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the bones beneath
7 february 2024
In Mark Billingham's Bones Beneath (2014), a team of cops and prison guards take two convicts – one of them a notorious serial killer – to a remote Welsh island. The plan is for the serial killer to identify the long-lost shallow grave of one of his victims. This is the worst idea that law enforcement has ever had.
There is no possible plot direction for The Bones Beneath except to have the killer and his sidekick escape and raise mayhem all over the sinister island. I don't even think it's a spoiler to reveal that that escape, indeed, will eventually take place.
But the novel isn't really about the inevitable escape. It's about Tom Thorne, a detective-series hero by now in his twelfth novel or so (and I of course had read none of the previous ones). It's about Stuart Nicklin, the serial killer, who is a quirky and scary creation. It's about the shifting and provisional allegiances among a host of characters brought together for this one special task. It's about the other convict, a man named Batchelor who had killed a man during a bizarre, unrepeatable meltdown. It's about the strange environment, both natural and human, of the island itself.
As such, The Bones Beneath is a pretty good story, all the better for so little action taking place during the first 350 of its 375 pages. It's a novel about people, not about technologies or action sequences or legal minutiae.
Not that it rings especially true – there's still that "worst idea ever" premise – but all the same, the interactions in the novel ring true in psychological terms, allowing the shakiness of the premise. Billingham is a writer I wish I'd known more about, and I already have another Thorne novel on my shelf to continue my acquaintance.
Billingham, Mark. The Bones Beneath. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014.