Bestselling crime writer Mark Billingham talks about the new Tom Thorne, and the secret to creating real suspense.
“I’d never really done a race-against-time-type thriller, which is something I think all crime writers have to do at some point,” muses Mark Billingham, former stand-up turned bestselling thriller writer. He has rectified this with Good as Dead, the 10th in his hugely popular police procedural series featuring DI Tom Thorne which has recently been adapted for Sky television, starring David Morrissey.
Good as Dead opens in a newsagents in Tulse Hill, south London, where DS Helen Weeks queues to buy a paper and some gum. Minutes later she’s taken hostage at gunpoint, and so begins a tense, two-day stand-off as Thorne, on the outside, dashes around trying to meet the gunman’s demands. What the gunman wants is information: his son died in a Young Offenders’ Institution, the verdict was suicide, but he just can’t accept it.
Regular readers will remember Helen Weeks from In the Dark, Billingham’s only standalone to date. Looking ahead, he has no set pattern in mind for the Thorne books and standalones but is grateful his publisher gives him a free rein: “Obviously I think they’d have something to say if I turned up with a slim volume of poetry or a recipe book. I’m going to write thrillers but, hopefully, different sorts of thrillers.”
One of the challenges with such a long-running series (Thorne made his début in Sleepyhead back in 2001) is to keep it fresh (as Billingham acknowledges wryly: “You very rarely hear people say, the best book in that series is number 12”). It’s also a balancing act, he needs to make every book work for readers who have followed Thorne from the beginning—“they want in-jokes, references to things that have happened in the past”—but also for those reading a Thorne for the very first time.
Crime readers are famously loyal to a series, Billingham says he gets emails all the time asking when the next Thorne will be: “[Readers] feel like they have ownership of these characters which is great because absolutely they do . . . the characters are as much theirs as they are mine because a book, if it is unread, is just a useless thing.” Billingham’s books are certainly read—or at least bought—selling an impressive 1.7 million copies to date.
Since Sleepyhead, Billingham has delivered a book a year, but bats away a suggestion that this is a demanding workload: “I write full time, it’s my job, I have nothing else to do,” he says. “I’ve got no excuse for not writing a book a year . . . I have no truck at all with this supposed link between quality and quantity, tell that to Mozart,” he jokes.
As well as the writing, it’s now seen as essential that authors promote their books. It’s a side of the business that Billingham has seen increase in importance over his 10-year career, and that he relishes: “I understand that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but because I come from a performance background, (he has worked as an actor and as a stand-up comedian), I’m not shy when it comes to standing up at festivals or in bookshops. I do enjoy that interaction with readers, if anything it’s far more enjoyable than the actual process of writing.”
One thing that has changed over Thorne’s ten outings is the lessening of the amount of violence and gore in the books, “Although,” he says “I would say they’ve actually become darker.” He talks about the importance of “nudging the reader’s imagination into the shadows, a reader can conjure up all manner of horrible things that you don’t need to put on the page.
“It’s terribly easy to shock and disgust a reader, it’s much harder to make a reader care about characters; what I think I’ve learned is that there are all these tricks that crime writers talk about, reveals and cliff-hangers and blood and gore, but if you really genuinely want to create suspense what you have to do is give readers characters they care about.”
Billingham has also always taken care to place the victim at the centre of his thrillers, making them real to the reader, rather than just piling up the bodies because “in so much crime fiction that just doesn’t happen, the victim is just there to make the plot work. You’ve got a cop and you’ve got a killer and the victim is just the catalyst for the story.” His firm belief is that “there needs to be so much more going on in [crime] books than whodunit and how horribly they did it.”
Readers clamouring for the next Thorne will have to wait a while after Good as Dead, as Billingham is currently writing another standalone although he observes “I’m not even sure it’s a crime novel. I’m 20,000 words in and nobody’s dead yet!”
Mark Billingham's Good as Dead is out now, published by Little, Brown.