In the Dark
by Mark Billingham
Published by HarperCollins
384 pages, 2008
Mark Billingham is a very interesting writer. That’s true not only because he’s one of Britain’s most sought-after stand-up comedians (though his act can be somewhat R-rated in places) and has also worked as an actor, but because he launched right out of the gates with a strong and astonishing debut novel called Sleepyhead (2001). That book heralded the start of a major London-based police procedural series featuring Inspector Tom Thorne and his team of inner-city cops. There have since been half a dozen additional Thorne novels, the most recent being last year’s Death Message, which showed that text messaging can have a decidedly dark side.
I’ve followed Billingham’s work right from the start. Right from the point in 2001 where he appeared at the (sadly now defunct) Dead-on-Deansgate convention in Manchester, England, and had the chance to interview George Pelecanos on stage. We’ve been bumping into each other since, and keeping up a lively discussion of the latest crime-fiction offerings, both his own and others’. I had the chance to interview him last year for The Rap Sheet, when he was busy launching Death Message.
Over the years, Billingham, who hails from Birmingham, England (where he was born in 1961), and now lives in North London with his wife and two children, has won a Sherlock Award and the Theakstons’ Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award (for Lazybones, 2003). He has also been nominated for a British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award and a Barry Award (the latter given out by Deadly Pleasures magazine).
2008 is proving to be a pivotal year for Mark Billingham. His first standalone thriller, In the Dark, has recently been published in both the States and the UK, and he’s now branching out into the young-adult fiction market, penning a pseudonymous novel with screenwriter Peter Cocks. Over a beer at this summer’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, I had the chance to sit down with him and discuss why he’s decided to take a break from police procedurals, how he took to composing a standalone, how he constructs credible dialogue, and what he has in store for audiences at the Bouchercon convention in Baltimore this month.
Ali Karim: So after your seventh Tom Thorne novel, 2007’s Death Message, what made you get the “seven-year-itch” to write a standalone?
Mark Billingham: Actually, I’d been thinking about doing a standalone for a while. In fact, Lifeless  was originally going to be a standalone book, but Thorne pushed his way into the story. I think anyone who writes a series lives in fear of things becoming stale or predictable, and though there a few writers who maintain an amazing level of quality throughout a long-running series, there are plenty who should have knocked it on the head a long time ago. You don’t want to end up like one of those. It seems to me that a writer like Michael Connelly keeps his series fresh by stepping away from it every once in a while. He does something different and can then go back to Harry Bosch re-energized, and I think that’s the approach I’d like to take.
This was a story that had been rattling around my head for a while and it wasn’t one for Tom Thorne to play a major role in. I wanted to write a much more domestic novel, to move away from police procedure, and I’m really glad I did. It was hugely liberating but also a little scary to write -- to step out of that comfort zone -- but I reckon that’s what a writer has to do, at least once in a while. There is always the added worry that some of your readers may be reluctant to come with you, will not want to read something that doesn’t star the character they enjoy reading about. But I’m delighted that this doesn’t seem to have happened. So far, the feedback has been really positive, on top of which the book seems to be selling faster than anything I’ve written before, which vindicates the decision to do it as well as being an enormous bloody relief!
AK: With Thorne having collected several awards and award nominations, though, weren’t your publishers at Little, Brown a tad nervous when you decided to embark on a standalone?
MB: Well, if they were they didn’t let me know about it. They’ve been hugely supportive and enthusiastic and never questioned what I was doing for a second. Maybe there are publishers who might have behaved otherwise, but I’m lucky to be with one who, in nearly 10 years, has never asked to see a synopsis and never has any idea where a book is going until it’s delivered. In some ways, a standalone gives a publisher a little more to work with. You know “a standalone novel from the author of …” I think the days when the “series” was the Holy Grail for crime publishers are coming to an end, which is probably a good thing.
AK: I noticed some cameo appearances in In the Dark …
MB: Yes, a certain copper with a penchant for Hank Williams does pop up very briefly, and in fact something rather important is revealed about him. Again -- learning from the best -- this is something I’ve always enjoyed about Mike Connelly’s stuff, the way his fictional worlds overlap now and again.
AK: In the Dark is very topical, with its theme of inner-city gangs and street crime and its subtle social commentary. Has that criminal world ever crept into your own?
MB: Firstly, I’m glad you use the word “subtle.” I never set out to write anything that’s issue-led. I think that’s the kiss of death. The story always comes first. In previous books I’ve written about violence that was meticulously planned, but I’ve become obsessed with random acts of violence and how they affect people. The nature of the violent act that precipitates this story meant that I was dealing with some of the themes you mention, and inevitably some social commentary creeps in there. I mean, I do have an opinion.
The world you talk about is not one I move through on a daily basis, but I live in the same city and I’m deeply fucked off by some of the things that are happening and by the reactions to them. Kids are killing kids every week and the best our politicians can come up with is the suggestion that parents ask their children if they are carrying a knife before they go out for the evening. Right, that’ll work! They’ve started a stop-and-search campaign with the determination to lock up anyone found carrying a knife, which is knee-jerk and frankly ridiculous when only a tiny percentage of those young men have any intention of using one.
AK: In the Dark reminded me stylistically of George Pelecanos’ work. He writes about the problems of Washington, D.C., while you write about the problems facing your hometown of London. Would you say that’s a fair comment?
MB: If I was stylistically a fraction as good as George Pelecanos, I’d be a very happy man. One strand of the story takes it into the same sort of areas -- geographical as well as thematic -- that he writes about, but right now I feel almost compelled to do that. There aren’t too many serial killers running about in London at the moment, but there are far too many young men killing one another, and writing a crime novel set here … it would seem perverse not to address some of that stuff. Also, I suppose the fact that there are major black characters means that some people might make the comparison with Pelecanos, but beyond that I don’t see it. As it happens, George has read the book and told me he thinks it’s the best thing I’ve written, which means a lot, as he’s a good friend and a writer I admire enormously.
AK: This new story starts with an innocuous event that leads to a terrible escalation of violence. The novel is very, very tightly plotted. In previous conversations, you’ve indicated that you only work on the slimmest of outlines, but In the Dark is a complex book. Did you change your writing method this time, a la Jeffery Deaver?
MB: No, absolutely not. I’d say this was the most character-driven thing I’ve ever written, and it was great not to have to worry so much about the plot. If you think it’s tightly plotted then I can only be grateful that once again I’ve got away with it. I’ve always got the bare bones of a plot, but while it might suit some people to plan everything out in advance, I can’t work that way. I just started with Helen, Theo, Paul, and Frank and the event which you describe as “innocuous.” Not the word I would have chosen myself, mind you …
AK: Did you miss the comfort of writing about Thorne and his team?
MB: There were times when I got stuck and missed it a great deal, when I knew how easy it would have been to have Thorne and Phil Hendricks sitting in front of the football and chewing over the case, or whatever. But like I said, stepping out of that comfort zone was the whole point and I certainly didn’t miss dealing with the politics of the police force and all that stuff. It was wonderful, not having to worry about how long it takes to get DNA analyzed or any of that.
AK: In the heart of the story are many well-delineated, but flawed people, including the man in the shadows, the gangster Frank Linnell. Did you have to sketch out the characters more than you would have for a Thorne thriller?
MB: Yes, I think I probably did. There are three, perhaps even four major characters whose stories I wanted to tell, and as I said earlier, the book really grew from that. This isn’t to say that those characters didn’t end up very different from the ones I’d originally conceived, but unlike the Thorne novels, there are very few wholly good or wholly bad characters [in In the Dark]. It’s interesting … talking to those who have read the book and seeing which of the characters they cared about most. I’ve been pretty surprised.
AK: I thought In the Dark had more action, and perhaps more violence, than the last couple of Thorne novels. Did you find it cathartic writing those action pieces?
MB: There are very few crime writers who would not admit to getting more of a buzz from writing an action sequence than a scene in which two cops sit around and talk about filling in expenses forms. That said, if the scenes of violence in the book are at all powerful, it’s because I’ve tried to stress the dreadful banality and the casual nature of some of it. There’s a scene from the book, which I’m reading at events right now, which ends like this:
There was just a muffled thud and a scorch mark, not much bigger than the burn from a discarded fag-end; black and ragged at its edge. Clive had seen something like this a few times in films, American gangster stuff, and for some reason there were always a few feathers flying about afterwards. Slow-motion sometimes, like snow in a globe. The men who’d done the job were always looking blank and strolling out of the room, while some kind of music came in, and feathers floated down like they’d been shooting fucking chickens or something.
He’d never seen anything like it himself, it was always just this. It was probably just a nice effect. Or maybe, Clive thought, he just never dealt with anyone who could afford feather pillows.
AK: One of your strengths is writing dialogue, and you captured the vernacular of the East London borough of Hackney very well. Did you spend time in that area?
MB: Yes, I did, and I also spent some time with a couple of lads from London street crews, who helped me enormously. There was one very odd evening when they came down to see a show I was doing at the Comedy Store, and we sat in the dressing room for a few hours afterwards. They helped me out with some of the street-slang and they were pissing themselves laughing every time someone walked into the dressing room and hurried out again as though they were rushing off to call security. The other area for which I needed to do research was pregnancy, as one of the major characters is heavily pregnant. This was, if anything, even trickier; but I finally cracked it by walking around the house all day with a false plastic belly and a pair of authentically lactating silicone breasts. It really helped get me inside the character, you know? But I had to stop, as it was frightening my daughter’s school friends.
AK: I found In the Dark to be a superb novel and, weirdly, a very fast read; in fact, much faster in terms of pace than any of the Thorne novels. Was it also faster to write?
MB: It took pretty much the same time as a Thorne novel to get finished, but the time I spent actually at the keyboard seemed to go by a lot faster. I really enjoyed switching between Frank, Theo, and Helen and it felt like I was motoring through it at times. But there always times when you get horribly bogged down, when you just have to step back and give yourself some space.
AK: So what’s next for you? Is Thorne coming back?
MB: Yes, the next book will be a Thorne novel called The Life Thief, which will be out next year. It’s … nearly finished. After that, I’m really not sure. In an ideal world, I’d like to alternate between Thorne novels and standalones, but I may also be tempted to revisit one of the characters from In the Dark. Right now, I genuinely don’t have an idea in my head.
AK: I believe In the Dark is being published in the States, simultaneously with its appearance in the UK. How did that come about?
MB: HarperCollins [U.S.] have always wanted to publish simultaneously, but it was tricky to catch up. This gave us the ideal opportunity, but it meant skipping the last Thorne novel (Death Message), which they will now publish in 2009. It’s great to be able to talk about the same book at events on both sides of the Atlantic, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what American readers make of In the Dark.
AK: So tell us a little about Triskellion, which you and Peter Cocks have written under the pseudonym “Will Peterson.”
MB: I was asked if I’d be interested in writing some thrillers for children. Suddenly, a couple of lunches later, and it’s happening. It’s a trilogy, written with my friend Peter Cocks, the second one of which we’ve just finished. The first one seems to have gone down pretty well. It’s about a set of twins from New York spending the summer in a spooky English village. Kind of a Wicker Man for kids, with a body count every bit as high as any of the Thorne books. I loved scary books when I was a kid and tried hard to write something like the books I read growing up, which would scare the pants off me. Having now written two of them, it’s clear that I have a thing for fire and for bees and a strange obsession with killing priests of every denomination.
AK: I have to ask, as I recall that you queued up at the Murder One bookstore for the release of Hannibal: Did you and Peter Cocks consciously pick the name Will Petersen as an homage to Harris? Will Graham was of course the name of the detective who captured Dr. Lecter in Red Dragon, and William Petersen is the actor who played him in Manhunter.
MB: Nice theory, Ali, but not quite. We just thought the name sounded good. We actually wanted a name that was scary, but also redolent of well-loved children’s authors. But the publisher was not keen on Nosferatu Blyton, and even less so on J.K. Bastard. So, we just picked one. Actually, I met someone at an event recently who thought I’d chosen the name because Will Petersen plays the main guy in CSI. It honestly is not the case, although you may recall I had something of a run-in with the makers of that show a few years back. [The plot of a 2004 CSI: New York episode called “Blink” was said to be a bit too close to the plot of Sleepyhead.] The less said about that the better …
AK: While we’re on the subject of films, has there been any more news on the chances of Thorne making it to television?
MB: Yes, and thankfully it’s good news. The script for Sleepyhead is being written right now and, all being well (not always the case in TV, of course), we hope to start shooting early next year, with David Morrissey playing Tom Thorne. While I’m still not counting any chickens, I’m pretty excited, because Morrissey is the actor I’ve always wanted and the company seems really committed to making it the right way. Whether I’ll have David Morrissey in my head the next time I sit down to write a Thorne novel is another question. I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it.
AK: You have a very active forum on your Web site. While many authors are shutting down their forums, yours is thriving. So tell as little about the Mark Billingham Talk Zone.
MB: It’s something I was reluctant to do for a while because it can be tricky. Other authors have had problems, but the key is having a great moderator, which I have in Jayne Doherty, who also moderates John Connolly’s forum. There are some great people on there who are hugely knowledgeable, and I think there’s a nice atmosphere. We’ve started a book club and each month one of the forum members picks the book to be discussed. Occasionally, a writer will come along and join in, which is always interesting. Obviously, the key thing that brings everyone together is a love of crime fiction, but they discuss all manner of stuff and I try to contribute as often as I can.
AK: You also support the genre by doing many library and convention events. How tough is it, balancing your writing with the commercial demands of this business?
MB: It’s increasingly difficult, but there are writers who do a whole lot more of that stuff than I do. But after spending a year writing a book, I really need to get out there and meet readers, to talk to people. I think I’d go mad otherwise. It’s great to do events with other writers -- to hang out with friends and peers and like-minded souls. And as a performer, I really enjoy working in front of an audience. When I was a kid writing stories at school, the greatest thrill was to get brought to the front of the class and asked to read a story out loud. Basically, even though I now get paid for it, I think I’m still doing that!
AK: This year you’re touring with Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Alan Banks series [most recently, All the Colours of Darkness]. Do you have funny things to report from your travels?
MB: Peter and I have done a lot of stuff together in the last few years, as we tend to have books out at the same time, and it’s always great fun. The events themselves are always enjoyable, as are the eating and drinking sessions that inevitably follow. We spent the other night talking about James Bond into the early hours. Peter’s a major Bond buff …
AK: And you’re still working the stand-up circuit?
MB: Not as often as I used to. With all the traveling that the books entail, I can’t still gig as much as I did and have any kind of family life. I’ve enjoyed doing stand-up for over 20 years and it’s a buzz I can’t quite give up. It’s nice to go onstage and tell a few cheap jokes after a day spent writing about death and darkness. There’s an immediacy to it that you can’t get from delivering a book. I know straight away if a joke’s worked, and certainly if it hasn’t; but once a book’s out there it almost disappears. You get reviews, you see how it’s doing in the charts or whatever, but you have no real sense of how people are reacting to it. I think I also need to limit the amount of time spent hanging out with other comics. It’s a far more brutal industry than this one. When you’re waiting to go on stage, there’s a part of you hoping the act before you dies on their arse and that can’t be healthy long-term. I’ve found the opposite to be generally true when it comes to crime writers. Very few of them hold to the idea that for them to do well someone else has to do badly.
AK: I enjoyed seeing you at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival this last summer, even if your team did win the notorious quiz. What did you consider the highlights of that festival?
MB: I thought it was a great festival this year, and [programming chair] Simon Kernick did a tremendous job. One of the real surprises for me was the “cozy” panel, which was hugely entertaining. The panelists were all really funny and laid in to some of the so-called “tough guys” of the genre with real wit and good humor. It was great to see Robert Crais as always, and the Balloon Game was a lot of fun. It’s not often you see crime writers performing with puppet ravens made from old socks, or, in the case of Val McDermid, as Agatha Christie, performing with bags on their heads. You don’t see that at Hay-on-Wye! Sorry about the quiz, by the way …
AK: The panel events at Harrogate are now all full houses, due to the single-track organization. As a former Harrogate programming chair yourself, can you let us know how the events are organized and supported by the sponsors?
MB: This gives me the ideal opportunity to refute a couple of rumors that have been circulating of late on certain blogs and sites, suggesting that publishers “buy” spots at the festival for their authors. This is ill informed, 100-percent bullshit. As a former program chair, I know how the system works and such ludicrous accusations not only cast aspersions about myself and other program chairs (Val McDermid, Natasha Cooper, Simon Kernick, and currently Laura Wilson), but impugn the efforts of Jane Gregory and the rest of the committee, as well as the work done by Sharon Canavar and her amazing team at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, which has, in a few short years, made this quite probably the best crime-writing festival in the world. Of course, publishers want their crime authors to be there, and [they] pitch authors to the committee (just as they do with Edinburgh, Hay, Cheltenham, etc.), but the choice is made solely by the committee -- and no sum of money, hefty or otherwise, can make any difference to that.
What can happen after the program has been put together, is that a publisher may choose to sponsor an event. This means that for £3,000 they can have an advert and their logo in the program and some branding at the event, if they choose. Often publishers sponsor events at which they have no authors present, and some may choose not to sponsor an event at all; but it is not unusual for a publisher to sponsor the event at which one of their authors is a special guest or a panel which may contain an author they are trying to draw attention to. This is the only way in which any money comes from publishers, and perhaps this is where any “confusion” -- I think I’m being generous in calling it that -- has arisen.
AK: Harrogate is a very different event from ThrillerFest, Bouchercon, CrimeFest, Left Coast Crime, and the rest. Why do you think, in just six years, it has become such a success, while an event such as Dead-on-Deansgate, which started off big, eventually withered?
MB: Yes, it is different, but Harrogate is a festival, as opposed to a convention like those you mention, and the distinction is very important. As with other UK festivals (Edinburgh, Hay, Cheltenham, Oxford, etc.), authors are invited and once invited they are paid fees. Their travel expenses and accommodation are paid for and, in the case of Harrogate, they are pretty much guaranteed a large audience. They will also sell a lot of books, which -- let’s not be prissy about this -- is fairly important to everyone. The fact that the festival is commercially successful has played a large part in its growth, but the main reason, if you ask me, is down to the atmosphere. The overseas authors who have been invited over the years have all said that there is nothing else quite like it. There is a genuine mix of readers and writers, and the proof of the pudding is in the fantastic feedback that the organizers get and in how many writers turn up each year who are not programmed, but who go anyway, because there isn’t anywhere else they would rather be that weekend.
AK: You are scheduled to be toastmaster at Bouchercon Baltimore. Can you tell us something of what you have planned for that occasion?
MB: Well, obviously I’ll be making a good deal of the toast. Aside from that, I’ll be welcoming everyone to the convention on the opening night and introducing the other guests of honor. It’s a fantastic line-up this year, and I think this is going to be a very special Bouchercon. I have an event of my own which will take the form of a conversation with John Connolly, and will also be part of a rather unusual panel. It’s called “Secrets & Lies,” and the audience will try to identify a number of lies told by myself, Karin Slaughter, John Connolly, Chris Mooney, and Laura Lippman, as we reveal an assortment of dirty secrets. It will cost each audience member a couple of dollars to accuse us of lying if it turns out we’re telling the truth, but if they’re right, we will each have to put $10 into a bucket being passed around. All the money raised will go to a Bouchercon charity, and it should be great fun. I also plan to drink a good deal, but not before handing out the Anthony’s on the final day. So, plenty to do, but I can’t wait.
AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently that you enjoyed?
MB: I recently went on holiday and had a ton of good stuff saved up. I really enjoyed Down River, by John Hart, The Ghost, by Robert Harris, and When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. Right now I’m being stunned by the brilliance of Homicide, by David Simon, which has just been re-issued over here. I’m interviewing David on stage next month as part of an all-day The Wire event. I shall try and ask him searing and important questions, and not just ask about great places to eat in Baltimore.
AK: Finally, tell us a joke, as your stand-up routine is a hoot.
MB: Not too much is repeatable on a site that can be easily accessed by children! My favorite routine involves a particularly odd law in Singapore, but I’d best not go into details …
By the way, do I need to point out that I was joking about the pregnancy/fake breasts thing …? | October 2008
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine and The Rap Sheet contributor, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes and reviews for Deadly Pleasures, Crime Spree, and Mystery Readers International magazines.