REVIEW: Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham (DI Tom Thorne #1)

Series: DI Tom Thorne

Book Number: 1

Read this book for: modern crime fiction, police procedural, killers get personal, London-based detectives, thriller, disillusioned/damaged detectives

Quick Review: A solid debut novel and intro to the series and Tom Thorne, with an intriguing premise.


Alison Willetts has survived a stroke that has left her alive but unable to communicate. The police believe that a killer who has been inducing strokes in victims through manipulation of pressure points in their head and necks has made his first mistake. But DI Tom Thorne discovers the truth: Alison’s survival isn’t the mistake – it was the three women that have already died. And Thorne’s obsessive nature could jeopardize the force’s ability to catch the killer.

SLEEPYHEAD is the first of Mark Billingham’s DI Tom Thorne novels, based in modern-day London. It’s a fairly popular series that has about a dozen books in it as of the time of this review.

This novel serves as an introduction to DI Tom Thorne. Thorne is a fairly archetypical “damaged detective” – he occasionally drinks more than he should, his personal relationships are a disaster, his professional relationships are marked by a grudging respect for him by colleagues that may not like him much personally, and he tends to disregard the rules when he finds them inconvenient. This rogue, obsessive detective is something of a cliché among crime novels, and there is not much new with Tom Thorne. At least Thorne’s obsessive past (and case that made him somewhat infamous among his colleagues) creates an interesting refrain throughout the book that you want to know more about. And his behaviour that is prompted by his obsession is an interesting failing – it goes beyond just the “rogue detective” typical patterns.

The plot of SLEEPYHEAD is a bit of an interesting twist on the standard serial killer plot. This one does not actually mean to kill his victims – he is trying to induce a stroke and put them into a permanently paralyzed state. There are also a few snippets written from the killer’s point of view that suggest that he is not following the typical serial killing pattern of compulsive escalation – he actually makes reasoned decisions that make him more interesting and more dangerous. However, he still generally follows the typical pattern, which is a bit disappointing given the level of potential that was there.

There were a few interesting characters outside of Thorne that really helped the novel – Thorne’s help in DC David Holland and his development into a friend of Thorne’s, and Dr. Anne Coburn were both intriguing characters with good development throughout the story. There is also a decent amount of a slightly brooding atmosphere that helped set the tone of the novel – but it is a darker side of London than you would typically see.

SLEEPYHEAD was not one of those novels that I will end up telling all my friends and blog followers they have to read, but it is a decent thriller if you are not looking for anything too complicated or different. Because of the character elements and backstory for DI Tom Thorne that are introduced, I would recommend reading SLEEPYHEAD before proceeding on to the rest of the series, as I hope several of those open questions will be answered in other books!

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