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.
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.
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.
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