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Lunch With
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Lunch with Mark Billingham

1 March 2018

The best-selling British crime writer talks writing, showing off and two incidents that changed his life, over lunch at Skewd Kitchen in Cockfosters, London

A life-changing moment for the British crime writer Mark Billingham came via a knock on a Manchester hotel room door, almost 21 years go.

He and a colleague had ordered pizza and a beer and were sitting down to discuss the TV script they were working on when it came. Billingham thought it was room service to collect the plates.

It wasn’t. “I opened the door and it was three guys in balaclavas,” he says. “They burst in, beat us up, tied us up, put bags over our heads, told us they were going to kill us and held us in there for three hours.” The men stole mobile phones, jewellery and cash and demanded the pair’s ATM cards and pin numbers. The reason the ordeal lasted so long was they wanted to make withdrawals either side of midnight to ensure two days worth of cash. “Two of them went off and one of them stayed in the room watching us and giving us a kick occasionally if we moaned,” says Billingham. “It wasn’t like being mugged on the street. You feel safe in a hotel.”

More than two decades later and though the writer still jumps out of his skin if somebody drops a saucepan (“I shout and shake”) and refuses to open the door of his hotel room without proof of identity, he is otherwise recovered. But the incident made its mark on the series of crime novels he would begin a few years later; not the theft or the beating, but the fear.

“It was lying there on that floor with a bag on my head and my hands tied behind my head,” says Billingham. “I remember my heart was thumping so much I was bouncing off the carpet. It’s not scared like you are on a roller coaster or watching a horror film, it’s: ‘Am I going to see my wife and kids again? What are they going to do when this is finished? Have they got guns?’”

Thankfully, they didn’t have guns, and Billingham gained something invaluable from the experience. When he sat down to write his first book, Sleepyhead, published in 2001, he could empathise with the victim. “I’d read a lot of crime fiction where these two juggernauts, the cop and the killer, are on this collision course, and meanwhile there’s a victim, or multiple victims, who are just plot devices,” he says. “The reader is never permitted to engage with or care about or get to know the victim. I decided the victim was going to be front and centre. In many ways the victim was the main character in my first book. Thorne was a character I had to invent because there had to be a detective.”

I meet Billingham in Skewd Kitchen, an Anatolian restaurant in the north London suburb of Cockfosters. It’s not far from the 56-year-old’s home, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is a regular guest; he greets the staff with a smile, a handshake and a few warm words – and he is very enthusiastic about the food, recommending the two-course lunch offer (a bargain at US$15 per person).

Billingham orders sujuk and halloumi to start and the lamb shish with a side of creamy spinach for main (his usual). Following his advice, I order the chicken wings to start and then the adana with a side of coal-fired chillies for main.

We don’t discuss “the incident in Manchester” until the end of our lunch. Instead, having been presented with a large piece of Turkish lavash, a thin, firm flatbread that fills with steam and balloons during cooking, we begin at the beginning.

Mark Billingham was born in Birmingham in 1961. His parents separated when he was six, and he and his brother were brought up by their mother, who had a job collecting the money from pub jukeboxes and fruit machines. It wasn’t a bookish household – though his mother read (Joan Collins, Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls) and took her sons to the public library – and there was no history of creativity in the family. But Billingham was a born performer. “I remember being told by my Mum to stop showing off constantly when I was growing up,” he says.

It was at grammar school, King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, that the young show-off finally found an outlet for his talents. “It was the kind of school where you could be a bit anonymous if you weren’t a sports star or an academic star, and I was neither of those,” he says. “But then I discovered the school play.” The 12-year-old played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! “That was it, I was bitten by the bug.”

Billingham also traces his love of crime writing to this period. “We had this very eccentric maths teacher who would get bored during his own lessons,” he says. “He would get halfway through trying to teach us about equilateral triangles and he’d go, ‘God, this is tedious,’ and he had this battered old leather bag and he would pull out a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this dog-eared paperback, and he would read us Sherlock Holmes stories, which was fabulous.”

“I was gripped by these stories and by the character – especially by the character,” Billingham continues. “This weird man who would shoot bullet holes in the wall and played the violin. I just thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever come across.”

The starters arrive. The chicken wings are as good as promised, the tender meat infused with the flavour of the charcoal grill and a spicy marinade and sliding easily off the bone, and Billingham devours his thick slabs of spicy beef sausage and halloumi like a man who knew what he wanted and has got it. He will later do the same with his lamb shish. Billingham graduated from the University of Birmingham with a BA in Drama and Theatre Arts in 1983, formed socialist theatre company Bread & Circuses and went on to play minor roles in television shows including Dempsey and Makepeace, Juliet Bravo, Boon, The Bill, Birds of a Feather, Spitting Image and Tony Robinson’s children’s sitcom Maid Marian and Her Merry Men in the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote an episode of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men in 1994 and embarked on a career as a writer for children’s television.

In 1987, at the peak of the alternative comedy boom, he started performing stand-up, quickly finding himself on stage at The Comedy Store, where he appeared as both a stand-up and an MC until about a decade ago.

But Billingham’s love of crime writing never went away. During his time working in television and comedy, he started attending crime-writing festivals, reading and reviewing crime novels and interviewing crime writers including Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin (both now friends).

When he became disenchanted with writing for television (“writing by committee”), he wrote Sleepyhead, the first novel featuring London-based Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, and it was published in 2001. It became an instant bestseller in the UK; Billingham has now written 14 novels in the Tom Thorne series and several standalone novels.

Surprisingly, Billingham says he channelled a lot of what he had learned working as a stand-up into his crime novels. “You have to engage your audience very quickly, you have to keep them entertained – and jokes are structured in the same way as crime fiction is. It’s all about timing, it’s all about the moment when you reveal the information. That’s what comics call it: the reveal. When you think a punchline is coming from one direction and it actually comes from a completely different direction. Crime fiction is full of those moments, they’re just very dark.”

Our mains arrive. Billingham’s chunks of lamb fillet and my skewer of spiced minced lamb are succulent and imbued with a smokiness found only in the best Anatolian restaurants. Billingham has worn a lot of hats, but he’s no dilettante. There is something that links all the different pursuits – actor, stand-up, television writer, crime writer – and that is performance. His whole life has been devoted to satisfying his love of showing off. “I firmly believe that writing a novel is a performance,” he says. “I’m trying to give the best performance I can to entertain the reader. Whether that is to scare them, or to keep them in suspense, or whatever it is. It’s a different kind of performance from being in a TV show or trotting out on stage at The Comedy Store, but it’s all essentially performing, it’s showing off. I’m one of those creatures that, when I open the fridge door and the light comes on, I’ll start to dance. I’m somewhat shameless.”

Before we bring our conversation to a close, there is one thing Billingham has been eager to tell me about since we sat down – his new band, the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. Formed after an impromptu performance at the House of Blues in New Orleans during Boucheron (Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention) in 2016 was captured on film, posted on YouTube and garnered a lot of attention, the band is now a six-piece: Billingham (guitar and vocals), Val McDermid, (vocals), Chris Brookmyre (guest vocals), Stuart Neville (guitar and vocals), Luca Veste (bass) and Doug Johnstone (drums and vocals). Billingham and his fellow crime writers/rock stars will perform at crime writing festivals across the UK throughout 2018.

It turn out his Mum was right. What a show-off.

See Mark Billingham at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature | March 1 to 10 | emirateslitfest.com

Words: Charlie Carver
Images: Rebecca Matthews