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Why Mark Billingham is a Badass

Viaduct, Birmingham, England 1982Mark Billingham has been a crime-fiction sensation in the UK since his first novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 to great acclaim and success. The protagonist of that book, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, has appeared in many subsequent novels and is now a beloved figure in British crime lit.

Billingham earned his success. Raised in Birmingham, he has been an actor, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian for most of his adult life. He continues to work in those fields, but it’s obvious from reading his books that his major love is writing novels. He’s ambitious in the best way; he wants to write good books, and, like any author worth a damn, he’s getting better at it over time. I’ve enjoyed all of Mark’s books to varying degrees, but I do think his last few have been flat-out fantastic. Bloodline, which Mulholland Books is bringing out in the States, is one of my favorites.

In Bloodline, a series of violent deaths are linked by relation to the work of an infamous, long-deceased serial killer. Thorne and his coinvestigators (Hendricks, Holland, Kitson, et al.), an intriguing bunch, all finely drawn, methodically go about the task of finding the murderer who is committing the deadly tribute. Mystery and police procedural aficionados will be very satisfied with the proceedings and will also be treated to a rich character study and a heady snapshot of contemporary London. The dialogue is drolly, organically funny, and the plot speeds to a gripping denouement. It’s a boss performance by Billingham, through and through.

This fall a television series based on two of the Thorne novels, Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, will be broadcast on British television. It stars David Morrissey as Thorne, Aiden Gillen (Tommy Carcetti on The Wire) as Hendricks, Sandra Oh, and Natascha McElhone, memorable from John Frankenheimer’s excellent Ronin.

Billingham’s books are as compulsively readable as Michael Connelly’s. I’m on record as saying that Connelly is the best mystery writer in the world, so I can’t give you a more respectful recommendation than that. Don’t let the British milieu or slang scare you; trust me, you’ll get it. American readers will be highly rewarded by giving Billingham a try.

George Pelecanos is the author of fifteen crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called Pelecanos “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” He was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award and the AFI Award. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. Pelecanos lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and three children. He is at work on his next novel.

Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”
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