The wrong hands by Mark Billingham

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The wrong hands sees the return of Detective Declan Miller following his first appearance in the Sunday Times bestseller The last danceThe wrong hands is London based detective crime writer Mark Billingham's twenty-third crime novel. Billingham is well known, for the Detective Inspector Tom Thorne series (two of which were made into a hit TV series on Sky 1) and another series broadcast on BBC1 based on the novels In the dark and Time of death. Billingham has twice won the Theakston's Old Peculiar Award for Crime Novel of the Year and has also won a Sherlock Award for the Best Detective (Tom Thorne) created by a British writer. Detective Declan Miller is a new and different central character. The crime writing remains in good hands. Be prepared - one of the greatest aspects of this book is the play on words. The twists, turns, false trails and false assumptions of the plot lead the reader on a merry ride. The clues are made available to the reader but concentration is needed or they will be missed. (This reader missed them). 

Detective Declan Miller is a larger-than- life character. He is described by the omniscient authorial voice as having a 'butterfly mind'...'easily distracted'.This is irritating for both his colleagues and the crims but it points to an unusually active mind - capable of making connections that others don't see. And of course this is exactly what makes him the unashamedly, not-so-humble best detective. Probably, one could think that he is 'on the spectrum' because of his single-minded crashing path through social situations. He is abrasive, rude, says what he thinks and is inclined to operate solo with scant regard for his offsider and/or any of his colleagues. He has a big mouth and unpredictable responses and the reader learns to wait in trepidation for whatever he will say or do next.The storyline is drenched in dry and hilarious English idiomatic dialogue that is liberally sprinkled with swearing and rough banter - the language of the police and criminal underworld in Blackpool. Miller is the funniest of all.. 'you dozy donk', 'Bloody Nora'. There are many laugh out loud scenarios and conversations. If you open this book at any page the wit is there. However Miller has a softer side. Real friends in his ballroom dancing group understand him. He regularly describes his ongoing casework to them. This parallel retelling is a clever authorial strategy as it aids reader understanding of the multiple characters and strands.  Crucially, Miller's detective wife has been recently murdered, and though he is officially banned from the case, he cannot help himself from intervening, using his trademark unconventional and unsanctioned methods. 

Blackpool is an English coastal town which has its fair share of low-skilled, disaffected people. Billingham's descriptions of the overcrowding, the sleazy guesthouses, the homeless druggies, the down-market dance halls, the late night drinking and the criminal network are drawn from real life. Blackpool, which in The wrong hands, follows rival criminal kingpins morphing from operating sleazy burger joints to drugs and paid killers, has in real life a crime rate that is 155% compared to the national crime rate so this detective/ crime novel is set in the perfect location. 

A briefcase figures large in this story. In the briefcase is a pair of severed hands - proof of a contract killing. A host of characters enter the plot: local shonky business owners, criminal gang leaders and their disenchanted wives, a hitman, petty thieves, homeless druggies, a psychotic welder, various police officers and detectives and more. The briefcase is wanted and people are killed in the collateral damage caused by the search. Stakeouts are arranged and fail until the startling finale.

The crimes are significant and on-going. A killer must be caught. Miller is memorable - a fully drawn character complete with flaws. Despite his idiosyncrasies he has greater powers of observation and a superior mind compared to the police with their unsuccessful, possibly past-caring investigation of his wife's death. The clues are there; the red herrings are there. Both the reader and the investigators trip up and follow false trails but the ride and the denouement are worth it. The action is so visually evocative that it is no wonder that Billingham's books are of great interest to screenwriters. Until Detective Declan Miller launches onto the screen though, he will inhabit your mind for a while.

Themes: Police detectives, Crime.

Wendy Jeffrey