The Big Interview: Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham.  Photo: Charlie Hopkinson
Mark Billingham. Photo: Charlie Hopkinson
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YOU would struggle to find a more fitting place for a crime writing festival than the Old Swan Hotel.

For it was here, so the story goes, that Agatha Christie reappeared in 1926 having been missing for 11 days creating a public furore.

As a result, this Harrogate hotel has become a literary landmark and next month it once again plays host to the Theakston’s Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (July 19-22). Now in its 10th year, the festival is the biggest of its kind in the UK and has attracted some stellar names over the past decade, and this year’s line-up is no less impressive with Jo Nesbo, Harlan Coben, Kate Mosse, John Connolly and Ian Rankin, among the guests heading to North Yorkshire.

Since the festival started in 2003, when more than 3,000 crime writing fans attended, it has grown in popularity and organisers expect this year’s event to attract more than 10,000 people over the four days, with some of the big events already sold out.

Each year the festival is chaired by a different crime writer and this year Mark Billingham, creator of detective Tom Thorne, takes the helm. Billingham has been closely involved with the festival, which has more than 90 writers taking part this year, from the outset. “I’ve watched it get bigger and bigger. It was set up very well by people like Val McDermid and Jane Gregory and it’s grown to the point where it’s now one of the biggest crime fiction festivals in the world.”

It has proved to be a huge success, so what’s the secret formula? “It has a unique atmosphere,” Billingham says. “You go to a lot of festivals where there’s very much an us and them mentality, the writers come in and do their thing and then go away again. But people come to Harrogate for the whole weekend, so the place is buzzing with writers.”

It’s less formal than most other big literary events. “All the action takes place in the bar, when it’s not happening in the actual events, and it’s an incredibly pleasant and affable weekend in a very nice town. Harrogate has that connection with Agatha Christie and it’s the first weekend you mark out in your diary each year if you’re a crime fiction fan,” he says.

“What Harrogate also does is it has events that are purely for entertainment. We did cabarets in the first few years when the writers could show off and do these silly shows and there’s a big quiz on the Saturday night which is always fiercely contested. So while there are still serious discussions about violence and the literary merits of crime fiction, there’s stuff purely for fun as well.”

Another reason for its growing popularity is the quality of the line-up each year. “My guest of honour is John Connolly who is a brilliant writer and a very good friend, so I’m looking forward to talking to him on stage. Jo Nesbo is coming and they don’t get any bigger than him right now, and we’ve got a really special late night ‘in conversation’ event with Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson where we’re going to create a pub on stage and they can have a late night pub conversation over a drink.”

The return of Rankin and Robinson encapsulates the festival’s spirit. “People still talk about the first festival they came to. They hadn’t seen that before but I think it’s the kind of thing readers really like. They get used to hearing writers pontificate and talk about their new book, but it’s really interesting to see two writers who are absolute peers, whose first books were published the same year, just having a conversation about crime fiction and what they like and don’t like.”

The festival’s success has coincided with a boom in crime fiction and one of this year’s discussions in Harrogate looks at whether we’re in the middle of another “golden age” of crime writing. “The golden age is popularly thought of to be the 20s and 30s with writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. But I would argue, and a lot of people would agree, that we’re going through a real golden age at the moment.

“It’s the most popular genre across the board and has been for a number of years, but I think some of the work being done now is going to stand the test of time because there are some really talented writers around.”

He points to the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction on the back of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. “What has changed is that crime fiction has really taken on the wider world, it’s no longer just about solving puzzles and the simple ‘whodunnit?’ Crime writers are now trying to do a bit more than that, they are looking at social issues and examining the world we live in, in a way that some literary fiction has kind of given up doing.”

Billingham himself is a successful crime writer best known for his Thorne series, although his latest novel Rush of Blood, published in August, is a stand alone thriller. It’s based on three couples who meet on holiday and revolves around three strange and dark dinner parties. “It was kind of based on what happened to some friends of mine but also I wanted to tell a different kind of story, although my series character Tom Thorne makes a cameo appearance near the end of the book which will tell readers something a bit shocking about him that’s happened in his life since the last book.”

The 50 year-old author stumbled into a crime writing career rather than by design. “I was doing stand up comedy and kids TV, but crime fiction was what I liked to read so when I finally sat down to write a novel it was always going to be a crime novel. I don’t think you can do any more than try and write the kind of book you like to read.”

His first novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 and quickly became a bestseller spawning a successful series that has led to a TV adaptation starring David Morrisey. But despite the popularity of his books Billingham says one of his biggest fears is them becoming formulaic. “Those of us who write a series live in fear of that series becoming stale and the only way to stop it is to take a break and go away and do something else. You might end up falling on your backside, but you’ve got to do it.”

Although crime fiction dominates the bestseller lists all over the world, some writers and commentators have voiced concerns about the growing tendency to depict more explicit and violent scenes. “It’s up to individual writers where they draw a line in the sand,” says Billingham. “Personally, my books have become darker in tone but a lot less graphic and I put that down to the fact I’m a better writer than I was.

“It’s terribly easy to portray graphic violence and make a reader feel disgust. What’s harder to do is make a reader care about the characters, because actually readers can paint those pictures themselves. A single drop of blood on a clean tiled floor is a much more powerful image than blood sprayed along the walls – less is more.”

But he concedes that some readers enjoy the gory details. “I’m not being prescriptive because clearly the graphic stuff is popular with some people. As crime writers we’re all writing about violence, or what violence does to people, but you have to be responsible about how you depict it.”

It’s the kind of discussion you’re likely to find at Harrogate, along with pretty much everything else. “That’s why this crime writing festival is so good. If you like the cosier style – a sort of modern version of Agatha Christie – that’s here, there’s historical crime fiction, there’s futuristic crime fiction, there’s Scandinavian crime fiction and there’s the dark serial killer stuff.”

As well as crime novels, the festival also embraces TV crime drama and has attracted some big names to North Yorkshire including The Wire producers David Simon and George Pelecanos. This year they have the team behind Luther coming to talk about the award-winning BBC series. “A lot of people’s first exposure to crime fiction is through TV so we want to reflect that as well.”

There is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, something for everyone. “A lot of people come back year after year but we’re also seeing new people coming every time. It’s not stuffy, it’s not formulaic and it’s not corporate. We have a great sponsor in Theakston’s but what Simon Theakston does is he gives us his support and his beer, which goes down very well, and lets us get on with it and this allows us to have the kind of festival we want,” Billingham explains.

The Harrogate International Crime Writing Festival, Old Swan Hotel, July 19-22. Box office: 01423 502116.