As one of the UK’s most acclaimed crime fiction authors, Mark Billingham has never been busier. The past 12 months have seen the author’s serial detective Tom Thorne hit the small screen to much critical praise; he has been appointed chair of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which takes place this weekend, and he has also witnessed the publication of his second stand-alone thriller Rush of Blood, in which three couples meet around the pool on their Florida holiday and become fast friends.
On their last night their perfect holiday takes a tragic twist: the teenage daughter of another holidaymaker goes missing, and her body is later found floating in the mangroves. When the shocked couples return home they remain in contact, and over the course of three increasingly fraught dinner parties they come to know one another better, though don't always like what they find. A second girl goes missing and what ensues is a brilliantly plotted, utterly gripping thriller that will make its readers question everything they ever thought they knew about the people they call friends.
"I love the challenge of pushing boundaries as a writer," Billingham says, "which is why, in many ways, Rush of Blood was always going to be a stand-alone novel. I’d written three Thorne books on the spin and wanted to mix things up a bit so as to keep myself and the series fresh. I’d had this idea knocking around for two or three years, after some friends of mine had a very strange experience with a couple they met on holiday. I just made it even stranger…and a lot darker."
Despite there being no less than eight central characters, thanks to some exquisite descriptive prose readers will fly through the novel, as the author has created a manifestly unique identity for each protagonist. "It was easier to get inside some characters’ heads than others," Billingham said, "but I am quite lucky in the fact that I have a performance background. I saw the book as having a similar structure to a three-act play, with each act being an individual dinner party, and with the characters driving the plot rather than the other way around.
"When I’m reading I like to be able to visualise what is happening, so when I’m writing I do the same. I’m very pleased with the result and it was a lot of fun as to write, particularly setting parts of it in the USA which in itself was a whole new challenge. I’m very excited, but I’m also pretty nervous as to what reader reaction might be to the fact that it isn’t a Thorne novel. Michael Connelly said to me when I told him I wanted to write In the Dark as my first stand-alone that I should prepare myself for a drop in sales figures. Thankfully that didn’t happen, so fingers crossed that it won’t this time either."
Sadly, there are many true-life cases of similar scenarios to that which takes place in Rush of Blood and - although difficult to comprehend on a rational level what it is that makes an adult want to murder a child - Mark is adamant that fiction should depict the real world: "as long as the subject matter is dealt with in a tactful manner, I honestly don’t believe that there should be any taboos in writing because the world can be a very dangerous place and is filled with some very dangerous people. Although, admittedly, Rush of Blood is darker than almost anything else I have written, I have to say that it’s also the least obviously violent, in terms of what you see on the page. In fact, the reader doesn’t 'see' any of the murders that take place, instead they are informed of what has happened in the same way in which they might be if they heard it on the radio news. I want the readers to care about the families under suspicion, those who are trying to catch the killers and, also, those forgotten victims who are left to pick up the pieces of their lives. To do all that you have to write honestly and openly about the world in which your characters live. This isn’t a fantasy novel."
This is quite a U-turn from an author whose debut novel Sleepyhead involved a girl being injected into an almost locked-in state of disablement, and whose second novel saw the first victim being viciously strangled in front of their child. "My debut was ten years ago now and I’d like to think I’m a better writer than I was then. As a reader I was growing bored with serial killers who had more and more fantastic methods of carrying out their murders. Elmore Leonard once said that you don’t need to litter every sentence with adjectives to get your point across, that you have to trust the intelligence of the reader. I think the same approach holds true for the way in which an author deals with acts of violence. Less is very often more and the single spot of blood on an otherwise pristine floor is a far more powerful image than the wall spattered in blood. These days I’m putting far more emphasis on suspense rather than shock and horror."
Mark is currently working on another Tom Thorne outing, due for publication in 2013, and in which one of the characters from Rush of Blood will make an appearance. Sadly, however, there is no sign of a return of Tom Thorne to the small screen. "It’s quite a long and complicated story, but the show isn’t likely to return in the foreseeable future, which is a shame because I was delighted with it and David Morrissey who played Thorne said it was the best part he’d ever played, which is saying quite a lot. Dipping my toe back into the TV world reminded me why I got out of it to write books in the first place. Television is a ruthless and unpredictable business, but I am happy to say that both In the Dark and Rush of Blood have been optioned by the BBC, so let’s just see what happens."
And on 19 July, Mark will preside over the festival in Harrogate for a second time. "To put it quite simply, Harrogate is the best crime festival there is because of the accessibility of the authors, the variety we offer the audiences and the unique atmosphere that is generated by the genuine interaction of readers and writers. We are acutely aware that crime readers come from different backgrounds and that they enjoy a huge variety of the books on offer within the genre: historical crime, 'cosy' crime, true crime, translated crime - everything within the genre is covered at the festival, which is why I’m feeling a bit more pressure this time than when I first did it in 2006.
"This is a remarkable festival, so nobody wants to drop the ball and damage the reputation of an event which is growing in popularity year-on-year."
So does Mark envisage Harrogate growing beyond its current four-day slot or moving to a bigger venue? "At the moment it is possible for guests to see every event on offer over the four days. There is no multi-tracking of events. I think it’s better to reach four or five hundred guests with each event who are happy with what they are seeing, rather than four or five thousand who are disappointed that they’ve missed out on something. As to going beyond the four days, again that is a question of logistics. People are happy to come and spend a long weekend in what is a beautiful hotel in a beautiful town, but could they afford to spend a week there? Then there are the host of national and international authors and publishers and experts who attend. Could they or would they want to take a week off from their duties to attend Harrogate? I’m not sure. At the moment, it’s the first event in the year that crime readers and writers mark off in their diaries. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…"
Rush of Blood is out on 2 August, published by Little, Brown. Mark Billingham is at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival this weekend. Read our review of Sleepyhead, which was picked as World Book Night 2012 title.