Book Review – Mark Billingham – The Last Dance

The Last Dance Review

Mark Billingham

The Last Dance

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sphere

Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 400 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1408717123

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1408717127

25 May, 2023.

Punchy, sarky and – arguably above all – seriously un-Thorne, Mark Billingham introduces us to Declan Miller in The Last Dance with all the flourish of Craig Revel Horwood saying ‘Fab-U-Lous’ while on acid!

Declan Miller returns to work after the death of his wife and is immediately asked to investigate the shooting death of two men in adjoining rooms at a Blackpool hotel. Is it a case of mistaken identity or are there more secrets to be uncovered? Miller and his new partner, DS Sara Xiu are determined to find out … while busily trying to get a grip on each other’s way of doing ‘the job’.

Miller is a gem. A braggadocio that’s flawed and thinly disguised, it is nevertheless every bit as endearing as that which has been created elsewhere – not least by Stuart MacBride. Here though, grief sits far more comfortably on the shoulders of the rat loving, guitar playing ballroom dancing detective than it seems to elsewhere.

In contrast, Xiu is a complicated soul. Hers is the carburettor to Miller’s oil; the pistons to the V8 engine. That she rides a superbike and Miller a moped, is just one of the delightfully juxtaposed glitterballs Billingham offers up in this indisputably tense dance off of wits.

Their interactions are acerbic, but sweetened by Miller’s casual humour; their chemistry being one that is to be nurtured rather than foisted upon their audience. Currently, theirs is a jive that jitterbugs with all the satisfaction of watching dad throw a few shapes at a wedding, while being safe in the knowledge that, eventually, he’ll sweep mum off her feet and tango off into the night.

Lest we forget, of course, there’s a plot to discuss. It goes without saying – though said aloud it must be – that Mark Billingham’s expertise in this aspect has been honed to a finely sharpened stiletto point. Tom Thorne is, as has been well documented, a somewhat dour character with all the patience of a riled House of Commons Speaker.

Yet with The Last Dance, it is almost as though he’s been merely practising beforehand so as to deliver a two step of such intricately woven subtlety, even a ten from the lamentably late Len seems insufficient. Miller’s ‘gut instinct’ is far less laconic, which lets the reader breathe and think more for themselves. This, in turn, allows the story to develop at its own pace and is, ultimately, all the more satisfying for it.

Okay, Thorne is Thorne for good reason. Might Miller not be Miller for opposing ones, grinding answers out rather than plucking them savagely to the surface with a stab of insight?

Whatever the truth of it, Mark Billingham’s The Last Dance is a magnificent addition to anybody’s card of must reads, with all the foot-tapping, head-nodding gravitas all truly wonderful crime fiction should engender from its readers.

Bravo, indeed! 

Mark will be with Ruth Ware at Waterstones in Liverpool on July 6th. Click HERE for tickets.