, having watched the excellent TV adaptations and yes I probably would buy the T-shirt, but overall I found this a curious and unsettling departure of style for him.
The story opens in Florida as three British couples find themselves implicated in the disappearance of a teenage girl, Amber-Marie Wilson from their holiday resort. She is later discovered murdered. On their return to the UK the couples resume contact with one another over a series of meetings and meals which exposes the quirks and frailties of their personal relationships heightened by the fact that another young girl goes missing in similar circumstances to the Florida case. Jenny Quinlan, a young trainee detective is tasked with investigating them as the Trans-Atlantic connection becomes evident and puts them under scrutiny in a bid to expose their darkest secrets and to catch a killer or killers…
For my part, I did enjoy the Florida-based sections of the book more with the beautifully drawn account of Patti Wilson’s heartache and sense of loss over the murder of her daughter and the depiction of Detective Jeffrey Gardner in charge of the US investigation, a focused and likeable character who liaises with his British counterpart the equally focused and ambitious Quinlan. I appreciate that having set the premise that by default all of the couples are under suspicion and that they should appear to a certain degree to be unlikeable, but I feel that Billingham pushes this too far and that as a reader you begin not to care ‘whodunnit’ or indeed why, such is the harshness of the characterisation and it felt at times more caricature than characterisation. With the grand reveal (which I guessed- humph!) the motivation for these crimes seems a trifle implausible in the light of the characterisation up to this point and despite a plot punctuated by vignettes of narration by the perpetrator it all seemed a tad…well…unbelievable and all a bit obvious as to how the court scene at the end would play out. It’s interesting to see that this is being marketed as having a more ‘unisex’ appeal as I did at times lose sight of the fact that I was reading a Mark Billingham book and thought I had wandered extraneously into a Sophie Hannah book- which admittedly is not always a bad experience- but felt a little strange!
As much as it pains me to say it this was indeed a book of two halves (and on a football note surely Barry would turn off Football Focus hearing about the Championship or League One and not Division One?) with the American plot-line more reminiscent of Billingham’s ease of characterisation and fluidity of style than the slightly less plausible nature and ‘clunky’ characterisation of the British plot. An interesting experiment I feel but rather relieved that it is just a standalone and that normal service will be resumed…
(Note to Mark Billingham if you ever happen to read this… Get to work on that Thorne ™ merchandise so I can indeed wear the T-shirt 🙂 )
See Mark Billingham talking about his new book here:
(With thanks to Little Brown for the advance reading copy)