The name having come up in conversation, as it were, if you can call an email a part of a conversation (what would that be, a part of a conversation -- a versation?), I picked up Mark Billingham's debut from the library. I don't often read mysteries -- like all genre books, once you know the formula, they're so predictable that you could just as well write the things for yourself -- but I'm going through a phase (nothing too trying is making the reading list -- an Elmore Leonard, a James Lee Burke, good stuff that doesn't need much chewing).
I wish there was a way to say it was rubbish without sounding horribly jealous, but even if I cannot avoid that, I have to say it was bollocks of the worst kind. The writing was rubbish, lazy and cliche ridden (where but the lowest kind of genre fiction will you find "cold, flat eyes" -- for fuck's sake, can we not club this out of writers at high school?), and worst of all, relied on the reader's shared cultural knowledge. You'd need to be English to "get it". I can't think that an American would grasp what I do by the victim's being called a "Geordie slapper". Understand the words, maybe, but the nuance?
I won't tire you with the laboured psychology. You already know how these things work. The detective haunted by the one he got wrong, blah blah.
There are three sorts of whodunnit. My favourite is the CSI, Law and Order type: you know who dun the doing, but you don't know how the cops will rumble them. Next best is the genuine surprise. It isn't sprung on you exactly, you could have worked it out, but the doer is neatly delivered. In Burke's Jolie Blon's bounce, you know who one killer is, but both he and the other are delivered without your feeling you were spoonfed, or cheated.
Sleepyhead has a go at the third kind: it throws a massive twist at the end. This is old-school mystery writing. You can picture Poirot spinning on his heel and saying: "It was you, Colonel." Mostly, this sort of whodunnit irks the reader, because the killer was not discernible. Thinking back, you cannot quite see how the clues point to him or her.
But in Sleepyhead, it's worse. You know. I knew at least a hundred pages before the end. Wading through a hundred pages of hardboiled cop cliches (yes, I know he's being all postmodern and making his cop a stereotype on purpose, but let's face it, if you draw a stereotype and then do the usual with it, the postmodern thing goes by the by) to get to a denouement that has all the suspense of counting to ten isn't my idea of fun. Think yourself lucky I did it for you. It's the son. No one dies except the locked-in chick. No one, including the reader, seems to much care.