Mark Billingham gives Felix Cheong serial killing tips
By Felix Cheong
Born and brought up in Birmingham, Mark Billingham is acknowledged as one of the UK's top stand-up comedians, with a string of credits to his name. Not only is he a regular at Jongleurs and the Comedy Store, he also has the (dubious) honour of being the first human portrayed on the cutting-edge satirical programme Spitting Image.
Though still working as a stand-up comic, Billingham now concentrates on writing crime novels. His debut, Sleepyhead, featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne, hit the Sunday Times Top 10 list and was the number one hardback fiction debut of 2001. His second novel Scaredy Cat sold over 190,000 in paperback and his third, Lazy Bones, sold in excess of 53,000 copies in hardback.
In 2003, Billingham was awarded the Sherlock Award as creator of the Best Detective by a British Writer. He was recently in town to promote his fourth book The Burning Girl. Felix Cheong sat down with the 43-year-old author over a cup of coffee and put him on the witness stand.
FC: Of all the genres, why did you pick crime?
MB: Because it’s what I like to read. I started reading crime fiction from an early age – 13 or 14. In fact, I stole a copy of The Godfather from my local bookshop! I was never caught. I was caught later for something else but that’s another story! I was caught for nicking a record. That’s terrible.
Then I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet as a student. I just fell in love with crime fiction. So when I wanted to sit down to write, a crime writer was all I ever wanted to be really. And now, the best thing about being a published crime writer is that all the people I used to read – my writing heroes – are my friends. That’s just the best thing! We kind of meet each other in conventions around the world. I can have a beer with Michael Connelly! I can have a curry dinner with Ian Rankin!
FC: What does it take to understand the mind of a detective?
MB: In some ways, the detective is kind of like your alter ego. I like to imagine I’d behave the way Tom Thorne does in certain situations even though I know I wouldn’t.
It’s easier to get inside the head of a good guy than a bad guy, although in some ways, [a bad guy] is more fun to write. You know the expression “the devil has all the best tunes”? It’s great to write an anti-hero.
But sometimes it’s not so black-and-white. We live in a world where some coppers dream of killing people and killers love their children. It used to be black-and-white though, especially during the Golden Age of crime fiction, with people like Agatha Christie. It was all about your hero being [morally] upstanding and straight and believing in good, and God. The bad guy was always the lower-class, foreign, from below stairs so to speak. At the end of the day, the hero always puts it right and restores the status quo.
I know some people like their endings nice and neat and tied up in little bows – where the good guys ride off and the bad guys get caught. The ending of this new book isn’t like that; but having said that, it’s still not “realistic”. If we wrote crime novels that really reflect the way murder investigations happen, it’d be very dull. You get to the last page and it’d go: And the crime was never solved, and the detective moved on to another case. There’re certain conventions, but in spite of those conventions, I wanted this book to be slightly closer to the truth, rather than one of those books with big confrontation scenes between the cop and the killer.
FC: If you could get away with the perfect murder, how would you go about doing it?
MB: In a way, the perfect murder is any murder you get away with! Any murder for which you’re caught is imperfect. I guess if you’re going to commit the perfect murder, you’d get on a train, go to somewhere you’ve never been before, where you didn’t know anybody and kill a complete stranger. And you get back on the train and you leave again. If you have to dispose the body, dispose it in water, which is the best way to disguise all manner of discovery.
This is the kind of thing you have to think about as a crime writer. The truth is, I can think of the worst things I can possibly think of, and then I turn on the TV and something much worse... or in the newspapers... things that... if a crime writer wrote [them] in a book, you would not believe.
FC: Do you routinely follow coppers as part of your research into police procedural?
MB: I don’t follow a copper, but I got to know a few of them through the course of writing the books. It took a while to get them to trust me. Although I have a few professional contacts, I also have one who’s now become a good friend, just because his kid is in the same class as mine. His wife is also a good friend of my wife. He’s a detective sergeant on the murder squad. I just take him to the pub. I’ve never actually followed him on a case, but he’s given me tours of buildings. If there’s anything I want to see, he’ll show it to me if he can. I’ve got access to most things. The only thing I’ve not done yet is attend a post-mortem. There’s a big crime convention coming up in Toronto; one of the things you can do is sign up to go see a post-mortem. I might. I think if I’m going to write about it, I should go and have a look!
FC: Have you actually interviewed a real serial killer?
MB: There’re certain things I don’t want to [do]. I’ve been inside prisons – that’s about as far as it’s gone. I’ve spoken to some criminals, but the idea of sitting down and having a cup of tea with a serial killer – no.
Also, there’re certain things you think you just want to make up. The simple fact is: most serial killers are not like Hannibal Lector. They’re not hyper-intelligent and cultured and monstrous. They just look like you and me and him and her. They look like the persons who live next door. One of the famous serial killers in recent British history is called Fred West. He and his wife Rose West committed many crimes. But he couldn’t read or write. He wasn’t this superman. He was illiterate. I’m creating characters on the page; I don’t want to make him ordinary.
FC: In what way has your background in TV helped you in your writing?
MB: Firstly, it’s made me very committed to writing novels. I won’t go back to writing for TV, because it’s a horrible process. Writing by committee – everyone has their fingerprints all over your script! I couldn’t believe it the first time when my editor said to me, “It’s up to you, Mark, it’s your book.” You never hear that in television. TV has also given me a better visual sense and a sense of pace. A sense of keeping the reader interested all the time.
The other thing is my background as a performer. Because when you’re on stage, especially when you do comedy, you haven’t got five minutes to get that first laugh. You’ve got to get it very quickly. So you have to engage the reader quickly, keep them entertained. You’ve got to keep to the point. It’s all about entertaining a reader and telling a story and keeping him with you.
FC: What’s your worst experience as a stand-up comic?
MB: How much time have you got? Too many! There isn’t a comedian alive who hasn’t died many, many times on stage. It’s never nice. By the time you’ve been doing it for a few years, you come offstage, go to the bar, have a beer and you get over it. But if you’re the sort of person who would die on stage and then can’t sleep for the next week, then you’ve got to get out, because you’re in the wrong job. It’s just a professional hazard. It goes with the territory.
I remember I was going very badly – they didn’t want to hear my material at this club in North London. So I got to talking to someone in the audience. You can sometimes do that; just by going off-track, talking to someone and seeing what happens. And she was from Norway. So I started to get a little mileage out of what was Norwegian in various words. What’s Norwegian for, say, swear words? And a guy at the back just shouted, “What’s Norwegian for ‘you’re shit’?”, which was really cutting, but very funny. I’ve seen all manner of fantastic deaths in my time. You just have to get used to it really. It’s a brutal kind of job.
FC: Comment on this statement: Comedy is the mystery of life and mystery is the comedy of life.
MB: Bloody hell. Comedy is certainly a mystery. It’s interesting that publishers are wary of funny books. Because they realise that what one person finds funny, another person just won’t. It’s a subjective thing. You can tell two people the same joke and one would fall about and the other would stare at you. I could do a show at one club and absolutely storm it and take the roof off. Five minutes later and I could do exactly the same set and die on stage. And there’s no explanation for that. It is a real mystery what we laugh at.
The reason I try to put humour in the books, even though they’re so dark, is to try to reflect the fact: that’s what life is. We laugh at the darkest moments. There’s comedy to be found in the blackest of situations. And the people I write about do have that black sense of humour. Otherwise they’ll go mad.
I like to play with mood in that way. So you finish one chapter with some terrible, horrible moment of human misery, and you start the next chapter with a joke. Also, if there weren’t funny moments, the books would be unremittingly bleak. It just grinds you down, that incessant kind of darkness, misery and inhumanity.
But I also can’t read books which are unremittingly chirpy. That’s equally false. The darkness is darker if there’re moments of light. It’s about contrast really.
FC: Who is Mark Billingham when he’s neither author nor comic?
MB: I guess you’re never actually not a writer. There’s always something going on. If I see something interesting on the street in five minutes’ time, it’ll kind of go into my head. I’m constantly storing away little conversations and I’m constantly thinking about the next book. You never switch off. It’s 60% thinking and 40% writing. I don’t write everyday. Sometimes I won’t write for two to three days, and then I write four days without stopping. It’s hard to convince people I’m working! I’d be having a cup of tea and my wife would go, “Can you take the rubbish out?” and I’d say, “I’m working!” It’s all going on up there.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004