‘I wrote the best part of my next novel in lockdown’

 

Mark Billingham

It’s almost 20 years since Mark Billingham’s debut novel, Sleepyhead, was published –  a highly original and riveting crime thriller that first introduced us to the character of Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, who is based in North London, loves country music, enjoys a beer and is passionate about Tottenham Hotspur. In case you were wondering, Mark shares two of those interests with his creation – he supports Wolverhampton Wanderers.

When Sleepyhead came out, in August 2001, it entered the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list and ended up being the biggest selling debut novel of that summer. Since then, Mark has become one of the UK’s most successful crime writers.

This month sees the publication of his latest novel, Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the Dark, Rush of Blood and Die of Shame.

Cry Baby is a Thorne origins novel – a prequel to Sleepyhead, it’s set in 1996. In an exclusive interview, Mark talks to Say It With Garage Flowers about life during the Covid-19 lockdown, looks back at how his career in crime writing started, reflects on the enduring appeal of Thorne, gives us a sneak preview of the new book and tells us what he was getting up to in 1996.

Q&A

How did you cope with lockdown? As a writer, aren’t you used to lengthy periods of being at home on your own, shut off from the outside world?

Mark Billingham: On a day-to-basis, it’s not actually been very different – like a lot of writers, I’m looking for any old excuse to spend the day in my pyjamas.

I’ve been writing a lot. I know that a lot of people have found it very difficult to write – some have found it very difficult to read, for God’s sake – but I actually wrote the best part of my next novel in lockdown. I know plenty of people who have been very productive, but I completely understand why some people haven’t.

I wrote this next book very quickly, but sometimes, at the end of the day, I’d look at what I’d written and I’d think ‘what’s the point? It’s just a bloody crime novel. What does it matter in the scheme of things?’ Especially if the news that day was really bad. People are dying and the country’s going to shit! You just have to keep trying to lift yourself to get it done.

What has been different is that I haven’t been able to go out to promote my new book and do festivals and events – everything is now online. That’s what I’ve found the hardest part because I love doing all that stuff, but, again, in the scheme of things, it’s a very minor niggle.

‘I’m not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, they will want something that’s more escapist or cosier’

Has anything from the Covid-19 crisis filtered through into the book you’ve just finished writing?

MB: We’ve all got to make a decision, which I suspect is too early to make – how do you reflect lockdown and the pandemic in works that are yet to come out? I certainly reference it in the next book, but I’m hoping that by the time the book comes out, the virus won’t still be on everybody’s minds 24 hours a day.

I’m also not convinced that people will want to read about the pandemic – when we return to some form of normality, whatever that means, people might well want something that’s more escapist or a little cosier. Having lived through the pandemic, will people want to read fiction about it? We’ll have to see. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of so-called ‘cosy crime fiction’ was between the wars. After the horror of the First World War, people wanted something that was more…healing.

So you’ve spent lockdown writing, but did you have much time to do any reading?

MB: Yes – I’ve been reading tons. I’ve read an awful lot of new novels that have been sent to me, as well as some old favourites and bits of non-fiction. The last novel I read was Michael Connelly’s new book [Fair Warning], which is absolutely fantastic.

I loved Craig Brown’s book about The Beatles [One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time] – I’ll read pretty much any book about The Beatles.

What was your lockdown soundtrack? What new or old music have you been listening to?

MB: I’ve been listening to old music – I’m such an old fart. I just tend to walk into the kitchen and go: ‘Alexa, play Elvis Costello’, or ‘Alexa, play Graham Parker’. But just to evidence the fact that my finger is still on the pulse, I’ve been listening a lot to the new Bob Dylan album [Rough and Rowdy Ways], which just gets better each time I hear it.

A few years ago, you collaborated with country duo My Darling Clementine for the music and spoken word album The Other Half. Have you listened to their recent Country Darkness EPs, which are cover versions of Costello’s country and country-soul songs, recorded with Steve Nieve?

MB: Yes I have and they’re great – fantastic stuff. I’ve also been following the stuff that Steve’s been doing online with Costello.

You’re a huge Costello fan. Have you heard the recent singles he’s put out: No Flag and Hetty O’Hara Confidential?

MB: Yes – I really like them. I love No Flag because he sounds properly angry again – he’s back to full strength and on fire. I wonder if the new one [Hetty O’Hara Confidential] is from one of the musicals he’s been writing? I don’t know. I know he’s written one with Burt Bacharach, A Face In The Crowd, and has been playing a few songs from it in his live shows for a couple of years.

Let’s go back to your writing. It’s almost 20 years since your first novel, Sleepyhead, was published, back in 2001. How does it feel looking back at that time now?

MB: I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was. I was on holiday with my wife and kids in Corfu. My kids were very young and every night after we’d put them to bed, my wife and I would sit outside this villa we’d rented – she’d have a glass of wine and I’ve have a bottle of beer – and I’d start scribbling ideas in a notebook.

At the end of the fortnight’s holiday, I did a word count and realised I’d written about 30,000 words. I knew that would be about one third of a novel, so I started to think that maybe this novel-writing lark wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be.

When I got home, I tarted up the 30,000 words and I sent them to an agent – they sent them to a bunch of publishers who wanted it, there was an auction and I was off! I still hadn’t finished the book when I got my deal. I can remember being in Brent Cross shopping centre when my agent called and said that a publisher had made an offer – that’s the moment you always remember. I didn’t really know what I was doing – that was when the hard work started!

What drew you to the crime fiction genre?

MB: I think it was when I read Sherlock Holmes at a very young age, but the more important moment was my first exposure to ‘popular’ crime fiction. When I started buying books for myself they were all blockbusters like Jaws and The Godfather.

When I became a student, I discovered Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I got all those big Picador editions – and bloody loved them. I started with noir and hard-boiled American fiction and then discovered the likes of John Harvey and Ian Rankin. I devoured everything I could get. I started hanging about on the fringes of the crime fiction community – I would go to festivals and I started reviewing books so I could get them for nothing. The missing piece of the jigsaw was to try and write one.

When you created Thorne, did you ever envisage that he would endure for so long? 

MB: No – when I wrote the first book, I never imagined that it would be the start of a series. I needed a copper because there had been a crime committed. In my head, Thorne wasn’t even the main character. I wanted the book to be about the victim – a woman called Alison Willetts, who’s in a coma for the whole of the novel. I was in a very fortunate position, in that a number of publishers wanted the book, so I had to go and meet them all. The first question they all asked was: ‘is this the start of a series?’ I thought, ‘well – it better had be then!’ So I wrote another Thorne novel, little knowing that I’d still be writing about him nearly 20 years later.

How have you – and Thorne – stayed the course for almost 20 years?

MB: I’ve not constantly written about him – I’ve taken breaks to write stand-alone books and to collaborate with people on other projects whenever I’ve felt the need to. Why have readers stuck with Thorne? I don’t know, but, God, I’m very grateful for it! One of the things that has stood him in good stead I think is that I’ve never had a plan for him, or a dossier on him – the reader knows as much about him, book on book, as I do. They put flesh on the character’s bones.

I’ve never described him, so the readers have their own idea of what he looks like. Hopefully, he stays unpredictable and interesting, because I genuinely have no bloody idea about what he’s going to do next! I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s managed to stick around for the best part of two decades.

To tie in with the twentieth anniversary, a few months ago Sleepyhead was reissued as a special, limited edition hardback, with a foreword by Lee Child…

MB: It was hugely generous of Lee to write that. I’d gone back to Sleepyhead reasonably recently anyway, because I was doing the unabridged audio versions of all my early books. I’d read it again – it’s quite a sobering experience going back and reading something you’ve written 20 years ago.

How was it?

MB: There were certainly things I’d do very differently now, but you live with it – you learn as you go. Hopefully you make your mistakes early on – well, you never really stop making mistakes – but, hopefully, you get better as you go on. I did change one or two tiny things for the special edition, but I don’t think people will notice them. There are things I could’ve changed that I didn’t – like the weird thing I did with Thorne’s music taste.

You mean the bit where he’s listening to trip-hop and speed garage, as well as his beloved country music?

MB: Yeah – I thought, ‘shall I take that out?’ But I then said, ‘ do you know what? I did it – leave it in.’ I quickly dropped it after the first book…

I did take out the tiny bit of Thorne’s physical description – I’ve never done it since and I wish I’d never done it then. So, it’s gone. If it’s a character that readers are going to read about for 20 years, I’d rather they painted the pictures.

Let’s talk about your latest book, Cry Baby – the seventeenth Thorne novel and your twentieth book. It’s a prequel to Sleepyhead and it’s a Thorne origins novel, set in 1996…

MB: Yes – that’s exactly what it is. Because it was the twentieth book, I’d been thinking about it for a while and I wanted to do something a bit different and special. The more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘what a great idea – I wish I’d done this before’.

If I have one slight regret about Thorne it’s that I perhaps made him too old to begin with – he started off aged about 40, which was around the same age I was when I wrote the first book. I haven’t aged him in real-time, so he hasn’t aged as quickly as I have. With Cry Baby, I had the chance to take him back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about – and both his parents are still alive. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about – how did he become the character that then appears in Sleepyhead?

I could also go back to a time that I remember really well, but which also feels like ancient history now – if you wanted to get pictures developed, you went to a chemist, and if you wanted to get somewhere, you wandered around with an A-Z in your hand.

Crucially, in terms of technology, it’s pre-internet, pre-mobile phones and pre-CCTV – all the stuff that makes the life of a contemporary crime writer very hard, because you’ve got to deal with all that stuff.

‘I had the chance to take Thorne back to when he was a younger man – he’s less cynical and less scarred and he’s still married – just about. He’s a very different person, so that was exciting to write about’

Was it a fun book to write, or was it challenging?

MB: Oh, it was a lot of fun. There was enjoyable research, like finding out what was on the telly and the radio back then – all that popular culture stuff, which is never a chore to do.

I also had to find out how police procedure was back in those days – I worked with an ex-Detective Superintendent, a guy called Graham Bartlett, who works with a lot of crime writers, including Peter James. He was really helpful, because he was serving back then, so he could tell me exactly what things were like. He could tell me how many women were on a team of detectives back then, or how many black and Asian officers there were – it was a lot fewer than there are now, that’s for sure.

He could also tell me how things worked in terms of technology. The most technologically advanced bit of kit that Thorne has is a pager, but not even one with text on it. It just beeps and he has to go to a phone box to ring police control. You can have a lot of fun with that stuff – ‘these stupid mobile phones are never going to catch on…’

Thorne and his soon-to-be ex-wife are selling their house and he is gobsmacked that they can get £150,000 for a three-bedroom house in North London! It’s ridiculous – there will be hollow laughter from people now that can’t buy a one-bedroom flat for that.

How easy was it to go back and create Thorne’s origins?

MB: I had the tent pegs for it – knowing who somebody becomes gives you a few decent clues as to who they were. It’s not like he’s a radically different character, but there were crucial domestic things that were fun to write, like scenes with his parents, or his wife, who by the time of Sleepyhead he’s divorced from. During Cry Baby, they’re going through the hell of all that. I didn’t have to reinvent him – I just had to imagine what he might have been like in his thirties, as opposed to his forties.

What music is Thorne listening to in Cry Baby?

MB: Oh, he’s still listening to George Jones and Hank Williams, but the piece of music he hears most during the book is Three Lions, because it’s all set during Euro 96. That’s the first thing he hears when the turns the radio on, although at one point George Michael’s Fastlove comes on. He’s not listening to too much Britpop – it’s all Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, which pisses him off, because one of them’s a Chelsea fan.

 

What were you doing in 1996?

MB: I was still doing stand-up, but I was a few years away from thinking about writing that first book. I hadn’t gone through my brush with violent crime (In 1997, Mark became a crime victim, when he and his writing partner Peter Cocks were held hostage and robbed in a Manchester hotel room). I was enjoying Euro ‘96 – I was there at Wembley the night England stuffed Holland 4-1. It was a lovely, footloose summer – I was 35.

How were your team, Wolves, doing then?

MB: Oh, they were doing terribly – they were not the team they are now, or in the ‘70s. They were in the doldrums.

Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a bit about the plot of Cry Baby?

MB: Even though it’s been a number of years, Thorne is still reeling from a case – the Frank Calvert case – that is also referenced in Sleepyhead. A piece of misjudgement on Thorne’s part, or a lack of confidence, that tragically resulted in the death of three little girls and their mum. That still disturbs him and some of the other cops that he works with remind him about it and wind him up about it.

‘There are a few little reverse Easter eggs in Cry Baby that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line’

Thorne then has a new case come along – a young boy goes missing and then various people start to die. He knows that they must be connected to the missing boy – there are a couple of murders and he knows that solving them is going to be the way to find the boy, whether he’s alive or dead. He’s not going to fuck this one up!

He teams up with a young pathologist for the first time – who [regular] readers will know ends up becoming his closest friend [Phil Hendricks]. It’s the first time they meet and I had a lot of fun with that. I’d already decided that they weren’t going to get on. When they first meet, they have a big row and they fall out.

There are a few little reverse Easter eggs that readers of the series will recognise – characters who appear further down the line. At the very, very end of the book, we catch up with where Thorne is now – I tee him up for the next book, which won’t be out until the year after next, because the one before that is a stand-alone novel.

There’s an audio book of Cry Baby coming out too, which features David Morrissey as Thorne – a role he previously played in the Sky One TV series Thorne, which was based on adaptations of your novels Sleepyhead and Scaredycat

MB: We’ve recorded it – it was a lot of fun. I played the part of Hendricks.

Are there any plans for more of your books to be turned into TV dramas?

MB: There are adaptations in the pipeline, but it’s always so hard to talk about these things. Hopefully, there’s going to be an American adaptation of one of the stand-alones, but I can’t say too much about it and it’s all on hold because of Covid-19. Just before lockdown, because of Cry Baby, there was a suggestion of a reboot of Thorne, but, again, it’s all gone very quiet.

Finally, I have a quandary. I have all your books on a shelf at home and they’re in order of publication, but, as Cry Baby is a prequel, should I put it before Sleepyhead, or, as it’s brand new, should it go after your last novel, Their Little Secret? This has been keeping me awake at night…

MB: [laughs]: I think you’ve got to stick with the order of publication – you’ve got to put it after Their Little Secret. One of the questions people are asking me is if they haven’t ready any of my books, is Cry Baby a good entry point? Of course it is, as, in theory, it’s the first case, but if you’ve read all the Thorne books you’ll hopefully get as much fun from it as if it was the first one you’d picked up.

 

Cry Baby by Mark Billingham is published by Little, Brown on July 23: https://markbillingham.com/

 

 

‘I was furious writing this book’

 

51eMhWvs7HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Best-selling crime fiction author Mark Billingham’s latest novel, Love Like Blood, deals with the controversial subject of honour killings.

It was a difficult book to write, he tells me, but has more twists and turns than any of his other thrillers…

Q & A

Your new book, Love Like Blood, is the fourteenth novel in the Tom Thorne series. It shares its title with a song by Killing Joke…

Mark Billingham: Yes – it does. I was sitting on a train with Martyn Waites [crime writer] and told him that I didn’t have a title for my book and that it was driving me crazy. We threw some titles back and forth – he knew what the book was about – and then he said, ‘what about the Killing Joke song, Love Like Blood?’ So, in the acknowledgements, I thank Killing Joke and Martyn Waites. It’s actually the first time I’ve named one of my books after a song title.

Your last book, Die of Shame, was a stand-alone novel. What was it like going back to Thorne and writing about him again, for the fourteenth time? Does he still excite you?

MB: Yes – he does. One of the reasons I write stand-alone books is that having taken a break from the series, I can come back to Thorne re-energised and keen to write about him again – that’s the theory. I was very excited to write about him again – especially putting him into this story, as it was one I was very fired-up to write about.

mark-billingham
Mark Billingham

This seems like an appropriate time to talk about the story in Love Like Blood. I’m not going to give anything away, so I’ll just refer to the promotional blurb that accompanies the novel…

‘As DI Nicola Tanner investigates what appears to be a series of organised killings, her partner Susan is brutally murdered.

‘Taken off the case, Tanner enlists the help of DI Tom Thorne to pursue a pair of ruthless killers and the broker who is handing out the deadly contracts.

‘As the killers target their latest victim, Thorne takes the biggest risk of his career and is drawn into a horrifying and disturbing world in which families will do anything to protect their honour…’

The central theme of the book is honour killings and it’s loosely based on a real-life crime – the killing of Banaz Mahmod – a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman, living in south-west London, who was raped, tortured and murdered by members of her family in 2006.

Banaz’s father and uncle were eventually sentenced to life in prison for ordering the killing, along with the three men who had been paid to carry out the act. Several other members of her family were also jailed for their involvement in the crime.

Banaz had been forced into an arranged marriage with a man who physically and sexually abused her, but she left him and fell in love with another man – Rahmat Sulemani. Her family killed her for doing so…

MB: They conspired to murder her and had already tried to kill her once before. She’d been to the police five times, but wasn’t taken seriously. There’s a heart-breaking clip, which you can watch on YouTube, of her being interviewed at the police station, describing her abusive marriage and how she was repeatedly raped, beaten and treated like a slave.

She tried to get away, because she’d met Rahmat Sulemani and fallen in love with him, but she was spotted kissing him outside Morden tube station. That was her death warrant.

She was lured to her grandmother’s house, where she was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered.

‘It’s the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out’

There’s a brilliant documentary about the case, which is called Banaz: A Love Story. I remembered reading about the case and then I saw the documentary and started looking further into it it. It’s probably the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out.

I then had this idea of writing a story about men who were paid to carry out such killings  – not just in the UK, but also overseas.

As Love Like Blood deals with such a controversial and sensitive subject matter, was it a difficult novel to write?

MB: Yes – it was. It was difficult in two ways. I was furious writing this book – very angry. It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real and horrendous crimes. I also knew that it was something that needed to be treated with a degree of sensitivity. I was writing about cultures and religions that weren’t mine. I firmly believe that I have the right to do that – I’m writing about a multi-ethnic city [London] and not every book I write is about white, middle-aged men.

I was careful at every stage. The book was seen very early by a Muslim reader, a Sikh reader and a Hindu reader. I very much wanted to do that, because I didn’t want to make stupid mistakes and I also didn’t want to write anything that anyone might find offensive. At no point in this book am I attacking any religions or cultures. I’ve got nothing but respect for those religions, but I have no respect at all for people who murder in their names. It’s got nothing to do with religion – it’s just murder.

‘It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real, horrendous crimes’

This isn’t the first time you’ve written about real-life, social issues in your books, is it?

MB: No – over the course of 17 books, I’ve occasionally written about things that are actually happening.

I’ve never done tub-thumping stuff, but Lifeless was about homelessness, Die of Shame dealt with addiction and In The Dark was about the pressure of joining gangs. It does feel different when I’m writing books like that, rather than the ones about serial killers or gangland slayings. I’m not saying I want to do it with every book – sometimes the story just doesn’t work like that. Don’t get me wrong – the story has to come first. Love Like Blood is still a thriller that has more twists and turns than anything I’ve ever written. I think it has two stonking twists in it, but I’m not going to give them away.

I hope it still works as a thriller, but obviously I want to draw attention to these atrocities, and the scale of them. There is a minimum of a dozen honour killings in the UK every year, but it is a massively under-reported crime.

Sadly, there was yet even more tragedy to come from Banaz Mahmod’s story. Her partner, Rahmat Sulemani, killed himself in May last year…

MB: Yeah, that happened while I was halfway through writing the book and fired me up even more. It’s odd – when you’re halfway through a book, you usually go into the doldrums and you worry about what you’re writing, whether it’s any good and if you’re doing the right thing.

Then Rahmat Sulemani hanged himself – 10 years after Banaz died – and I thought, ‘yeah – I really want to finish this book’. So I raced through the second half of it. It’s probably the quickest book I’ve ever written.

 

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine performing The Other Half

You’re a multi-talented man who always has plenty of projects on the go – including some music-related ones. In 2015, you collaborated with country duo My Darling Clementine on an album and live show called The Other Half. Any more musical collaborations in the offing?

MB: Well…I’m in a band called The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. It’s made up of a bunch of other crime writers – Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and Val McDermid, with guest appearances from the likes of Christopher Brookmyre. We’re playing cover versions with a crime theme and we’ll be making our live debut in August.

I’m the only one in the band who isn’t a proper musician! I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives.

On The Other Half album, you co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine called As Precious As The Flame. A new version of it has also appeared on the latest My Darling Clementine album, Still Testifying. Would you like to do more songwriting?

MB: I’ve actually been doing a lot of songwriting. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs and playing guitar – however badly I sing and play. I’m keeping up with all my guitar lessons – as the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers’  expands, I have a new song to learn every week. Like any band though, we’re probably more interested in getting our photo done…

I’m also writing some songs with a musician and composer called Paul Joyce – he’s an old friend of mine.

I write the lyrics, with a few musical ideas, and then I work with Paul on them – he hammers a demo into shape and then we bring in session musicians. We’ve been working on six songs for about six months – we have half an album’s worth and now we’re going to put them out there and hopefully find someone who fancies recording them. I think we’ve written some good songs…

‘I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives’

Would you like to work with My Darling Clementine again?

MB: We’re actually talking about taking The Other Half Back on the road – we’ve had some interest in doing some other dates at the end of this year and the beginning of 2018. Right now, we’re trying to work out when we can all be in the same place at the same time.

Like your fictional character, Thorne, you’re a huge country music fan and you’re currently working on a Radio 4 programme about Hank Williams. What can you tell me about that?

MB: It’s for a show called My Muse, in which people talk about someone that’s inspired them in one way or another. I picked Hank and I’m interviewing various people for it and talking about what his music means to me. I think it will be going out in August. Hank Williams was a mega-star in his time, with massive hits, but, at the same time, he was also putting out this weird, uncommercial gospel stuff under an alias – Luke The Drifter – that was completely different from Your Cheatin’ Heart or Jambalaya. For a long time, people didn’t even know Luke The Drifter was Hank Williams. Every so often, he just felt that he had to do these Luke The Drifter recordings. Maybe he felt guilty about the godless life he was living…

So when you write stand-alone novels, is that your Luke The Drifter period?

MB: Maybe (laughs) – no, that would be the equivalent of me telling my publisher I’m going to write a huge, erotic saga, or a romance novel. Even when Hank was writing hit songs like Cold, Cold Heart, they were really dark. How do you walk that line between being commercial and being very, very dark and edgy? That’s why I’ve always thought crime and country music go so well together.

Time of Death

The BBC has adapted two of your novels, In The Dark and Time of Death, for TV. When will the series – a four-part drama –  be shown?

MB: It’s all done – it was filmed in and around Manchester last year and I think it’s going to be on in the next couple of months.

You’re already working on the next Thorne book, aren’t you?

MB: Yes – I’m about three quarters of the way through it. One strand of the book deals with Spice abuse and the network behind smuggling drugs into prison. The other part of the story is based on a real-life, ongoing police investigation, which I can’t really talk about. So I’m writing about drugs and murder, and as usual there will be some country music thrown in. I’m not doing a Luke The Drifter change of direction just yet.

‘My next book will be about drugs and murder, with some country music thrown in’

Finally, will you be appearing on any more celebrity TV quiz shows? You’ve been seen on Mastermind, Pointless and Eggheads…

MB: I’m actually doing The Chase in a couple of weeks. I think I will have pretty much done all of them by then – unless there’s Celebrity Tipping Point. God, I am such a tart…

 

Love Like Blood – the new book by Mark Billingham – is out on June 1, published by Little, Brown. For more information, visit: https://uk.markbillingham.com/love-like-blood

 

 

“I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album”

markface

 

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, is released in May and is based on murderous goings-on in a therapy session. I spoke to him about addiction, country music and sitting around in his pyjamas all day…

 

The last time we spoke, you’d just released The Other Half – your spoken word album with country band My Darling Clementine – and your most recent Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, had come out.

Now your new stand-alone novel, Die of Shame, is about to hit the shelves. Without giving too much away, what we can expect?

Mark Billingham: It’s a stand-alone psychological thriller and in some ways it’s a very modern take on the classic locked-room mystery, but my locked-room is a therapy group for recovering addicts.

There are six people in a circle who meet every Monday evening to talk about shame, which their therapist is convinced is the key to their problems with addiction and crucial in aiding their recovery.

One person in that group will die at the hands of another. Writing about addiction – a subject I’m fascinated by – enabled me to create a cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, which is always an enjoyable challenge.

My best friend is a recovering addict and his experience and advice was hugely helpful. It’s a very different sort of novel from those in the Thorne series, but the bottom line is that it’s still a murder mystery and one I’m enormously proud of.

 

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Tom Thorne usually makes a cameo appearance in your stand-alone books. Will he crop up in Die of Shame?

MB: Yes, of course he will. And Phil Hendricks is in there as well…

Music is never far away from you and some of the characters in your books – particularly Tom Thorne. What were you listening to while you were writing Die of Shame? Have you heard any new albums that have blown you away? I’m loving Richmond Fontaine’s latest record and I know you’re a big fan of them…

MB: Well, like you, I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album [You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To].

It might even be their best yet, which is ironic considering that it’s almost certainly their last.

I’ve recently discovered Margo Price, who is just wonderful, and I’ve been really enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

I’ve been playing a lot of M. Ward too, and when I really need to get into a dark place, I put on Gorecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. That stuff makes Hank Williams sound like The Wombles!

There’s not too much music in Die Of Shame, because there isn’t much Tom Thorne, but like you say, it’s never very far away…

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I recently picked up the My Darling Clementine Record Store Day EP, which features As Precious As The Flame – a song you co-wrote with the band. It must be great to have a track you worked on out on vinyl?  

MB: Absolutely – it’s a real thrill. I’m very proud of that song, which I think is a wonderful ending to the album and the live show of The Other Half. It’s fantastic to see it on the My Darling Clementine EP.

You’ve been touring The Other Half with My Darling Clementine. How was it going out on the road?

MB: The tour was a lot of fun, but bloody exhausting. Whenever I complained about all the travelling, Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine would just say, “welcome to our world”.

I drove somewhere close to 7,000 miles doing the show, so now I’m appreciating the luxury of sitting at my desk all day in my pyjamas and not having to go further than the kitchen. I adored doing it, though. Michael and Lou remain a joy to work with and I’m very proud of the show we did.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

Do you have any plans for some more musical collaborations?

MB: Collaborating is something I would highly recommend for anyone who works on their own most of the time.

Aside from the artistic benefits, it’s great to have someone to go for a beer and a curry with at the end of the day. I’m certainly up for doing something similar in the future, should the chance come along. Obviously I’m still waiting for Elvis Costello to call…

It’s going to be a busy year for you, as you’ve got some more gigs with My Darling Clementine planned, you’re promoting your new book in the UK and US and your novels In The Dark and Time of Death are being filmed for TV by the BBC. Can you tell us more about the TV adaptations?

MB: They’ve been filming for a week now and everything’s going well. Danny Brocklehurst has written four brilliant scripts and the BBC have put a fantastic cast together, so it’s really exciting.

Fans of Peep Show will be familiar with Matt King, who plays Super Hans, and it’s brilliant that we’ve got him playing Phil Hendricks.

Obviously, I’m going to spoil everything in a couple of weeks when I rock up to do my cameo, but I’m sure it will be fun.

The stories have changed a bit, as they should when you move from page to screen, and there’s no Thorne at all. The series focuses on Helen Weeks, and MyAnna Buring, who is playing her, is fantastic.

I’m sure some readers will be up in arms because the TV show is not exactly the same as the books, but how can it be? They are different animals and should be judged differently. I’m closely involved with the scripts and as an executive producer, so there’s nothing going on that I don’t completely endorse. We’re just trying to make the best TV show we can.

I fully expect my cameo to wind up on the cutting room floor, especially as I plan to ham it up shamelessly…

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Have you started writing the next Thorne novel yet? When can we expect it to be released and can you give us a teaser?

MB: Yes, I’m halfway through the next one. There’s a new detective in Die Of Shame called Nicola Tanner. In many ways she’s the ‘anti-Thorne’, so I’m having a lot of fun putting her and Tom together in the book I’m currently writing.

Fun is perhaps the wrong word, as I’m actually writing about a subject that is very dark. I don’t want to say too much at this stage – I don’t even have a title yet – but I’ve never felt angrier writing a book. I hope that turns out to be a good thing…

Following on from your appearances on TV quiz shows Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind, you’re going to appear on Eggheads, as a member of a team of crime writers. When can we see that? 

MB: I think it’s due to go out in September. I was part of a team of crime writers, alongside Val McDermid, Martyn Waites, Doug Johnstone and Chris Brookmyre. It was a lot of fun. I’m not allowed to say how we got on against the Eggheads, but I would urge people to watch!

Finally, can you recommend any good books, other than Die of Shame?

MB: Chris Brookmyre’s newest book Black Widow is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed David Hepworth’s book about the music of 1971 – Never A Dull Moment.

Another non-fiction recommendation would be Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. It’s a brilliant history and detailed dissection of the war on drugs and I guarantee it will change everything you ever believed about addiction.

It’s absolutely fascinating and a huge eye-opener.

I’m currently reading John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker novel, A Time Of Torment, which is as sickeningly brilliant as usual. If I didn’t like him as much, I’d hate him…

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on May 5 and in the US by Grove Atlantic on June 7.

For more information, visit http://www.markbillingham.com/

 

 

 

‘We’re talking about doing a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones’

My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham
My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham

Best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham first heard country duo My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) when he read about them on my blog back in 2013.

Since then he’s become a huge fan of the band – so much so that’s he’s recently collaborated with them on a new album and a touring live show called The Other Half.

A story of love, loss and murder told in words and music, The Other Half  is set in a rundown Memphis bar, and focuses on waitress Marcia – a former Las Vegas showgirl – who lives her life through her customers and their everyday, tragic tales of grief, heartbreak, lust, murder and domestic horror.

I talked to Mark to find out how My Darling Clementine’s songs inspired him to write a short story and why he’s a frustrated rock star…

So, what first attracted you to My Darling Clementine?

Mark Billingham: What’s not to love? The songs are wonderful and both Michael and Lou have voices to die for.

I’ve always loved country duets – Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash and June Carter – and My Darling Clementine are keeping that flame alive.

They honour that tradition, but bring it bang up to date with songs that reflect the modern world. And, above all, they are amazing storytellers.

We’ve talked before about the link between country music and crime fiction. You included a country music playlist, which featured My Darling Clementine, in your book, The Bones Beneath.

How easy was it to link the two genres in The Other Half? You used some My Darling Clementine songs as stepping stones to writing the narrative, didn’t you?

MB: Yes – the songs were very much the tent pegs around which I was able to construct the story.

There were some songs I knew I wanted to use straight away – By A Thread, which opens the show, No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) and, of course, The Other Half. This made it the easiest short story I’ve ever written.

I’ve always found short fiction much tougher to write than novels, but having the songs to work with made it so much easier.

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

MB: It’s a story told in words and songs. One of the real delights of this project is that people have come along to the shows not really knowing what to expect and have come away having loved it.

Both myself and My Darling Clementine are working outside our comfort zones and approaching our work in a new way and I think that excitement comes across.

It’s a gig, it’s a play, it’s a story – it’s all those things, but the mixture of the three makes it something entirely of its own, too.

 

 

Can you tell me about the writing process for The Other Half? How did you start it all off and come up with the concept of love, loss and murder in a Memphis bar and make it work with the My Darling Clementine songs?

MB: The songs suggested characters – falling in and out of love, dealing with loss and grief – and it was my job to figure out who they were, how they had come to the point that Michael and Lou were singing about, or what happened to them afterwards.

The bar seemed like the ideal setting for such a disparate bunch of characters and all I needed was someone through whose eyes we see them and that was where the character of Marcia the waitress came from.

She is someone whose life has not panned out the way she imagined – a faded Vegas showgirl who now lives her life vicariously through her customers.

A prime example of the process is No Matter What Tammy Said. It’s a hugely powerful song about a very dark subject and I was fired up to write about what happens to the people involved once the song has ended.

So, Marcia observes these people, talks to the woman involved and through Michael and Lou singing the song, we discover the truth. Then I’m able to move the story on and this was my chance to bring murder into the picture, which, as a crime writer, I am of course contractually obliged to do.

You’re a big fan of country music. What was it like working with My Darling Clementine in the studio and performing on stage? Did it take you back to your early days as a performer and doing comedy shows? 

Last year, I saw you sing and play guitar at The Other Half show in London, Islington. Are you a frustrated rock star?

MB: Oh, of course. At heart I’m a performer and though these days my performances take place on the page, I can’t resist any opportunity to show off.

I’m very comfortable on stage and it’s a real buzz sharing it with performers as great as Michael and Lou. It’s a huge pleasure hearing them sing every night and even though parts of the story are very dark, we have a lot of fun.

The piece, as a whole, is actually uplifting, I think. You can’t put together a show about grief and pain and death without a degree of redemption. And I love having a chance to sing and sometimes play guitar with My Darling Clementine at the end of the night.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

 

On the album The Other Half, you worked with actor David Morrissey, who played your fictional detective character Tom Thorne on TV, and musicians Graham Parker and The Brodsky Quartet. That must have been great…

MB: All those people were hugely generous with their time and very supportive of the project.

David came in as a favour to do some acting on the album, as did the phenomenal Graham Parker. I’ve loved Graham’s stuff since I was 15, so to work with him was a huge thrill.

He actually performed the show in its entirety – being me and reading the story – at a festival I couldn’t make in the Hague. So, when we were putting the album together, we asked him if he’d like to be involved and he said yes.

The Brodsky Quartet worked with Elvis Costello on his album The Juliet Letters. I know you’re a huge Costello fan, so that must’ve been very exciting for you to record with them…

MB: Michael and Lou had worked with the Brodsky Quartet before, and, yes, I do feel that their involvement brought me just a little closer to Elvis…

You co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine for The Other Half. What was that like? Was it a dream come true and would you like to write more lyrics?

MB: Absolutely. I’m working on it. The idea was always to close the show with a new song that we had written together.

It’s a song called As Precious As the Flame, which reflects the redemption I talked about earlier, and I love hearing it. I wrote some lyrics, which Michael and Lou improved, and then Michael wrote a fantastic tune.

Seeing great actors play characters I’ve created is a buzz and hearing singers and players of Michael and Lou’s calibre singing my words is equally thrilling.

What’s it like being on tour with a band? Have you picked up any rock and roll habits?

MB: Of course. My rider is outrageous! It’s a very different life from that of the touring author. It involves a lot more preparation for a start. It’s not like rocking up at some bookshop or literary festival ten minutes before I’m due on stage and thinking I can busk it.

We normally start setting up three hours or more before showtime. Of course, there are sound and lights to get right, but the show is very theatrical too, so we have a stage to dress and some audio-visual material to get set up. Then obviously there are the drugs and the hookers…

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine? Are you going to be a new supergroup?

MB: Well, we’re talking doing about a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones…

 

Time of Death

 

Moving away from The Other Half, let’s talk about your new Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, which came out recently. Without giving too much away, what’s it about?

MB: As with the previous novel – The Bones Beneath – I’ve taken Tom Thorne out of London.

This time, he and his girlfriend Helen Weeks have to travel back to the town where Helen grew up. Something bad has happened – of course – and for reasons Tom can’t quite understand, Helen feels compelled to return.

A man has been arrested for the abduction of two girls, but Tom is not convinced the police have the right man. Obviously, he can’t resist poking his nose in where it’s not wanted and soon his friend Phil Hendricks turns up.

The media has descended on the small town and Tom has to deal with them, as well as hostile cops, if he is to unearth the real killer and save a girl who may still be alive. And there’s some country music, but you’d probably guessed that. And pigs…

You’re currently working on a new standalone novel that will be published next year, aren’t you?

MB: Yes, I am. I’m giving Thorne a break, although, as with my previous standalone novels, he will make a cameo appearance. I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and I’m enjoying myself, but I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

Once that’s done, I’ll be getting involved with the TV adaptations of Time Of Death and In The Dark, which are very exciting. They will be broadcast next year and there will be another series, based on an altogether different book, coming in 2017.

I’m also very hopeful that we can adapt The Other Half  in some way. It’s a radio show waiting to happen. Or a movie. Or a theme park…

Finally, as we’re talking about music and fiction, what are you currently listening to and reading?

MB: I’m listening to a lot of old stuff, as always.

Aside from the two fabulous My Darling Clementine albums and a lot of Graham Parker, I’m on a real Everly Brothers kick at the moment, so Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is being played almost constantly. The two recent albums that I’ve enjoyed the most have been Jenny Lewis’s The Voyager and Colfax by The Delines.

Right now, I’m re-reading Peter Guralnick’s brilliant Last Train To Memphis (inspired by The Other Half, I think).

Actually, I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick recently and have loved So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.

My favourite novel of the last six months, hands down, has been Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson. Gobsmackingly good.

In terms of crime fiction, the best novel I’ve read recently is A Song Of Shadows by John Connolly and I’m very much looking forward to the new one from Dennis Lehane.

 

The Other Half

 

The Other Half  is now available on CD and as an audio download from Little, Brown.

Recorded in January 2015, it contains brand new versions of eight My Darling Clementine songs, Mark Billingham’s narration, and features special guest performances from David Morrissey (who played Mark’s detective Tom Thorne on TV), singer-songwriter Graham Parker and the Brodsky Quartet. 

For more information on The Other Half, My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham, please visit:

http://www.theotherhalfshow.com/content/

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

To read an interview with the other half of  The Other Half, My Darling Clementine, please click here. 

 

Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half
Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half

 

‘The Other Half could be a really interesting TV drama – like a country Pennies From Heaven’

MDC MARK

Husband and wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – have collaborated with best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham on a new album and live show called The Other Half.

Described as “a story of love, loss and murder told in words and music”, The Other Half  is set in a rundown Memphis bar, and centres on waitress Marcia – a former Las Vegas showgirl – and the tragic tales she encounters through her customers, who drown their sorrows in her work place.

Mark Billingham’s story was inspired by the songs of  My Darling Clementine – a band he discovered via this very blog, and then two new tracks were written as the project progressed.

The album features appearances by actor David Morrissey and musicians Graham Parker and The Brodsky Quartet.

I spoke to Michael Weston King to find out how The Other Half came about and his future plans for My Darling Clementine…

Had you heard of Mark Billingham before you collaborated on The Other Half and were you a fan of crime fiction?

Michael Weston King: I had certainly heard of Mark, but not read any of his books. I hasten to add that this was no reflection on Mark, just that I am not really a reader of crime fiction.

I read a couple of Ian Rankin’s books a couple of years ago, but that was mainly because they referenced my dear old friend Jackie Leven.

I was also due to do a gig with Ian, so thought I had better swot up, but, apart from that, the last time I really read any crime was in my late teens and early twenties, when I was on a severe Elmore Leonard kick.

How did your collaboration with Mark come about?

MWK: Well, I actually suggested it to Mark. I can’t recall if it was Mark who told me about the playlist in the back of his book The Bones Beneath [which featured a song by My Darling Clementine], or whether it was a promoter and friend in Stoke, called Craig Pickering, but it was certainly Craig who asked me if we had any thoughts about collaborating in the same way that Jackie Leven and Ian Rankin had done a few years before.

Craig was also a huge fan of Jackie’s and often promoted me and him together in and around the Stoke area.  I forwarded that suggestion on to Mark and that got the ball rolling. He said yes and we pencilled in a few shows.

A few months later, Mark came back with this fabulous story. That was hugely exciting and also very interesting, as it breathed new life into the songs, giving them a location and names to some of the characters that frequented them.

How was the recording process for The Other Half album?

MWK: We cut the narration in London, everyone together around mics, reading and playing the parts. It was just like The Archers! 

It was recorded at RNIB, where Mark records all his audio books, and it was done very quickly indeed – pretty much in one take.

Mark narrated and Lou, David Morrissey and Graham Parker all played various parts. My daughter, the actress Florence King, was also involved. She played two parts and it was a thrill to see her acting opposite someone of the stature of David Morrissey…. and very much holding her own.

After we had that down, I took the tapes up to Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield, where we cut our second My Darling Clementine album The Reconciliation? – and worked with producer Colin Elliot and guitarist Shez Sheridan [from Richard Hawley’s band].

Given that the live show of The Other Half  is just Lou, Mark and I – so, consequently, the songs are performed in a stripped down way, we decided we would record them like that too for the album, and also, so as to offer different versions / arrangements of some of the older songs.

This approach made a greater focus on the lyrics too, as they are very much part of the story. Colin and I also worked on some sound effects for certain scenes, which was really enjoyable. Prog country? No, honestly, it’s not…

As a touring country band, how does it feel playing with Mark and being part of a show that involves spoken word, as well as music?

MWK: It takes a little adapting, as it is very different from the usual My Darling Clementine show. We are used to being the sole focus of the audience’s attention – we are the ones doing all the interaction with the crowd.

When we first started doing the show, Lou and I were to be found, sitting and listening to the narration, and then coming to the mic to perform the songs. We were not interacting verbally with the audience in the usual way, but now, we have adapted it into two 45-minute performances.

Mark sets the evening up, explains what is going to happen, and then introduces us. We come on and play three or four songs to get the party started, which allows plenty of time for Lou to bemoan that she is married to me, and then we go into The Other Half.

 

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

MWK: I don’t know if you are familiar with Terry Allen. He’s a great Texan renaissance man – a compadre of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark – and he’s a piano player, rather than a guitarist, but he’s right up there.

He is also a playwright, an artist and a sculptor, and has made some fabulous albums, a number of which are short stories set to music – check out Juarez. That is how I see The Other Half – as an album/concept in that vein.

We also had a quote after one show which described it as: “part gig / part play/part storytelling – albeit storytelling influenced by Jim Jarmusch”.

I rather liked that.

Do you have plans to collaborate with Mark on any other projects? How about writing some songs together? That would be great…

MWK: Well, we collaborated on a song for The Other Half, the closing track, As Precious As The Flame, which I am really delighted with. It may even make it on to the next My Darling Clementine album, with a full band arrangement.

We have got a lot of songs in our back catalogue, so if Mark feels inspired to write another story around a series of them, then we would be delighted. Also, as we write new songs, if we feel they could lend themselves to any other projects he is involved in, then all well and good.

When I wrote Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel [from The Other Half], I just wrote it as a new song – not even necessarily one for My Darling Clementine. But as soon as it was written, it felt like it could be right for this project, and Mark agreed, so in it went.

Lou and I feel there is more that could be done with The Other Half, in terms of a treatment for TV or film. I think it could be a really interesting TV drama, like a country Pennies From Heaven.

So, when we can expect a new My Darling Clementine album?

MWK: I think we have all the songs written for the next album. There’s a pretty good squad so far and we also have an idea of where, and with whom, we will record it. We’re just working on the finances right now.

We are quite prepared to wait until we have got what we need to do it, exactly how we want.

The next album is very important for My Darling Clementine – it’s almost make or break in a way, so it needs to be right and given every chance of being a game changer. Musically, it may well be a bit more soul than country, but it will still be very much a duets album.

Lou has written three or four fabulous songs for it so far, and I am very excited about hearing how they will turn out.

Finally, as we’re talking about music and fiction, what are you currently listening to and reading?

MWK: This is what I am listening to and reading right now:

Music

O.V. Wright – The Soul of O.V. Wright

Memphis Minnie – Hoodoo Lady 1933-1937

Charlie Rich – Rollin’ With The Flo – RCA and Epic Country Hits

Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace

The Oxford American Southern Music CD – Tennessee

MWK: I should also recommend something new: Pete Williams – Roughnecks and Roustabouts. I am also getting to grips with David Corley – Available Light. He’s an American singer songwriter in his late forties, who has just released his debut album.

Books

Here Comes The Night (The Dark Soul of Bert Berns) – Joel Shelvin

Lost Highway – Peter Guralnick

Rhythm and the Blue – Jerry Wexler

A Man In Love – Karl Ove Knausgaard

Seeds Of Man – Woody Guthrie

MWK: And a fabulous book that I simply cannot put down called Time Of Death – by Mark Billingham!

 

To read an interview with the other half of  The Other Half, Mark Billingham, please click here.

 

For more information on The Other Half, My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham, please visit:

http://www.theotherhalfshow.com/content/ 

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blood on the tracks

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, includes a 40-song playlist intended to soundtrack a road trip that occurs in the book. I spoke to him about his love of country music, Elvis Costello and Morrissey and what makes the perfect pop song…

Mark Billingham: ©Charlie Hopkinson
Mark Billingham: © Charlie Hopkinson

“Country music is perfect for crime fiction – the stories are so dark, but also beautiful and entertaining,” says Mark Billingham, sipping a pint of lager in his favourite North London pub, The Spread Eagle, in Camden.

I’ve lured one of the UK’s top crime writers here to talk about his brand new book, The Bones Beneath, which is the twelfth novel in the bestselling Tom Thorne series – but also to quiz him on his love of music.

And quiz him I will, because he’s no stranger to having his music knowledge tested. In the last few months he’s won TV’s Celebrity Mastermind – his specialist subject was Elvis Costello – and triumphed on the game show Pointless Celebrities. He scored a pointless answer thanks to his knowledge of 1970s Elton John album tracks. But more about that later…

Mark – like his fictional creation Tom Thorne – loves country music, both dark and cheesy, although, as he is quick to point out, he hates Garth Brooks. Their mutual taste in music has manifested itself in a 40-song playlist, which is included in the hardback version of The Bones Beneath – published by Little, Brown on May 22. The list also includes explanations as to why each particular song was chosen.

The Bones Beneath

The Bones Beneath sees Thorne coming up against his old nemesis, serial killer Stuart Nicklin, and is partly set on a remote, windswept Welsh island that harbours some dark secrets. The first section of the book is a long road trip, which involves a six-hour drive, as Mark explains: 

“At one point, early on, the character Holland says to Thorne, ‘what are we going to be listening to?’ They joke about it – Thorne says that he’s got a Hank Williams playlist that will last all the way there. However, ‘stuff ‘ happens and they never get to listen to anything. Thorne would’ve had the playlist ready – obviously – so I just put it in at the end of the book, as a bonus for people who buy the hardback. It gave me a chance to include some of my favourite music and to talk about it.

“There were certain artists that were always going to be on there  – Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams – but I also wanted to put a few newer people on it, who maybe Thorne doesn’t listen to yet. So, I had to have some Richmond Fontaine and My Darling Clementine on there.

“The playlist is Thorne’s, it’s not mine, but a lot of those songs would also be in my list of my 40 favourite songs – He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and Galveston by Glen Campbell – but I’d also have God Only Knows by  The Beach Boys and any number of songs by Elvis Costello, The Smiths and The Beatles, who are bands I grew up with. I’m still inordinately fond of every piece of music that meant something to me from the age of 13. The stuff I listen to now tends to be country, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Slade, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Morrissey.

“I went from glam rock – I was watching it on Top Of The Pops when I was 12 – to prog. I was probably the world’s biggest Genesis fan…and then I got into punk, although it wasn’t an overnight thing. It wasn’t like I threw away all my Yes albums when the first Clash album came out!

“I went to see Television, supported by Blondie, at the Birmingham Odeon. That was a massive moment for me. From then on, I was into the tail end of punk…by the time punk reached Birmingham [where I grew up], everyone was already into post-punk. When I heard the first Elvis Costello album, I left prog behind, but it wasn’t always easy. I once got beaten up in Birmingham by two blokes and their girlfriends for wearing skinny jeans…”

I’d like to ask you about My Darling Clementine – a contemporary country act that we both love. You first got into them by reading an interview with them on my blog, didn’t you?

Mark Billingham: Yeah – you turned me on to them. They [husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish] are the modern George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They’re a married couple and they’re both fantastic singers and brilliant songwriters. They have an incredible chemistry and they put on a fantastic show. They’re just a kick-ass band – one of the best country acts I’ve ever seen. I’ve put 100,000 Words by My Darling Clementine on the playlist – it was the first song of theirs that I heard. I’ve always been a big fan of country duets.

One of  My Darling Clementine’s big influences is Elvis Costello. Wasn’t it Costello’s 1981 album Almost Blue – a record of country cover versions recorded in Nashville – that first got you into country music?

MB: Exactly – it completely opened my eyes. That album was massively important for me. I was vaguely aware of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but when I first heard  Almost Blue, I became a true believer. I bought it because I was a Costello fan, but it completely turned me on to country music and I think I’m right in saying it did the same for Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine.It’s the reason that the playlist in the book finishes with Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?) which is the first track on Almost Blue.

 

 

You’re also a big fan of  The Smiths and Morrissey, aren’t you?

MB: I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard This Charming Man. I had some speakers rigged up in the bathroom of my student flat and I connected them to a radio. I used to listen to John Peel in the bath. It was me that was in the bath, rather than John Peel. I can remember having one foot in the bath and one foot out of it when he played This Charming Man – I thought, ‘what the fuck is this?’ I went out the next morning and bought the first Smiths album. It absolutely changed everything – I adored The Smiths and I always will. I’m still a massive Morrissey fan, though I don’t think I’d want to meet him – I’ve heard a few stories about him…well, it’s all there in his book. The world needs Morrissey – I think he’s unique. He’s as good a lyricist now as he’s ever been. I saw The Smiths at a GLC gig [Jobs For A Change festival – County Hall, London, 1984] and can remember it vividly. They were incredible…

Have great lyricists like Costello and Morrissey influenced you as a writer?

MB: I’ve actually written a short story about Costello and Morrissey, and maybe one day I’ll find a home for it. It’s about them meeting at Heathrow airport on the day that Thatcher dies. They’re trying to get out of the country because they’re being hounded by the press for quotes because they wrote Tramp The Dirt Down [Costello] and Margaret On The Guillotine [Morrissey]. They’re just sitting there in the airport lounge. Actually, I don’t refer to them by name, I just call them The Hat and The Quiff – and they’re having a slightly awkward conversation about anger and notoriety, with Morrissey complaining about the tea…

What is it about crime writers and music? Some of your contemporaries, like Ian Rankin, who writes the Rebus novels, and Peter Robinson, who created Inspector Banks, also fill their books with music references. Music is very important to the central characters in those books, as well as to the authors themselves…

MB: I think it’s a particularly male thing. There was a radio show called Music To Die For a few years back, which was about crime writers and music. Ian Rankin presented it and it featured the likes of me, John Harvey and American writers like George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. It was really hard to find female crime writers who used music quite so much [as men do] in their books. There’s that kind of slightly tragic, sad, male thing going on. When male crime writers get together, they give each other compilation CDs! We don’t talk about books – we talk about music, almost exclusively. We can sit and talk for hours.

It’s a lot of fun hanging out with crime writers – it’s like being a member of a really cool gang. Somebody once described crime writers as being the smokers of the literary community – ever so slightly on the outside. They’re naughty, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves.

So many crime writers are basically frustrated musicians and the love of music that’s there in their books is not just a gimmick. Ian Rankin does genuinely adore Mogwai and The Rolling Stones and Peter Robinson loves the music he writes about. I’m equally passionate about country music. It’s great, because it means I can get characters to take the piss out of Thorne [for his country music taste]. I get the piss taken out of me too, but I’m not ashamed to say that I also really love the cheesy country stuff, too. He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones is consistently voted the best country song of all time and I’m not arguing. It’s got everything – a cheesy choir, a voiceover – Billy Sherrill [producer and arranger] basically threw the kitchen sink at it. It’s a fantastic story, with a brilliant twist. It breaks your heart…

 

 

Have you been on Desert Island Discs? 

MB: No, but I’ve been on several shows like it, and strangely, one of the songs I always pick is I Did What I Did For Maria  by  Tony Christie. It’s about someone who is about to be executed for killing the man who raped and murdered his wife. A nice, cheery pop song. It was actually the first single I ever bought – I must have been 12  or something like that. Maybe I liked it because of his voice or the horns, but the truth is it’s a really dark story. It’s weird that it was the first song that I wanted to go out and buy with my own money.

Maybe that’s what started off your interest in crime stories and dark tales….

MB: I’ve always loved story songs, like Ode To Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry. That’s another fantastic story hidden behind a gorgeous melody. I listen to music for pleasure – not necessarily to hear interesting chord progressions. Does the song do something to me?

He Stopped Loving Her Today makes me cry. Honey by Bobby Goldsboro –which is one of the cheesiest songs of all time – makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t explain it.

Books and films and plays have moved me, but nothing can affect me like the perfect three-minute pop song – like God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. They have the power that some literature or films simply don’t have. Whether it’s Wichita Lineman, I Want You or There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – they’re all twisted love songs and they’re all on my list [of favourite pop songs]. If you can write the perfect pop song… It’s like writing a wonderful short story. I think that a great short story is better than a good novel. If I had the choice of writing an opera that people would still be performing in 100 years’ time, or the greatest pop song ever written, I’d go for the pop song every time.

Would you like to write song lyrics?

MB: Oh god, yes. I’d love to. That’s the dream – Costello phones me up and says, ‘I’ve got this tune, but I can’t write any lyrics for it’.  Like that’s ever going to happen…

Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).
Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).

You’re a big Nick Lowe fan, aren’t you?

MB: Nick Lowe is awesome – he’s a master class in elegance – a quite brilliant songwriter. Lyrics like, ‘That untouched takeaway, I brought back the other day, has quite a lot to say’ – from his song Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. It’s just perfect.

What new music artists are you into? Have you bought any records by new bands recently?

MB: Well, I tend to wander round Fopp for an hour and just end up coming out with old stuff – some of which I’ve already got on cassette and vinyl. I must have every Costello album in six different versions…

What’s your favourite album of all time?

MB: If you made me pick one now it would probably be Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. If I could only take one album out of a burning house it would be that. I think Costello is the finest singer-songwriter of his generation, bar none.

You like The Beatles, too, don’t you?

MB: I’m a massive Beatles fan. How can you not be? Whenever I meet people who say they hate The Beatles, I want to slap them! Even if you don’t like what they were doing in ’62 or ’63, you’ve got to like Rubber Soul and Revolver! There’s never been another band in history that has progressed quite so much in five years. They were incredible – they turned the world upside down, like no other band has ever done. I’m actually working with someone right now who professes not to like The Beatles at all. He knows who he is!

Are you a Bob Dylan fan?

MB: I’m a Dylan fan, but I’m not a Dylan obsessive. For me, I can do with four or five of his albums – Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Desire.… There are a few other artists who I feel like that about – Tom Waits, Neil Young… Their back catalogues are so huge and too daunting. I’m much more excited about finding a band like My Darling Clementine [who’ve only had two albums out] – I’m in on the ground floor. And in five years’ time, when they’re massive, I can get quite cross about it. Tell people I was there at the beginning…

You’ve recently been showing off your superb music knowledge on the TV shows Celebrity Mastermind and Pointless Celebrities…. You won both of them.

MB: I’ve been a shameless whore. The sad truth is that I just love quizzes. Anything where there’s a buzzer involved, I go mental. On Pointless, it was a magical moment. Up came ‘Elton John albums’ and I leant across to my partner and I said, ‘I’ve got this’. I grew up with those albums and I had them all. I knew every track on them. I like doing music quizzes and I love setting them. If I’m on a long road trip with a friend, we’ll make huge playlists and play beat the intro. I have no life…

Maybe you could have incorporated a music quiz into The Bones Beneath?

MB: Actually, I would have loved to have made the playlist into a CD, but it’s a logistical nightmare. I’ve used song lyrics in my books a couple of times. In my first book, I used a lyric from Costello’s Radio Sweetheart – I had to pay for that. Like Elvis hasn’t had enough of my money over the years! Morrissey let me use lyrics from Bigmouth Strikes Again for free – good old Mozza. But most of the time it’s very tricky, so I try to avoid it where I can

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham?

MB: I’m doing a secret book, but I can’t say very much about it. I’ve written it with three other people – the crime writers Martyn Waites and Stav Sherez and the comedy writer and music journalist David Quantick. It’s a music book and there are some jokes in it. I can’t really say a lot more than that at the moment. I can say that we’ve all had enormous fun writing it…

Are you working on a new Thorne novel?

MB: I’m halfway through a new Thorne book – it will be out a year from now. I’ll finish that in September – hopefully – and it will come out in May 2015.

Do you think certain members of the literary community look down on crime writers?

MB: Well, there’s occasionally that slight element of literary snobbery, but sometimes it goes both ways and I think the lines between the two genres are becoming increasingly blurred. It’s fine by me – I’m very happy to be a crime writer. I don’t have pretensions to be anything else. I’m never going to deny that I’m a crime writer, in the way that some people do, even though their books are full of murder. The ones who claim to feel constrained by the conventions of crime fiction or say that they’re ‘transcending the genre’. We all want to push the boundaries, but it doesn’t need ‘transcending’. If you don’t want to write it, fuck off and do something else. No one’s putting a gun to your head…

Here’s a Mark Billingham inspired Spotify playlist

Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, is out on May 22. It’s published by Little, Brown.

http://www.markbillingham.com