Mark Billingham has Sir Tony Robinson to thank for getting into writing.
Weekend magazine readers may have read our interview with the Maid Marian writer — but Mark also has a link to the series. He played guard Gary while working as a jobbing actor.
“By series four Tony asked me to get involved in the writing of it, and when that show finished, I’d just become a writer by default,” he says.
“I accidentally became a writer. It was still quite a big step from there to writing a novel but it’s all his fault,” he laughs, saying we’ll have to interview the entire Maid Marian cast.
“When they showed Maid Marian in America, they showed it back to back with Blackadder at about midnight.
“I don’t think they even realised it was ever meant to be a kid’s show. That’s the genius of Tony’s writing as well. It was such a good show; best job I ever had.”
On July 29, Mark will appear in a crime fiction special with fellow writers (and group members, more on that later) in Armagh as part of the John Hewitt International Summer School.
And it’s crime that we want to talk about today — specifically his DI Tom Thorne series, of which he’s just released his 18th novel, The Murder Book. However, Mark is taking a break from Thorne “for a couple of years” though is adamant we haven’t seen the last of the DI.
“I’m not being coy about it, but I’m starting a new series and I want to write at least a couple of those to get it up and running.
“I will absolutely come back soon to Tom Thorne,” he says.
“The end of that [most recent] book felt it was a good place to hit pause for a little bit.
“I’ve written a number of standalone books and I’ve always enjoyed having that year away and doing something different, then coming back to Thorne sort of fired up and re-energised.
“That’s always the theory: you’ve got to do something if you’re going to keep the series fresh. You can’t just keep writing that same series over again.”
There’s also the fear of writing one or two books too many in a series.
“All of us that write series, we all gather together in dark corners of book festivals and talk about that,” says Mark.
“It’s the one thing we all live in peril of. Nobody tells you; nobody says, ‘It’s going past its sell-by date now, you’re making a fool of yourself’.
“It’s like people on X Factor thinking they can sing, you just don’t know. You think you’re still doing good work and obviously you’re trying to do good work, but we all know there are series that are past their sell-by date. You don’t want yours to be one of them. I think the way you try to keep it fresh, and this is just learning from the great people like Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, they go off and they do something else.
“It’s not just turning out the same book. Fans of a series quite famously want a book that’s quite like the last one but a little bit different. That can be dangerous.”
Plus, even with having a successful series, writers shouldn’t feel complacent, says Mark.
“I remember early on being really quite shocked that the books were getting harder to write. This was books three, four and five and I’m thinking, ‘Why are they getting harder?’ and then somebody far wiser than me said, ‘Well, they’re supposed to, you idiot’.
“You’re trying to write a better book. You should always have that ambition to write a better book. The day you lose that is the day you should stop. Sometimes trying to write a better book means going away and writing something else completely.”
Onto new writing. In May 2023, Mark will publish the first in the Detective Declan Miller series. Grieving for his wife, the detective, dubbed an “eccentric, offbeat sleuth”, must solve a double murder which has occurred in a seaside hotel.
“I don’t know any more about Declan Miller than I do about Tom Thorne. I get to know them as I write the books at the same time as the reader gets to know them,” says Mark.
“When I started writing these new books with Declan, I was writing an original TV detective show for the BBC and he was a character I created for that.
“That TV show may still happen or it may not, you never know with television, it’s just a complete lottery.
“But by the time he’d been rolling around my head for two years and I’d written umpteen drafts of TV scripts about him, I just thought, ‘I want to write a book’.
“The publisher was very keen and I knew it would be very different in tone, much lighter, very different from Thorne.
“It’s been a lot of fun getting to know him.”
It is that lightness that gives Mark ‘his comedy jollies’ when writing.
“I come from a sort of comedy, performance background. Even when I was acting I was messing about doing things like Maid Marian. I was always looking for the funny,” he explains.
“I spent 20 years as a stand-up, and even though there’s dark humour in the Thorne books, it’s nice to be able to write something where humour is front and centre. I’m not afraid of it at all.
“Miller isn’t a kind of comedian, he’s not wandering around with a kind of horn going ‘Bah! Bah!’ It’s not like that.
“He’s a detective who’s grieving and he just deals with grief in a very unique way.
“The books are every bit as dark in a lot of ways but no, I’m not pulling back if there’s a joke. If there’s a joke there screaming to get out, I will find it.”
The author said he isn’t keen on reading anything that doesn’t have some degree of humour within it as it’s not a reflection of life.
“I’ve said this before, but you want to hear people cracking jokes you could have cracked. Which I have done and I’ve hung out with coppers who are investigating some very grim stuff and their coping mechanism is humour.
“Of course it is, otherwise they’re going to spend their lives being miserable and taking work home with them.”
Though putting Tom Thorne on pause for now, he’s a character that comes into Mark’s head every day.
And the current Thorne novel, The Murder Book, is a great way to leave audiences thinking. The novel’s blurb suggest the detective’s worst nightmare is to come… so it’s fortunate he has cast iron loyalty from friends and colleagues Nicola Tanner and Phil Hendricks.
“They have a bad secret that binds them together,” says Mark.
“They look out for each other, which is something I’m keen to write about.
“It’s pretty much there in the Miller books as well. He has this group of advisers who come from a very unexpected place because he has a very unexpected hobby.
“He goes to them quite often, firstly to just help him deal with the death of his wife, but also he’ll talk about the case with them and get very good advice. This goes back to Sherlock Holmes in the Baker Street Irregulars, having a little helpful gang is quite nice.”
Plus, The Murder Book uncomfortably welcomes the return of Stuart Nicklin, a dangerous psychopath who has unfinished business with the DI.
Stuart may be temperamental, threatening and violent, but he’s also a charismatic character, which comes through in Mark’s writing.
“I knew I was going to go back to writing about Nicklin. I’ve had so many readers get in touch over the last few years wanting to know when he’s coming back because after the last book he featured in, The Bones Beneath, he’s just at large, he’s out there,” he explains.
“He’s somebody Thorne thinks about a lot in all the books, he gets a mention usually because he’ll pop into Thorne’s head and spoil his day.
“This was the perfect book to bring him back.”
Mark has been praised for his use of distraction, skilfully directing readers through plot lines and red herrings until the final reveal. Distraction is one thing, but not helping the reader is something he wouldn’t do.
“That’s cheating, you can’t cheat the reader. Crime readers are far too clever and read far too widely to let you get away with that kind of stuff.
“You know, when somebody jumps out of cupboard at the end of chapter 46 and goes, ‘It’s me! I killed them!’ that’s easy.
“You’ve always got to have the solution sorted in plain sight. The clues have got to be there. This is me speaking as a reader, which I am first and foremost.
“When you get to the end and the solution is revealed, you want to go, ‘Oh god, yes, I could have seen that’.
“You allow yourself to be misdirected. There’s so much misdirection going on in crime fiction and so much building up to a punchline the way a comedian does, a very dark comedian, and going off on tangents, it’s like a shaggy dog story with murder.”
Crime writing shares similarities with stand-up comedy, both needing to pack a punch from the outset.
“They’re very similar,” agrees Mark. “Firstly, you’ve got to engage the reader in the book in the same way you’ve got to engage an audience in a comedy club.
“You can’t walk out on stage at the Comedy Store and say, ‘Stick with me, I get funny in 10 minutes’. You have to get straight in there and get the reader engaged.
“That’s again me speaking as a reader because I’ll give up on a book after 25 pages if there’s nothing that has grabbed hold of me. That doesn’t necessarily need to be so crash, bang, wallop, pop, it could just be a voice or something that just makes you want to keep turning the pages.
“Like comedy, it’s full of punchlines and full of reveals. It’s all about timing; those moments where you turn the page and gasp.
“Because I come from a performance background, I think writing a novel is a performance, and you’re trying to give the best performance.
“But that doesn’t mean that every day I sit down at my desk and write, that I’m having a good time.
“Sometimes it’s work, you put your a**e in the chair and go to work.
“And even though it’s the best job in the world in making stuff up, the bit of the whole process for me that is the most enjoyable is things like coming over and doing this event in Armagh.
“That’s the fun stuff for me. That’s the perk for me.
“A lot of writers would rather stick needles in their eyes than do that kind of stuff, but I’m very much in my element standing up on stage and showing off and talking about the books.”
He apologises in advance to Armagh audiences, saying he, Val and Stuart may spend a lot of time “talking about our stupid rock band” the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a supergroup of super sleuth authors, that also includes Luca Veste and Chris Brookmyre.
“It’s the most fun,” says Mark of the band.
“Writing is a solitary thing, but the fact that the six of us get to hang out for a weekend doing a couple of gigs and having a great time is wonderful.
“It’s as much fun in the bar afterwards as it is on stage doing the show.”
The Murder Book by Mark Billingham, Sphere, £20, is available now. A Crime Fiction Special with Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville takes place on July 29 at the Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre, Armagh, as part of the John Hewitt International Summer School. Full details of the programme are available online at johnhewittsociety.org