cover image SLEEPYHEAD


Mark Billingham, . . Morrow, $25.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-06-621299-9

In a variation on the serial killer theme, newcomer Billingham's villain doesn't want to actually kill his victims (those who do die he considers "mistakes") so much as induce massive strokes that will leave them cerebrally conscious while otherwise in a completely comatose state known as "locked-in syndrome." Combining elements of both police and medical procedural thriller, the novel follows frayed, middle-aged London detective inspector Tom Thorne as he chases down a series of red herrings, gradually becoming more and more obsessed with the killer's "masterpiece," 24-year-old Alison Willetts, and the seductive doctor, Anne Coburn, who cares for her. This romantic subplot becomes entwined with the main plot as Anne's colleague and paramour, Dr. Jeremy Bishop (whose amusement with Thorne's growing infatuation with Anne reveals a particular sort of passive-aggressive sadism), fuels Thorne's rising suspicion of him with verbal jousts. Billingham, a TV writer and stand-up comic, manifests a competent enough hand with plotting and dialogue, particularly at romantic moments ("Now, this carpet has unhappy memories and I'm still not hundred percent sure I've got the smell of vomit out of it..." "You smooth-talking bastard"). Overall, he displays a solid grasp of the form, though not at the gut-wrenching level of such peers as Mo Hayder. Billingham excels in characterization, however, and it's likely that readers will develop empathy for his conflicted protagonist and the compassionate physician who takes justice into her own hands. (July)