RARELY do I allow my bedtime reading to rob me of much-needed sleep. The temptation is often there but has to be resisted if next day is not to be write-off. Bit like drinking red wine; the extra glass (or two) rarely justifies the inevitable frowziness and inertia that follow. However, this latest creation of star crime writer Mark Billingham proved to be a rare exception.
Loss of sleep was a small price to pay to see how the continually intriguing Rabbit Hole would end.
The minutes and then the hours rolled by. On beyond midnight. Into the wee small hours.
I simply had to continue reading; to hell with the time. Compulsive stuff.
The meaning behind the title soon becomes clear. The reference is to how Lewis Carroll’s Alice managed to arrive in Wonderland and the bewildering events and people she encountered there. A character suddenly propelled into a strange environment she had no intention of visiting and is struggling to escape.
Billingham’s counterpart is Alice Armitage. And, as the cover teases us: “Police, patient, killer. Which is Alice?”
Right from the start it is clear there is going to be no easy answer.
Alice is not only the focal point of the story but also its first person narrator . . . and is obviously as confused as her Wonderland namesake; by her surroundings (sectioned, in an acute psychiatric ward) and by the swirl of daily events embroiling herself and her fellow inmates.
One minute she is assuming her police mantle, the next she is a patient queuing up for her twice-daily quota of pills to cope with the mix of psychoses that beset her.
When a fellow inmate is murdered she is first on scene, unable to explain why she is covered in the victim’s blood. An incident that reminds her another similar blood-soaked event that occurred “on the outside” and is the reason she is now sectioned.
She has brief visits from a former colleague whom she prevails upon to bring her news of ongoing investigations. Yet detectives assigned to solving the murder reject her offers to provide insider help.
Is she for real or not? It is baffling for Alice and another riddle for the reader.
Upset and puzzled by police rejection, she persists in seeking a culprit among staff and inmates. But when another killing occurs, it is Alice who becomes “a person of interest” to the police.
The interplay between staff and inmates, not the most stable of people, creates yet more questions, most of them with multiple choice answers. All credible yet none truly convincing under deep analysis.
Underscoring Alice’s entire tale is a tense and insightful theme shining a light into the stresses of strains of caring for those suffering with mental illness in all its numerous shades.
A community of fragile people where random acts, from tenderness to cruelty, can be set off inexplicably and at a moment’s notice. Where the caution “Handle With Care” takes on a while new meaning.
All of which is skillfully blended into another tantalising and teasing crime story from one of our leading exponents of the art.
A “must read” – but be prepared for sleepless nights.