Mark Billingham: Man of mystery

PUBLISHED: 16:11 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

Author Mark Billingham

Author Mark Billingham

Crime writer, Mark Billingham, has released the seventh of his Tom Thorne detective novels. Laura White took him in for questioning and uncovered the secrets of his latest page-turner

Tell me about your new novel, Death Message.
Death Message is the seventh in my Tom Thorne series and the last for a while. The standard detective novel is turned on its head when Tom receives messages about crimes that haven't happened yet. My nastiest, most vile psychopath returns from the past, which was great fun to write, and all those loose ends, still dangling from the first book, are tied up.

Where do you live? New Barnet.

What's great about it?
It's far greener than where we lived before, with a better choice of schools, but it's still only a tube ride away from central London. It was a fantastic compromise when it came to a choice between staying in London and moving out into the countryside.

How do you spend an enjoyable local night out?
I certainly take advantage of all the restaurants and cinemas. A good night out would probably involve both. I've eaten in most of the local Indian and Japanese restaurants.

Favourite book shop?
My local branch of Waterstones in the Spires, Barnet, has been very supportive.

Best Barnet moment?
There is a man who painstakingly paints the chewing gum blotches on the pavement in Barnet High St. The paintings are (obviously) minute, but also incredibly detailed. For a small fee he will personalise one, and we got him to 'dedicate' one of his chewing gum portraits to my two children. It's on the pavement outside the post office.

Any interesting local trivia?
I was told by somebody who works at Scotland Yard's Black Museum that the man they believe to have been Jack The Ripper (and they claim to know exactly who he was) died in a sanatorium in Barnet! St Pancras Cemetery, which I used as the setting for a gangland funeral, is built on top of the ground where Dick Turpin, and other notorious highwaymen were buried.

Where do you go to relax or when you have writer's block?
I don't really believe in writer's block. You can usually just write your way out of anything. In terms of relaxing, a trip to the cinema does the trick or Trent Park is very pretty.

Do you ever write in the area - coffee shop, library?
I think most writing actually takes place inside your head, and good ideas can come to you anywhere. So I have 'written' in all manner of places, even pushing a trolley around the supermarket.

What inspires you?
Anywhere and everywhere really. A police officer told me that delivering the death message is how they refer to telling the family that someone is dead. It sent shivers down my spine and the story just grew from there. It can be a press cutting, story or just an image that sets the ball rolling.

Do friends and family ever suggest plot lines?
Inadvertently, yes. At a party once I was talking to a girl about a memory from her past - someone at school had tried to set her skirt alight. And then, months later, there it was - the opening scene of my latest book.

Are you Tom Thorne?
I think that every author would be lying if they said there wasn't a part of themselves in their protagonist. Tom Thorne is a braver, nobler version of me. Throughout the seven books his character continues to surprise readers and sometimes may even make them uncomfortable. It is more realistic like that. Otherwise he is like a cartoon - who wouldn't change in a bleak job like his?

Who is your typical reader?
I wish I knew! I always thought men liked crime fiction more than women, but it's mostly women who attend my signings and who write to me. Also, most crime writers are women.

Do you have any obsessive fans?
Well, some people truly believe that Tom Thorne is real. It's like when a family moves out of Coronation Street and people write in and want to move into their house. What a massive compliment though, because the readers are so immersed in the character and plot. I receive many letters from people who have noticed tiny inconsistencies in the books, that's crime readers for you I suppose - meticulous to the end.

I hear that you are also a stand-up comedian, is that true?
Yes, as well as writing for TV, I was a stand-up before the novels. I love it and continue to compere at The Comedy Store, the greatest comedy venue in London. Most crime novelists are shy - not me. The stand-up is an outlet for my naturally gregarious character. The buzz is different too - I love the instant feedback when I make an audience laugh.

Do you think there is room for humour in crime fiction?
Of course, the two go hand-in-hand. Both involve hooking the audience quickly, a set-up, followed by punchlines - although in the novels the punchlines are dark. I often follow an awful situation with a joke, just as in life, tragedy often comes with laughter. People use humour at terrible times - if you want to hear jokes, just visit a murder scene.

How did you get into writing?
I was making a living writing for TV and comedy, and although I wanted to write a novel, I always imagined it to be such a mammoth task. One holiday I started writing every day and two weeks later I was a third of a way through my first book. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why crime?
I love reading crime and always have done - Sherlock Holmes, The Godfather. Writing novels is fantastically enjoyable because the writer is given total autonomy.

Greatest fictional detective of all time?
Now, the obvious answer is Sherlock Holmes of course, but my favourite at the moment is Dave Robicheaux, created by James Lee Burke. I am reading a book called Tin Roof Blowdown at the moment and it could be one of the best books that I have ever read.

At what moment did you think 'I've made it. I am an author'?
One day, while shopping in Brent Cross, my phone rang. It was my agent and I had been offered a publishing deal. After that it just went crazy. Also, the day that the first box of proof copies were sent to my house - opening that box and seeing my name, I was ecstatic. Saying that, I am like that with every book, not just the first. If that feeling ever faded, it would be time to give up.

What do you love reading?
Other crime fiction, believe it or not. The crime writer circle is so small though that often it is interesting reading novels by people that you drink with - particularly when the most unlikely people include graphic sex scenes.

What would you make illegal/legal if you could?
No question, I would make lateness illegal. I am incredibly punctual and hate people being late. As for legal - can I legally and painlessly obliterate Pete Doherty from existence please?

I hear that you are in talks about the books being made for TV. It sounds like exciting stuff.
Yes. Well, they are only 'talks', so who knows if it will happen. I am over the moon because the actor who I have always wanted to play Tom Thorne, who I pictured him most like, is David Morrisey, and apparently he is linked to the proposed project.

What true crime do you wish you had written?
I cannot think of an actual crime, but it never ceases to amaze me how real life situations are so much more far-fetched than anything I can cook up with my imagination. Sometimes I may tone down a far-fetched idea and the next day there is something far less believable in
the papers.

What is next for you?
I have written another book. A stand-alone thriller called In The Dark. It is very different to the Tom Thorne series, in fact the main part is a pregnant woman and it is not a police procedure novel. It has been great to step away from the series to collect my thoughts before going back to it - but don't worry, Tom Thorne does make a brief
cameo appearance.

Article taken from the November issue of Hertfordshire Life

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