Alexandra Masters catches up with the 'forensic crime maestro' in a London coffee shop.
There’s no question,’ Mark Billingham says decidedly as he sips his coffee, ‘the world is full of psychopaths.’ He nods his head towards the customers sitting behind us in the crowded Starbucks in North London. ‘There are psychopaths in this coffee shop right now.’ I look somewhat dubiously at the mother and baby group in the corner and the two businessmen by the window. ‘Not the kind of psychopaths that move on from hurting animals to... whatever they might do. But psychopaths in terms of having a lack of empathy, sociopathic tendencies, who lie without thinking... there’s plenty of people like that I know.’
Indeed, as Britain’s ‘forensic crime maestro’ and frequently ranked alongside the ‘dark masters’ Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, Billingham is not afraid to explore the more sinister sides of the human psyche. And, with eleven novels under his belt (his twelfth, Rush of Blood, will be published this August) he has proven an uncanny ability to write from wildly disparate narrative perspectives, be it a serial killer, a 15-year-old boy or a heavily pregnant woman.
Billingham believes his previous career as an actor has helped. ‘It’s an acting job,’ he says simply. ‘And as a writer it’s your job to write about everybody. There’s no question, it’s easier to write about a 50-year-old bloke because I am a 50-year-old bloke. But it’s that thing about stepping out of your comfort zone.’
Indeed his varied career history as actor, stand-up comedian and TV script writer has certainly informed his writing in different ways. But it was an early encounter with crime fiction as a young boy that first planted the seed. ‘We had this crazy maths teacher in class who would get bored with his own lessons and halfway through he’d say, “Oh god this is tedious!” and dig into this battered old leather bag and bring out a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and read to us.’ Billingham found himself captivated by the character of Sherlock Holmes and, after stumbling across Jaws and The Godfather at his local library
in Birmingham – ‘I read those two back-to-back. They just knocked my socks off’ – his obsession was confirmed. By the time he reached sixth form, he was reading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and ‘tons and tons of classic crime fiction’.
His English teacher also encouraged his writing. ‘I’d try and write funny stories in class. The best feeling in the world when I was 14 was being asked to come out in front of class to read a story out. I can still remember how exciting it was. Basically, that’s the reason I write: it’s trying to entertain the audience. I do believe a novel is a performance.’
During all this time his ‘crime fiction obsession’ had continued. ‘I was a crazy collector of books and first editions. My wife said to me, you’ve got to try and find a way to get these books for nothing, this is just bonkers.’ So he started reviewing and interviewing crime writers. ‘It’s funny, I interviewed writers who are now friends of mine, people like Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin.’ As he became more immersed in the crime fiction world, the only missing piece of the jigsaw was that he’d never written a crime novel himself.
‘I never thought I could write a novel, ever,’ he says emphatically. ‘[The length] was just so daunting; you pick up some of these books and they’re like house bricks and I thought, how much work is that?’
But, during a holiday in the late ‘90s, he picked up a pen and started to write. Before he knew it he had written 30,000 words. ‘I did some maths and worked out that’s about a third of a novel... not finished or edited, but lengthwise I thought, maybe this isn’t so daunting.’ After some revision, Billingham sent his 30,000 words to some agents. In no time, his work was up for auction with four publishers vying for it. He still remains incredulous. ‘Honestly, it was bizarre. You hear writers saying, “I had 28 unpublished novels” and I wrote 30,000 words and got an auction and a book deal!’ Again, he’s delightfully modest. ‘So much luck is involved in getting published...I must’ve got a dozen writers’ good luck.’
'Less is more when it comes to writing about violence: a single drop of blood on a clean kitchen floor is a much more powerful image.’
The book became Sleepyhead, the first in a series of novels featuring the now famous Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. It’s a disturbing debut about a criminal who tries to deliberately inflict Locked-In Syndrome (a condition in which the sufferer can see, hear and feel but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis) on unsuspecting victims. Published in August, 2001, the book proved to be an overnight sensation: it entered the Sunday Times ‘Top Ten Bestseller’ list and became the biggest-selling debut novel of that summer.
Sleepyhead was partly inspired by Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but also, more distressingly, by a harrowing personal experience (which also fed directly into a sub-plot in Billingham’s second book, Scaredy Cat). The incident happened in 1997 when Billingham was writing a children’s TV show for Granada called Knight School with a friend. ‘We were up in Manchester filming it and were staying in a hotel. On the third night we decided to stay in and talk about the script.’ They ordered pizza and beer, talked about the show and watched TV. Then there was a knock on the door. ‘I thought it was room service to collect all the stuff. I opened the door and there were these three guys in balaclavas. They came in and told us they were going to kill us and tied us up and put bags over our heads and took our credit cards.’
The ordeal lasted for three hours. ‘They needed to get money either side of midnight so they could get two days’ worth of money. So two of them stayed in the room guarding us while the other one ran around [Manchester] for an hour. We were tied up and on the carpet not knowing if they were going to shoot us. I was thinking, I’m not going to see my wife and kids again. It was absolutely horrible.’
Billingham says the ordeal has changed the way he feels about being a victim. ‘Psychologically you go through a lot lying there for three hours. You understand what it’s like to be properly afraid. I just thought: I’m going to write about that.’
Indeed, he is famous for making this the focal part of his novels. ‘I’ve read all these crime novels where you don’t get to know or care about the victims, it’s all about the copper and the killer and the victim is just a plot device. I thought screw that, the victim should be front and centre and I want to give them a personality. How can you engage in a book if you don’t care about what’s happening to these people? It’s easy to disgust the reader. [But] if you want to create suspense you just give the reader a character they care about.’
Billingham is also more easygoing than most when it comes to writing technique. ‘It’s like driving through fog at night: I kind of know where I’m trying to get to but it’s foggy and it’s dark and I can only see as far as the end of my headlights. So I’m going to take wrong turnings and all that sort of stuff. I don’t have Sat Nav; I don’t want a voice telling me what to do.’
This reluctance to conform to any rigid writing style is reflected in his day-to-day life and I don’t fall off my chair when he tells me he’s not a fan of the 9–5 lifestyle. ‘Maybe it suits some writers but absolutely not me,’ he says. ‘I know it might sound a strange thing to say but the book is written all the time...
It’s being written while you’re driving, while you’re pushing a trolley round the supermarket...I’m writing it now!’ He also prefers to write at night. ‘My office looks out onto the garden and [in the daytime] the phone’s ringing and emails are arriving and there are dogs barking... whereas if the kids are in bed and the house is quiet and I’m looking at darkness then it suits the kind of stuff I’m writing about.’
He is also disinclined to carry out hours of forensic research to shoehorn into a novel, claiming that ‘none of that’s writing.’ Granted, if something is crucial to the plot he’ll strive to get it right – ‘There’s no point writing something where they get DNA results in 24 hours... people are savvy because of things like CSI’ – and he has committed to the odd bit of police shadowing – ‘I was with two policewomen on a nightshift doing 80 miles an hour on blues and twos on side streets. I was terrified.’ But, as he stresses, readers are expected to suspend their disbelief to some extent. ‘Murder cases aren’t solved the way we [novelists] solve them. The books don’t reflect the way they’re really investigated... if they did they’d be 5,000 pages long and very dull.’
LIGHT AND SHADE
This is typical Billingham: juxtaposing darkness with light. Indeed, he insists there must be humour in everything he writes. ‘Any book without humour to me is just not a reflection of real life. The funniest things happen at the darkest moments. What I really like doing in a book is mixing it up. So you’ll end a chapter with something unbearably dark and black and start the next chapter with a joke... that’s the way the world is. I like that.
‘I always have this image of the father going to identify his child’s body in a mortuary, walking outside and slipping on a banana skin. It’s that kind of feel. And coppers have the blackest sense of humour. If you want to see jokes flying, go to a murder scene. Unbelievable. It’s a kind of coping mechanism.’
He laments the dearth of humorous fiction out there today (indeed his editor warned him to avoid writing comic fiction because it is so dangerously subjective) but rejoices that there are still ‘a lot of fantastic crime writers out there’. One of his favourite modern-day crime writers is Gillian Flynn. He describes her latest book, Gone Girl, as ‘the best I’ve read in a long time’ and her first work, Sharp Objects, as ‘supernaturally good’. His other recommended reads for reading groups is Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season, The Innocents by Laura Lippman and ‘anything by George Pelecanos and John Connolly’.
In what must have been a rather surreal experience during a visit to a reading group, Billingham was confronted with a group of readers who argued with him about his own work. ‘They’ll say, “That’s not what you meant!”’ He laughs.
As opposed to ‘those writers up in ivory towers who don’t give a shit what their readers think’, Billingham places great emphasis on the writer/ reader relationship. ‘People have argued about Thorne saying, “Ooh he’s got lovely warm eyes”... “No he hasn’t he’s got dark scary eyes!” And you go, “Well, you’re both right” because that’s what reading is; it’s how you imagine the world. A book is written and it’s read. It’s not until the two things happen that it becomes a book.’
BREAD & CIRCUSES
The urge to perform stayed with him so that, on leaving school, Billingham’s dream was to become an actor. After graduating with a degree in drama, he and a few friends formed ‘a small-scale socialist touring theatre company’ called Bread & Circuses. ‘It was bloody hard work,’ he admits. ‘We would be loading up a van full of stuff, driving to Coventry or wherever it might be, doing a play in the afternoon in a shopping centre, then a small theatre. It was pretty tough but very enjoyable.’
They wrote the shows themselves – ‘This is 1985 so [they centred on issues like] nuclear disarmament. We were a very right-on company’ – until one day they received a surprise helping hand from the playwright Edward Bond. ‘We wrote to him [Bond] and said we’re a struggling theatre company, don’t suppose you’ve got any old plays under the bed kind of thing and he said, no but I’ll write you one!’ He pauses and smiles with disbelief. ‘He wrote us a play!’ The play, The Tin Can People, went on to form part of the War Plays trilogy which was later performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
After three or four years, Billingham moved to London to pursue a career in TV and theatre acting. The work came in thick and fast (particularly for popular police shows like The Bill and Juliet Bravo) but, disheartened by the superficiality of the TV world – ‘It’s all about what you look like. The minute you walk in they’re going: “Too tall, too short, too fat, too thin...”’ – he considered a possible career in stand-up comedy. ‘[With stand-up] nobody cares what you look like and, if you can do the job, if you can make audiences laugh, you can get the work and you’re in charge of your own destiny.’
Comedy was not entirely unfamiliar territory: he and a friend used to go religiously to stand-up shows every weekend at his local venue, The Old White Horse, in Brixton. ‘A couple of times we saw acts that weren’t so good and we thought, “We can do this.”’ And so their musical comedy double act, The Tracy Brothers, was born. ‘We wrote these original country songs, but they were “funny” in inverted commas.’ Incredibly, after just six months they were playing The Comedy Store. A decade later, the act split up and Billingham went solo for a further ten years. He’s characteristically modest about his work. ‘It wasn’t big or clever; I was not a political or edgy stand-up. I was a popular stand up in the same way as I’m a writer of popular novels.’
Mark Billingham: the CV
1961 Born, Birmingham
1980s Gained degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from University of Birmingham
Formed socialist theatre company
mid 1980s Moved to London, working as actor
1987 Began comedy career then on to writing TV scripts
2001 First novel published
Currently lives in London with his wife and two children.
Prizes and awards
Sherlock Award for the best detective created by a British author 2002
Nominated for Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger 2005 & 2009
Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2009
It’s not just the ‘copper and the killer’ formula that troubles Billingham. He’s also dismayed by the amount of unnecessary violence found in a lot of today’s crime fiction. ‘I’ve just read a book by a female crime writer who was unbelievably gratuitously violent. It’s like throwing the kitchen sink at it: how many more terrible things can we do to these victims?
He says one of the biggest lessons he has learned is that ‘less is more’ when it comes to writing about violence. ‘A single drop of blood on a clean kitchen floor is a much more powerful image to me than blood up the walls.’
‘It’s easy to disgust the reader; it’s harder to give them characters they care about.’
What better example of this than Billingham’s latest novel, Rush of Blood, a clever, tense page-turner laced with trademark twists and red herrings. As Billingham’s second standalone thriller (after In the Dark) it marks another departure from the Thorne series. It centres on three couples who forge new friendships when they meet on holiday in Florida.
However, their stay is troubled by news of the murder of a teenage girl. On their return to England the couples keep in touch but their ensuing dinner parties are haunted by the murder and, when a second girl goes missing, suspicions begin to grow that some people may not be all that they seem.
True to his word, Billingham’s focus on his characters ensures they are convincing, complex individuals. It is this, rather than the familiar violence that intrudes on many novels, which fuels the tension.
‘I’m very excited about Rush of Blood, it’s a very different book,’ he says. ‘There’s no on-stage violence, it’s not that kind of book...’ This is aptly reflected on the jacket design, which Billingham is keen to show me on his phone. At first glance, the picture appears to depict a classic holiday scene of a swimming pool set against a blue summer sky. But on closer inspection you can see a small doll floating in the water at the edge of the frame and a couple of spots of blood on the poolside. It’s brilliantly creepy.
Like the Thorne novels Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, Rush of Blood is set to be televised. Finding a way to compress a 400-page novel into one hour of television cannot be easy and I wonder about the challenges this kind of transition poses. ‘In a way, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two things, they’re different animals,’ says Billingham. Indeed, he seems happy to accept the two as very different media and, in turn, is willing to adapt accordingly and make (sometimes dramatic) plot changes if it ensures ‘a good piece of television’.
Good as Dead (2011)
From the Dead (2010)
In the Dark (2008)
Death Message (2007)
The Burning Girl (2004)
Scaredy Cat (2002)
Mark has also contributed to numerous short story anthologies and written for TV and the press.
What’s particularly refreshing is how, despite his success, Billingham keeps his feet firmly on the ground. He’s very matter-of-fact about the whole writing process and is loath to talk about it, as some authors do, as a mysterious force. ‘Some writers are so precious. It really winds me up. They talk about [he puts on a regal voice] channelling the voices of their characters. It’s just nonsense. You just make some shit up! That’s what I do. It’s not straining or incredibly hard.’
‘Coppers have the blackest sense of humour. If you want to see jokes flying, go to a murder scene.’
He gets more animated as he continues. ‘Writer’s block is another myth, an utter load of nonsense. It’s not like you’ve broken all your fingers; nothing’s stopping you writing! The idea that you cannot write any more, like you’re all tapped out and drained... Just shut up and go to work!’
He’s certainly taken his own advice and has been extraordinarily prolific, writing a book a year. Rush of Blood has not even hit the shelves and he’s already three-quarters of the way through his next novel. Unsurprisingly, he’s reluctant to give too much away at this stage, other than to say it’s ‘a Thorne book’ and that ‘the two major themes are suicide and the elderly’. He pauses and chuckles. ‘Oh yeah, it’s a right laugh!’
Rush of Blood
by Mark Billingham
is published by Little Brown