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Murderers, Marauders And The Dark Side Of London

Mark Billingham is the author of seven Tom Thorne mysteries.  The novels are being developed for a BBC television series.
Mark Billingham is the author of seven Tom Thorne mysteries. The novels are being developed for a BBC television series.

If you fancy a nice, cozy whodunit set in the jolly English countryside with kindly vicars and fresh-faced debutantes, then Mark Billingham's novels are definitely not for you.

"I was never a fan of cozy mysteries," says the author. "I'm a city boy. I grew up in a big city — in Birmingham — and I want to write about a city. It's much richer tapestry for me than green fields."

Billingham's novels interlock beauty and horror, tragedy and black comedy. His characters are drawn from society's margins and collide with the law — and each other — in familiar London settings that Billingham renders sinister and disturbing.

"It's fun to write about what's hidden," says Billingham. "We've got the royal family and Big Ben and the houses of Parliament and the Tower of London, but you don't have to look very far to find not only the fantastically dark present, but a really dark history."

A Restless Quest For Setting

Billingham has a lived-in face and a pierced ear. He speaks in quick staccato bursts — a raconteur's voice. Besides being a novelist, he is a stand-up comic and children's writer, but the scenes from his novels come from his explorations of London and a restless quest for settings.

"You write a better scene if you go down to the place where it's set," he says.

Take a recent visit to the banks of the Thames: "I look to my left and there's a huge, blown-up dead dog, stuck in the sludge. ... and I look to my right and there's a beautiful heron. ... You know, I could have sat in my office for two to three hours and I'd never have made that stuff up," he says.

In his book Lifeless, street people become the central players in a parallel society to ours — one Billingham discovered while researching the book.

"There's a homeless opera company. There are homeless football leagues, there's a homeless theater company. There's a whole world, a whole community ... a real kind of society going on, just beneath the surface," says Billingham.

An Author's Understanding Of Fear

Some readers may find Billingham's police inspector hero, Tom Thorne, less engaging and more sketchily described than the criminals and the scenery. But the author says he consciously chose to make Thorne a work in progress.

"The reader knows as much about Tom Thorne as I do at any one time," says Billingham. "Sometimes he goes into areas that readers are uncomfortable with."

One thing I think I can write about pretty well is what it's like to be afraid. I'm pretty good on fear.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in Billingham's novels is a scene where Thorne is tied up and subjected to a graphic sexual attack. Billingham himself was the victim of a violent attack about a year before he started writing the Thorne novels. He had ordered room service in a hotel in the city of Manchester, and half an hour after he received his food, there was a knock on the door.

"I thought they'd come to collect their tray, the empty plate — and there's three guys in ski masks, and they just burst in and said they were going to kill me and tied me up, put a bag over my head," he recalls.

The men took Billingham's credit cards and held him hostage in the room for three hours. He says the experience marked him as a crime writer in two significant ways:

"In that first book, it was really important to me that the victim had a voice and was somebody you cared about. And secondly, one thing I think I can write about pretty well is what it's like to be afraid. I'm pretty good on fear. I remember when I was tied up in the hotel room, I was bouncing off the carpet because my heart was thumping so much."

The police never caught the guys who attacked Billingham. The author says they never came close.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vicki Barker was UPR's Moab correspondent from 2011 - 2012.
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