MARK Billingham made his name with a trio of gritty, black-humoured serial-killer novels that introduced Tom Thorne: Sleepyhead, Lazybones and Scaredy Cat.

Now, for his 25th book featuring the maverick detective, former stand-up comedian Billingham takes us back before those three cases, when Thorne was a lowlier officer on the police hierarchy.

Back in the 1990s we find Thorne is already haunted, by a case where he failed to follow up on a hunch about a suspect, and found four bodies a few days later.

So, will he dare use his famous instinct – which will come in so useful throughout his career – when trying to find out who has kidnapped a little boy from a wood.

This time he has several suspects, but in true Billingham style there are red herrings, and even if you guess the criminal's identity there's more to it than you think, and well-thought-out twists that blindside you.

The set-up is one that has featured so often on crime and psychological thrillers over the past few years: the disappearance of a boy and the effects on his family.

But this is Mark Billingham, and we get a story with more layers, more surprises, and more grip than the usual crime novel.

There's the dad, a banged-up gangster with vengeance on his mind; the creepy guys who could be involved including a witness and the boy's teacher; the friends with their own secrets; and the killer who starts bumping off people involved in the case.

Billingham throws in many satisfying little things for fans: references to pre-millennial technology and fashions, and especially Thorne's first few meetings with his best mate, the tattooed coroner Hendricks.

But really, this is a story that's about the story and the characters - both given depth, but surprising, but both believable. One of Thorne's best novels of recent years.

David Knights