Book review: Rabbit Hole

James Walton 5 July 2021

Mark Billingham returns with a compelling whodunit that takes Alice down the rabbit hole

Mark Billingham’s new stand-alone novel (i.e. one that doesn’t feature his long-standing detective, Tom Thorne) is a whodunit set on a psychiatric ward.

The book carries out its whodunit duties—a shifting series of credible suspects, plenty of neat twists, a conclusion that’s both plausible and unguessable—with undeniable skill. Nonetheless its main interest, for Billingham and the reader alike, perhaps lies elsewhere: in the brilliantly realised setting and particularly in the richly nuanced character of its narrator.

The suitably named Alice has entered the rabbit hole of life on the ward after a major breakdown . Among other things, this caused her to smash her boyfriend Andy over the head with a half-empty wine bottle. Then again, the way she saw it that night, she didn’t have much choice. Andy was refusing to help her defend herself against some person or persons unknown (and indeed non-existent) who were coming to kill her as part of a vicious conspiracy involving her parents and most of her friends.

"The suitably named Alice has entered the rabbit hole of life on the ward after a major breakdown"

As she now understands it, her paranoia was triggered by the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered when a fellow police officer in the Met was stabbed to death in front of her—and by her consequent ingestion of large amounts of drink and drugs.

But does she understand it rightly? This is the question that Billingham keeps beautifully, tantalisingly unanswered for most of the novel. At times, Alice seems a lucid guide to the ‘craziness’ around her, describing the other patients with a mix of irritation, pity and dark amusement.

At others, she takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to such heights that it’s not certain she was ever in the Met at all. Might she, in fact, be the killer that she thinks (or pretends) she’s helping the definitely-real police to find

As I say, when the solution comes it’s perfectly satisfying. My guess, though, is that what most readers will remember more intensely is the collection of touchingly troubled souls we meet and, above all, Alice’s voice: by turns funny, broken, chatty, defiant, bewildered—but always utterly convincing and compelling.

Rabbit hole cover

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