Detective Declan Miller, a maverick officer, part-time dancer, and pun machine with a devil-may-care attitude and no respect for authority, is back at work after a brief grieving period following his wife's murder. A double assassination has just happened in a seedy hotel, and one of the dead is a gangster's son, whom his late wife was investigating. Miller is assigned the case along with his new partner, Sara Xiu, a hard metal enthusiast who is always late to the punchline. Is the mourning detective, who is turning more eccentric and hardheaded after the incident, up to the task?
The Last Dance is the upcoming novel by Mark Billingham, who is a best-selling novelist famous for creating the character Tom Thorne. In this novel, he introduces his readers to his new hero, Declan Miller. I have never read any book by Mark Billingham before, and this is a first for me. The Last Dance uses all the usual tropes found in investigation thrillers and introduces a few novel ones.
The title of the book is very apt because both Miller and his wife, Alex, choose to pursue dancing and become trophy-winning, amateur, competitive dancers, and it is just before a performance that Alex goes missing. Dancing is an important element of the story, something that establishes the nature of their relationship, and returning to it helps Miller to some extent alleviate the pain of his loss. Dancing also introduces us to some of his good friends who support him in bad times.
Declan Miller is an interesting character because, even after incurring a huge personal loss, he is trying his best to stand up and bounce back. He has his share of insecurities and many times unapologetically crosses his boundaries, but he attempts to perform his responsibilities to the best of his abilities. If we see his behaviour pattern with other characters, though he appears anti-social towards a large number of them, we realise that he is ready to accept a limited set of people into his close circle and protect them with all his might. But he fiercely guards himself against others by being rude and inconsiderate. We realise that even his constant bantering and punning is a defensive mechanism to either bond, judge, or alienate others.
As The Last Dance is the first novel of an intended series, the author uses more of his resources to establish the lead character, his personal traits, and his background firmly, at the expense of telling a great investigation story. Thus, we find a lot of characters from Miller's personal life who don't have much meaningful connection with the core plot flitting in and out of the book. Though it gives a lot of colour and character to Miller and provides him with firm roots, which may work out well for the upcoming titles, the essential reason for which a reader picks a book touted as a detective novel suffers.
That said, the core plot of the murders and the final resolution of the mystery are pretty good. The characters who are connected to that element of the story are more striking and vibrant. Their motives and behaviour are convincing. There is an interesting hook at the end that makes you wait for the sequel. Overall, The Last Dance is a satisfying start for a series with a great protagonist.