Fans In Fiction: Mark Billingham

INTERVIEW: GARRY HAYES

When bestselling crime writer Mark Billingham was adding meat to the bones of the London-based detective at the centre of his hugely successful Detective Thorne novels, it wasn’t Baker Street that sprung to mind, but White Hart Lane. He tells TheInsideLeft how his leading man came to be a Tottenham fan and why the dark milieu of crime fiction goes hand-in-hand with supporting Wolves…

From reading any one of his novels, you would be forgiven for thinking there is something dark and twisted about Mark Billingham.

His Detective Thorne series has gripped fans for over a decade with its sinister narratives of murder and deceit that many of us could hardly consider, let alone write about, and his most recent release, Rush of Blood, continues in this vein.

In person, however, Billingham is an altogether very different man – affable, eloquent and, of course, passionate about his football. There’s no sign of the dark arts here, but then appearances can be deceptive. After all, his leading man Tom Thorne is an ardent Tottenham Hotspur fan and, for some, inflicting that trait an anyone, fictional or not, is perhaps as dark and twisted as it gets…

Mark, thanks for speaking to TheInsideLeft. We know you’re a Wolves fan, but the chief protagonist in many of your books, Tom Thorne, supports Spurs. What was your thinking behind that?

It’s simple really. Thorne is a Londoner and lives in London, so there was no way I could have him supporting Wolves. I needed him supporting a team who I thought were the closest equivalent to Wolves at that time, which is going back 12 or 13 years now. I rested with Spurs as they’re a club with a great history in Europe and domestically who, at the time, were a sleeping giant of sorts. They were going through their own struggles, but it also allowed me to make his best friend a Gooner, which brought with it the opportunity to create banter between them. Ironically, Spurs are flying pretty high now, so I suppose if I were writing the books now, Thorne would probably be a QPR fan! Because of his persuasion, a lot of people actually assume I am a Spurs fan, but I am Wolves.

You touched upon Thorne’s relationship with his best friend Phil Hendricks, who is an Arsenal fan. How has this element allowed you to develop the characters throughout the series?

It’s great because, however united they are when working a case or investigating a murder, during their down time they always have this conflict between them that is fuelled by the football. I very much enjoy writing that stuff, as much as I do the nuts and bolts of the police work. I enjoy having them sit there with a few cans of beer talking about football. Hendricks has an Arsenal legends calendar above his desk in the morgue so, in the aftermath of a horrible post-mortem, he can sit down with a cup of coffee and gaze at Liam Brady, which makes him feel a bit better.

Do you find the football aspect to these characters humanises them to a degree and takes readers away from the horror you often find in a Thorne novel?

It does, and the key is to make your characters well rounded. Whatever people do for a living, they have lots of other things in their lives. I didn’t want these characters defined by the fact they are police officers or pathologists. They listen to music and have relationships with people and football is an important part of their lives.  They’re not fanatics in any sense, but it’s important to them like it is to a lot of people. Anything that makes your characters more real is always a positive.

I’m sure you are often asked why Thorne is such a cynical and jaded character, but we get a sense these characteristics aren’t that far removed from a football fan suffering the highs and lows of following their club. Was that intentional?

Well his job affects him. There’s no way that what he does for a living doesn’t impact on him in some way. If I didn’t put that into the books, they’d be cartoons. I’ve tried to make them as real as I can, which means he’s dealing with grief, pain and violence and that affects him. He is somebody who sees the good people and the very bad side. As a football fan, especially as a Spurs fan in the books, he’s had to live with his ups and downs. It’s kind of a microcosm of the professional world he lives in as sometimes things are going well and at others, they aren’t. Your team’s winning games and then the star striker gets injured. Things are going well for Thorne, then some gruesome murder happens and he’s plunged back into a world of pain again.

As a Wolves fan, have you been feeling jaded and cynical like Thorne in the past few years?

There’s been a lot more pain than pleasure, let’s put it that way. It’s not been great, even when we were staying up by the skin of our teeth, as we knew the axe was going to fall at some point. It’s always been a question of survival and I think the club shouldn’t have got rid of Mick McCarthy when they did. The timing was very strange and I think, whoever took the job, it would have been somewhat of a poisoned chalice. I’m not saying McCarthy would have kept us up, but I think he should have been given the chance to after he had the past few seasons. Then again, you can’t get tonked by West Bromwich Albion when you’re Wolves manager and get away with it, which ultimately cost him his job.

So you’re a fan of Mick McCarthy?

I just think he’s an honest manager. He’s not flashy and gives his honest opinion. He gives a good press conference and I think, with his resources, he did a good job. It can be difficult at a club like Wolves as you know that any good player who comes through is going to leave eventually. When we went down, everybody knew Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher would leave and there’ll be plenty of clubs interested in Kevin Doyle. It’s going to make a decent finish in the Championship difficult.

The sale of Jarvis and Fletcher did bring in a considerable amount of money though.

That’s right, but it depends how we spend it. I think it’s going to be a big struggle this season and I went through some dark moments after our relegation, thinking we’re going to drop two divisions, which we have in the past. It’s an easy thing to do and I think it’s going to be massive struggle for us this season.

Looking at your new book, Rush of Blood, there is a slightly different approach to the Thorne novels that you’re well-known for.

I think to keep something you’re known for fresh, you have to step away from it every so often, otherwise you’ll just end up writing the same book. I’ve stepped away from it before and Rush of Blood is very different on all sorts of levels. I very much enjoyed writing it and being out of my comfort zone. Thorne has a little cameo in there, which will shock readers as they’ll find out what happened to him since the last book. That is dealt with in the next novel, which I’ve just finished. That’s with the publisher now, so I’m just sitting here, twiddling my thumbs waiting for my editor to get back to me.

You can follow Garry Hayes on Twitter @garryhayes and keep up with the latest from the site @theinsidelefty
Find out more about Mark Billingham and his work by visiting his website at markbillingham.com and by following him on Twitter @MarkBillingham

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