Monday, May 27, 2024

"Nails all the steps with aplomb" - review of THE LAST DANCE

THE LAST DANCE by Mark Billingham (Atlantic, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Meet Detective Miller: unique, unconventional, and criminally underestimated...

A double murder in a seaside hotel sees grieving Detective Miller return to work to solve what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Will this eccentric, offbeat sleuth find answers where more traditional police have found only a puzzle?

I still remember the day I first discovered (for me) the crime storytelling of British author Mark Billingham. It was a little over 20 years ago, and I was a young attorney browsing the crime and thriller section of a downtown bookshop in New Zealand’s biggest city on my lunch break. Unable to resist, I walked out of the store having bought a copy of Sleepyhead (along with Michael Connelly’s The Poet and James Lee Burke’s Purple Cane Road – a rather successful book buying day!).

While Connelly and Burke were already well established and highly regarded by then, Billingham fair burst onto the scene with his cracking debut Sleepyhead, a twisting and dark British police procedural that remains, for me, one of the very best series-starters of the modern era. So good in fact that its premise was later filched for a key episode of CSI: New York, along with kick-starting a terrific, long-running series starring country music loving, kinda-curmudgeon DI Tom Thorne.

But now, something new, and for Billingham something of a return – or at least nod to and greater inclusion of – his pre-Sleepyhead days when he was most well-known in Britain as a stand-up comedian and an actor who popped up in minor roles in police dramas, as the human face of political puppet show Spitting Image, or as bumbling henchman Gary, a castle guard for the Sheriff of Nottingham in late 1980s-early 1990s kids’ comedy TV show Maid Marian and her Merry Men.

In his first series-starter in two decades, Billingham returns to his comedic roots with the brilliant The Last Dance, a hilarious yet heartfelt crime novel that introduces one-of-a-kind sleuth DS Declan Miller. Back at work following the murder of his wife – a fellow detective and his ballroom dance partner – moped riding Miller is looking to re-find his feet alongside contrasting new partner, in the professional sense, DS Sara Xiu (an enthusiast of motorcycles, heavy metal music, and casual sex).

The duo are tabbed to investigate a bizarre double-killing at a seedy seaside hotel in Blackpool. A local crime family’s eldest son is dead in one room, and an IT consultant is equally sans heartbeat in the adjacent one. Is this a clumsily executed professional hit? As they try to run down leads without making too many missteps, Miller and Xiu quick-step into all sorts of misadventures, while the shadow of his wife’s unsolved murder hovers. Just as she does, appearing regularly in their home.

Where the Thorne series was salted with gallows humour, DS Miller’s investigations have a very different tone; lots of laughs among the dark deeds. The zingy dialogue and Miller’s perspective and quips will have readers smiling, chuckling, even laughing out loud. But this is no one-man show. Other characters, from Xiu to Miller’s eclectic group of ballroom dance buddies, bring much to this highly engaging, well-constructed crime novel. The Last Dance is a vibrant read that still explores some serious topics, from grief to gangsters to various prejudices in our communities.

Billingham is dancing a tricky line, but he nails all the steps with aplomb. If crime writing were Dancing with the Stars, this budding new series would sail through to the next round on a string of 9s and 10s from the judges. And we’d all be left full of anticipation for what’s to come next time the music hits. Thankfully, another DS Miller tale is on the way; The Wrong Hands drops this summer.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, awards judge, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

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