Mark Billingham: My life of crime

Crime writer Mark Billingham.
Crime writer Mark Billingham.
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Mark Billingham tells Julian Cole why every summer, Harrogate is the destination of choice for the world’s best crime writers.

Mark Billingham swapped punchlines for plots, acting for action. Once a stand-up comedian he now sits down for a living. Mostly he does this on a chair in his study with a view of the garden to divert him.

He can’t be too distracted by what he sees as he writes a book a year mostly and has sold more than three million copies. Not bad for a onetime comedian, actor, music obsessive and on occasional singer of country songs with the band My Darling Clementine.

Mark’s comic roots make him a smart fit at Harrogate’s acclaimed crime festival. He knows how to grab attention on the page and the stage. He is properly amusing in person but serious in his novels, where humour is a sort of bleakly comic red herring.

Mark sees similarities between stand-up and crime: the big reveal in a crime novel is like a punchline, he says, surprising the reader from an unexpected angle. And writing and comedy are both about showing off. “I guess I have always been a performer in some way – it’s all about entertaining people, and as a writer you have to keep the readers entertained.”

Mark’s latest novel, Die Of Shame, sends lightning flashes of humour across its dark sky, but mostly it is a serious thriller about addiction. “I have been fascinated by addiction for a long time and my best friend is a recovering addict.”

Inspired by his friend, Mark uses addiction as the lever in a psychological thriller with a set-up worthy of Agatha Christie.

“It’s a closed-room mystery in a way,” says Mark. “These six people meet every week and when one of them is killed, it’s clear that one of them is the murderer.”

The story avoids the narrative straight line and instead hops between the past and the present. We see the addicts at the therapy sessions, where they are encouraged to share their experiences and feelings; occasionally lashing out with smarting humour. We encounter them before and after the murder, through their weekly meeting with their counsellor, himself a recovering addict. Woven through the time-hopping is the murder investigation led by Detective Inspector Nicola Tanner.

“It was very challenging to write,” says Mark, who wrestled with the structure.

“Some books are told in a straight line from A to Z, and the book I am writing now, the new Tom Thorne, is like that. But some books suit the challenge of moving the story around, and I think the reader likes the idea of being taken back into the past.”

For a man who has sometimes spoken about the novelist’s glorious freedom to “make sh*t up”, Mark felt a responsibility to research addiction and psychotherapy.

“When you’re dealing with something that affects people’s lives so much, you have to get it right. The truth is very important – not the actual name of a murder squad or whatever, but the truth of the situation.”

So he spoke to psychotherapists about their work and sat in on a therapy session as an unspeaking observer.

Mark enjoyed the challenge too of having to get inside the heads of so many different characters. This is less of a challenge in the Thorne novels, where hero and writer rub shoulders. “Tom Thorne is a bloke in his mid-fifties and I am a bloke in my mid-fifties,” Mark says.

He describes new character Nicola Tanner as being the “anti-Thorne”; so does that mean she’s the anti-Mark Billingham too?

“Well, not really because I can be very anally retentive, and the most you would see Thorne do perhaps is to put his CDs in alphabetical order.”

Mark’s old friend was pleased with the book he helped to inspire. “He thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and that means a lot.”

Although Mark has returned to Thorne, leaving him alone to write the standalone novels does both of them the power of good.

“All writers who write series know that the danger is that you become bored,” he says. “And if you’re not interested in the character, the reader won’t be.” The Thorne novels were filmed for Sky Television, with David Morrissey in the title role. “I always had David Morrissey in mind for the role. He’s such an intelligent actor.”

The pair became friends, but knowing Morrissey and seeing him on the screen as Thorne does not shape the character in Mark’s novels.

“I don’t really have a biography for Thorne and I don’t really describe him, as the books are seen through his eyes,” he says.

So, to ask a question Mark will have heard before, you don’t see Morrissey when you write the books, then? “No – and David has said that he doesn’t see me when he plays Thorne.”

Sky is not making Thorne now, although Mark hints at various possibilities. Instead the BBC is getting in on the Billingham act. Screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst has written a four-part drama to be screened in the autumn. In The Dark uses as its starting point Mark’s novel of that title, and the series also draws on the Thorne novel Time Of Death, but Thorne does not feature in the BBC version at all, partly due to contract complications.

So the BBC films instead feature detective Helen Weeks (Thorne’s partner in the novels). Mark is thrilled to be working with the BBC on the adaptations. “It’s common that some readers don’t like it when a book is changed for television, but a writer has to accept that: they are different things.”

He says Danny Brocklehurst “has done an amazing job” in handling Helen, who will be played by MyAnna Buring.

When he has a book on the go, Mark can only write in his study with that view of the garden.

“I can’t write anywhere else,” he says. “But the thing about writing is that you are thinking about books all the time. It’s not a nine-to-five job because sometimes you hit a wall. But you have ideas all the time. When you are sitting in your study, you are just typing.”

What’s he like to live with when he’s deep into a book? “I don’t know – you’d have to ask my wife, but she’s away in Guadeloupe. I guess I just become distracted, and she’ll say, ‘You’re not really listening, are you?’”

Mark’s wife is a TV director who works on Death In Paradise, so murder runs in the family.

His own travels take him to Harrogate every July for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. “It’s the best festival in the world and all the big-name writers clear their diaries and want to be there. It’s just so well run, and the difference with other festivals is that the writers and the readers aren’t kept apart.

“And if the weather is good, and it usually is, we can all sit out in the sunshine talking.”

At present when he isn’t staring out of his study window, Mark is half-way through the new as yet unnamed Tom Thorne novel. The book spins round honour killing, and researching this has affected Mark. “I am feeling more angry than I’ve ever felt about anything in a book,” he says.

But let’s end with that BBC adaptation. Mark plans to visit the set in Manchester as often as possible. He even has a cameo role. As he puts it on his website diary, “I shall of course be swanning about saying ‘I used to be an actor you know’ while the proper actors sigh and smile politely’.”

Die Of Shame is published by Little Brown. Mark Billingham appears at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, in the Old Swan Hotel, from July 21 to July 24. He will be in conversation with Linwood Barclay on the Friday at 9am, and take part in the Saturday night quiz with Val McDermid. www.harro