Tom Thorne of Londonís Murder Squad returns in a thriller that pushes the seasoned investigator to the limits of his endurance, forced into uncomfortably close proximity with serial killer Stuart Nicklin, one of the most reviled and dangerous criminals in recent history. Nicklin has negotiated a deal with authorities: return him to Bardsey Island, a remote spot on the coast of Wales, and he will lead police to the burial site of one of his earliest victims. For a short time years ago, an experiment in handling juveniles was conducted on Bardsey, an attempt to redirect youthful offenders that failed spectacularly with the escape of Nicklin and another boy from the island.
There is a caveat, however: Nicklin demands that Thorne accompany him. He further stipulates the right to select another prisoner to accompany him on the excursion, insurance against any foul play by the authorities. Coerced by DCI Russell Bridgestock, who is more concerned with the bad PR Nicklin might generate if denied than the wisdom of the outing, Thorne takes every precaution, from the officers accompanying him to the guards assigned to monitor the prisoners. Thorne understands the grave risk and the opportunities for mischief once the prison walls are left behind and the party is gathered on a sparsely inhabited island with little communication to the outside world, accessible only by a rough passage over unpredictable seas. Remote and primitive, the island has been a popular religious retreat with its historical past, a treasure for birdwatchers and a haven for naturalists seeking isolation from civilization.
Billingham couldnít have selected a more chilling scenario, one where a sly murderer is sure to have ample opportunities to attempt a second escape in spite of the men guarding him. There is some comfort for Thorne in knowing that DI Yvonne Kitson is contacting anyone related to either prisoner, doing personal interviews when possible to find any link between the prisoners or Nicklinís secret purpose in instigating the trip to the island. Not content with placing Thorne on an island with his nemesis, the author adds another element with a prologue that seems unrelated to the rest of the plot: an unnamed character is kept by force in an isolated location, unsure of why he has been taken and whether he will be alive at the end of the ordeal. The novel shifts occasionally into this other reality then back to the main plot, the importance of the kidnapping unknowable until it is suddenly horribly relevant.
Thorne follows strict procedure as the obstacles to success increase, from natural physical barriers to the psychological machinations of a man trying to burrow his way into Thorneís thoughts. While Thorne resists, Nicklin persists, mercilessly inserting himself into every aspect of the assignment, teasing, cajoling, intimidating and claiming he is the unwitting victim of police brutality. In a secure relationship with a woman who understands and accepts his eccentricities and grounded by a longtime friendship with forensic pathologist Phil Hendricks, Thorne takes pains to separate himself from the ugly world he is sometimes forced to navigate, made more anxious by every delay in leaving the island. It is a contest of wills. True to form, politically-inspired authorities have been duped by a criminal mastermind, Thorne at a disadvantage and trapped on unfriendly terrain in spite of elaborate precautions. Best-laid plans quickly turn sour, the stakes higher than ever when Thorne confronts the very nightmare he anticipated at the start of this misadventure, his decisions bearing the onus of life or death.