Mark Billingham’s latest book Their Little Secret is number 16 in the Tom Thorne series. The Detective Inspector goes out on a routine call with the Homicide Assessment Team to a suicide by tube train. It wasn’t a homicide so he should have handed it on, but there was something about the death which niggled …
Like any good writer of crime thrillers, Mark makes you invest in Tom Thorne – his taste in music, his insubordination, his disastrous love life. I read the first few of the series Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat, Lazybones, The Burning Girl, avidly, but gave up after that because they were a bit too gory for my taste. This one is more of a psychological thriller I think. Still gory but dwelling less on the oozing viscosity of it all.
I ask Mark what kind of sick, twisted individual produces books like his? “Everyone has a twisted imagination” he says. “We live in a very dark world”. I wondered whether the crimes committed by his villains were inspired by real ones. “My last book The Killing Habit was based on real crimes. It was about the Croydon cat killer, but usually they’re not” he says. “Two or things came together which had been percolating in my consciousness”. He’d been fascinated by con men. “Why con men? Why not women? Men are far more gullible”.
In Their Little Secret there are two very different types of liar who come together to commit crimes. The concept of folies à deux, a shared psychosis, is something he had come across while making a documentary series on Couples who Kill for TV. “I was fascinated by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. He wrote to me. He wanted me to know how miserable his life was in prison, but also how clever he was. I remember the last line of his letter: ‘the ball is yours’ ” Did he write back? No, he didn’t.
“People want to tell you their stories” he says. They tell him all sorts of dark things. I told him I’d stopped reading the Tom Thorne series after Burning Girl. Have his books got less horrible or have I just become inured to it through watching television dramas like Peaky Blinders and reading all the Scandi Noir books? “My books have got darker in tone” he says “but less gory. You throw the kitchen sink at it when you first start writing” New writers look at the books which are selling and think they need to add in lots of blood and guts. He now knows better. “Violence is interesting from the point of view of its effect on people, not for its own sake. A single spot of blood on a pristine kitchen floor in much more effective than lots of blood and gore everywhere”… “It’s terribly easy to disgust the reader. Much harder to keep them interested”.
Well he certainly achieves that with Their Little Secret. It’s a proper page turner. There was nothing else done in this house for a full 24 hours and I will now go back and pick up where I left off in the series, and not be such a wuss.
What next for Mark Billingham? “Next year is a big year for me” he says. “It will be 20 years of Tom Thorne novels and I will have written twenty books” (17 in the Tom Thorne series and three stand-alones, in which the detective has a walk-on part). His twentieth book will be a prequel to Sleepy Head. He also has some big gigs lined up. He appears in a band called ‘The Fun-Lovin’ Crime Writers’, with Val McDermid. Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Luca Veste and Stuart Neville, who are all genuinely crime writers. They play cover versions of songs about murder and they’re good enough to have played at Glastonbury this year. “We’re playing some big shows next year” he says. “It’s all got a bit out of hand”.
Mark Billingham will be talking about Crime and Suspense with Linwood Barclay at 2.30pm on Saturday 14 September in St Michael & All Angels Church.