‘Do people want to read books or watch films about Covid? I don’t know – time will tell…’

Mark Billingham

When Say It With Garage Flowers last spoke to one of our favourite authors, UK crime writer Mark Billingham, it was exactly a year ago, for the publication of his novel Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the DarkRush of Blood and Die of Shame.

During that interview, he told us he’d written the majority of his next novel during lockdown. That book is published this month. It’s called Rabbit Hole and it’s another stand-alone, but, in typical Billingham style, it’s a highly original take on the locked-room murder mystery genre, with a great twist. No spoilers here, but it’s one of his best.

Written in the first person, it centres on the character of Detective Constable Alice Armitage, the novel’s narrator, who finds herself on the trail of a killer who has murdered a patient on an acute psychiatric ward. The problem is that Armitage is a patient too… and could she actually be the murderer? 

Despite its sensitive and often disturbing subject matter – severe mental health problems – Rabbit Hole is also a very funny book, full of darkly comedic moments.

Billingham started writing the novel in February last year – just before lockdown – and he finished it in four months. 

“I wrote it really quickly, because I couldn’t do anything else – I had nothing to do but write,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, sat outside a north London pub on a warm early evening in July. 

So did being locked-down at home while writing the novel inspire the subject matter of the book in any way? 

“It may have done subconsciously, but the more conscious decision was that I’d had some recent experience of that world, which was not something I’d known about until recently,” he says.

“It’s a personal book in many ways, because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward. I had a wealth of stories.

“Graham Greene said that writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice… I was confronted with a situation that was deeply unpleasant, traumatic, sad and disturbing, but, at the same time, there was part of me going, ‘wow – this would be a brilliant setting for a locked-room mystery.’”

He adds: “For every couple of horrible stories I heard, there were also some that were just hilarious, but in a dark way. Some of the more bizarre things in the book are completely true.”

Q&A

Mental health is a difficult subject to write about – it’s a sensitive topic. How did you approach the book to make sure you didn’t come across as patronising or ill-informed?

Mark Billingham: I was aware of that all the time – but you should always be aware, whatever you’re writing, of treating the subject with sensitivity and nuance.

I did a lot of personal research and I got to know some mental health professionals who were working in a ward and were kind enough to speak to me away from the location, off the record, as it were. There was always a conscious decision of what should I talk about, or not talk about, but you make those decisions all the time – every five minutes.

‘Graham Greene said writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice…’

Because I’d decided to write the book in the first person, which is something I’d never done before, and I knew I wanted to be with this character, that’s a big decision, because if you’re asking your reader to spend 400 pages inside the head of the same character, you need to make that person attractive and engaging, even though they’re infuriating, frustrating and sometimes unpleasant.

Alice Armitage is an interesting character. She’s an anti-hero, isn’t she?

MB: Yes – and right off the bat she says she’s unreliable because she’s medicated and paranoid. In a way, she’s the perfect narrator for the book.

Rabbit Hole references the Covid-19 pandemic, although not in a big way, and it’s dedicated to the doctors, mental health nurses and health care assistants who lost their lives to the virus. Was it important for you to mention Covid in the book, and, if so, why?

MB: It was a difficult choice or call to make because I knew roughly when the book would be coming out and, back then [when I was writing it], like everybody else, I had no idea what the situation would be like. Would Covid have gone completely? Obviously, we know now that it hasn’t, but you can’t predict the future.

With the majority of the book being set on a mental health ward, I had to reference it, but I didn’t want to make too much of it – I didn’t want to make it a ‘Covid book’. I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, or it wasn’t an issue, but I tried to make the references subtle. I didn’t want every other page to be about masks and hand sanitisers, but it’s obvious that it’s going on.

The reason I dedicated the book specifically to the medical professionals who’d lost their lives was because when I visited the ward, I got to know some of the mental health nurses – I spoke to one of them a lot outside the ward and she was very helpful.

She later told me that four of the nurses on that ward had died – nurses I’d met. What you extrapolate from that is, ‘Christ – if it’s four on one ward in North London, how many is it nationally?’ It felt like an appropriate thing to do.

‘It’s a personal book because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward’

Have you read many new books by fiction authors that are referencing Covid?

MB: Yes – I have. Some have done it really well and some it’s obvious that they’ve had a last minute ‘Covid edit’. They’ve gone through it and just thrown in some references to masks, hand sanitisers and PPE to make it current, so it doesn’t appear dated. That’s kind of an odd thing to do – I think you need to do it, or not do it. You could set the book in 2021, so it’s not an issue, or in 2024, and hope Covid has gone by then, or you do what I did, and say, ‘I guess Covid is still going to be knocking around and I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened…’

I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it – it made me think that people want to go somewhere where they can laugh at it or about it – the experiences they’ve had. Laughing about it is one thing, but do they want to read books or watch films about it? I don’t know – time will tell.

Directly after the Second World War, people didn’t want to read about it – the golden age of crime fiction happened between the wars because people had had enough of grief and violence on a massive scale.

‘I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it’

Another good example is the huge explosion in recent years of Northern Irish crime fiction – while the Troubles were happening, there wasn’t any, because people were living it and they didn’t want to read about it. Now enough time has passed, and writers are looking at it and examining it – it’s really interesting. You need a little bit of distance.

Your last stand-alone novel, 2016’s Die of Shame, was also a ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, and it too dealt with people suffering from mental health issues –  a therapy group full of recovering addicts. Do you see Rabbit Hole as almost a companion book to it?

MB: Do you know what? I hadn’t until you mentioned it, but it kind of is, I suppose. They’re both takes on a locked-room mystery and they both have at their hearts the same premise.

When you have a traditional locked-room mystery, the characters are all guests in a stately home, or passengers on a cruise ship, but addiction or mental health affects anybody and everybody. That means you can have people from all sorts of different backgrounds.

In Die of Shame, I had an incredibly disparate group of people in terms of social demographics – where they’re from, and how much they earn, and what class they’re from. The same is true of people who end up sectioned.

But the mental health ward in Rabbit Hole is a ‘locked room’ which people can come in and out of…

MB: Yes – it’s an air-locked room… there are ways the patients can get out, for some periods of time, like short trips, but, essentially, you’ve got a group of half a dozen people with incredibly different stories. And I wanted to tell their stories too.

Like your other novels, there’s a lot of dark humour in Rabbit Hole. Was it an enjoyable book to write?

MB: I’m not sure I’d say it was enjoyable – it was a hard book to write, because of my personal connection to it. There were definitely moments when I had to stop and go, ‘should I be writing this?’ but I would always say, ‘yes, you should’.

The people I know who are close to this situation all told me I needed to write it. It was also time to write something different I’d written three Thorne novels on the bounce.

There are some cameo appearances by regular characters from the Thorne series in Rabbit Hole, including Thorne himself. You usually do this in your stand-alone books, don’t you? That must be fun – you’re expanding the Thorne universe…

MB: I’ve probably done it in this one more than any of the other stand-alones. I knew Thorne was going to make an appearance, and, because I was dealing with psychiatric issues, I knew Melita Perera would be in it. Hendricks gets a mention too, in a way in which readers of the series will go, ‘oh – I know who they’re talking about…’

It’s fun. You’re creating this fictional universe and characters drift in and out of it  – they come into the spotlight and then recede into the background.

It’s like the Marvel Universe…

MB: [laughs].

 

And your last book, Cry Baby, was an origins novel…

MB: Yes both me and [crime writer] John Connolly wrote origin stories at the same time – me with Thorne and him with Charlie Parker [The Dirty South] – without us knowing we were both doing it. You can them prequels, but it’s more trendy to call them origin stories.

Could you ever see any of the other characters from the Thorne universe, like Nicola Tanner, getting her own series of novels?

MB: YesI think that’s perfectly possible. Or maybe Hendricks will get his own book, or I might revisit a younger Thorne again. I don’t know it will be whatever idea suits the story that’s in my head.

Let’s talk about the next book after Rabbit Hole, which is another Thorne novel…

MB: The next book is done – it will be out this time next year. I’m ahead of the game because I wrote two books back-to-back very quickly.

Can you tell us anything about the next one?

MB: I can it’s not a big secret. It’s called The Murder Book. Thorne is back, but so is his worst nightmare. It couldn’t be a more different book to Rabbit Hole – it’s real pedal to the metal.

Finally, was the working title of Rabbit Hole ever Who The F*** Is Alice?

MB: I’ve had a few emails asking me that…

Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham is out now and is published by Little, Brown.

www.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