Thank You for Smoking

It has often been said by crime writers (this one included) that the community of mystery writers is uniquely clubbable, and, while there are one or two crime writers of whom I would use that word in the same way it is applied to baby seals, I think that, generally speaking, this description is true. It may be, of course, given that one or two crime writers are rather fond of a drink, that this reputation owes more than a little to alcohol. When a legend of the crime-writing community throws his arms around a relative newcomer and says, “I love you. I love your books. You’re my best friend!” it’s easy enough for the newcomer to believe all she has heard about what a warm and welcoming bunch mystery writers are and overlook the twelve beers and the bottle of tequila that the legend has poured down his throat.

But booze and the odd bad apple aside, I can certainly attest that, as a rule, crime writers seem to me to be a very decent bunch of men and women. There are certainly fewer crime writers who subscribe to the “in order for me to do well, you have to do badly” approach than some I have encountered in other areas I know reasonably well: television, the comedy industry, and, dare I say it, other areas of the wider literary community.

Someone — it may well have been Ian Rankin — once described crime writers as a “gang,” and that’s not a bad word to use, though admittedly we don’t have much in the way of initiation ceremonies. Well, there is the ancient and much revered Detection Club in the UK, but fear of reprisals forbids me going into that. OK, so there are skulls and candles . . . I’ve said too much already. But in the sense of camaraderie and of existing at what might be described as the periphery of the literary community, gang is a word that will do well enough. I heard an even better description while attending the Ned Kelly Awards in Australia a year or two back, when someone described crime writers as the “smokers of the literary community.” Now, whatever you think about smoking, this seemed and still seems to me to be utterly wonderful.

There are certainly those who view the business of writing crime and mystery fiction as somewhat . . . disreputable. But at the same time, I often sense from such people a sneaking suspicion that actually we’re the ones having all the fun. We’re wicked — of course we are — and we won’t come to any good, but hey, kids, we’re cool! It also seems to me an apt and evocative description in other ways. Rather in the same way that smokers will acknowledge one another with a wry nod of recognition or a raised eyebrow, or fall into easy conversation while getting rained on outside this or that restaurant or bar, crime writers will recognize something in one another wherever they happen to find themselves. There is an affinity. Whether they are Norwegian writers of cozy mysteries or Egyptian noir merchants, at some level they are kindred spirits.

On more than one occasion, I have found myself mooching around at some far-flung literary festival, feeling a little intimidated or perhaps lonely, or simply a long way from home. At such times, if I should ever find myself snubbed by the historians or baffled by the poets, or simply ignored by those who hear the words crime fiction and wrinkle their noses in distaste, I know that I can always hunt out the other crime writers present and will invariably find someone to get along with. I remember once cornering an Icelandic crime writer, whose English was no better than my Icelandic, and after some initial confusion and inept miming (writing/strangling/stabbing, etc.), we got along famously. Usually, the first thing I do on receiving any festival program is to look at which other crime writers are in attendance. Even if I can’t find them straightaway, I know I’ll catch up with them later on in the bar.

It’s comforting.

Lest I come across as one afraid to mingle with anyone who does not have a murder or two in everything they write, I should state that I have had some hugely enjoyable encounters at such events with poets, children’s writers, and Booker Prize winners. Oh yes, I can bluff it out with the best of them. But rather as the smoker needs no more than that “look” to bond with a fellow addict, I never feel that I need to work quite so hard with a fellow mystery writer. We will usually avoid talking about the “work.” We will talk about music and movies, while both suspecting that we are only there at all because of some terrible administrative error.

Having said all that, I think this sense of belonging and camaraderie, of being slightly “on the outside” must surely apply to writers in other genres. I’m sure that science-fiction writers must be prone to that same sense of existing on the periphery of the literary world. Plus they get people coming to events dressed as Klingons! Although I understand that there used to be a writer who showed up at Bouchercon and would only talk to people through a hand puppet of a dog dressed as Sherlock Holmes, so I shouldn’t be too smug.

So, if crime writers are the smokers of the literary community, what are the sci-fi writers? Are they the coke heads, perhaps? The meth addicts? And what about the romance writers? The children’s writers? The vampire crowd? Come to think about it, maybe everyone that isn’t Ian McEwan or Cormac McCarthy feels like they’re standing outside in the rain, smoking or shooting up. Maybe Ian and Cormac are having an awkward conversation inside, casting envious glances in our direction and wishing we would ask them to come outside and join us.

Whatever kind of mystery you’re writing, it’s nice to feel as though you belong to a larger and broadly like-minded community. It does not mean there won’t be squabbles and fallings- out, that there won’t be books and writers you detest, but it does mean there will usually be someone to “share a cigarette” with, when you find yourself sitting there like Billy No-Mates at the Reykjavik Literary Festival. Unless the only other crime writer there is wearing a hand puppet dressed as Sherlock Holmes. In that case, I would advise setting fire to the puppet, then going back inside to talk to a poet.

Mark Billingham worked as an actor, a TV writer and a stand-up comedian before becoming one of the most critically acclaimed crime novelists in the world. He lives in North London with his wife and two children. Learn more at Mulholland Books will publish BLOODLINE in July 2011.