Saturday, 22 December 2012

Dead Man Talking # 10 - Mark Billingham

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews  Mark Billingham

My first introduction to Mark Billingham's books came back in 2002 when I was travelling back from Paris on a slow moving bus and panicked when I finished the book I was reading (Boris Starling's 'Messiah') before we'd even reached Birmingham. Thankfully the drive stopped at a service station, and desperate for fresh reading material to wile away the long hours of motorway travel ahead, I emerged with a paperback called ‘Sleepyhead’ by a then unknown (to me anyway) author. Sometimes you just strike lucky. I've been a huge fan of Mark Billingham's books ever since. Now with his fictional detective, Tom Thorne, a household name, Mark has been every bit as successful with a couple of standalone novels - the latest being the highly addictive 'A Rush of Blood'. I really did feel forlorn each time I had to lay it aside to do rubbish stuff like sleeping and going to the toilet. I had this great idea of interviewing Mark in a morgue with Phil Hendricks cutting up a body in the background but Strachan McQuade had a more theatrical  idea...........

Strachan McQuade R.I.P.

Mark Billingham

McQuade: By Jove! There's no expense spared on Dead Man Talking this week. We've recreated an exact replica of the famous Glasgow Empire variety theatre and filled it with thousands of taciturn Glaswegians smoking fags, guzzling Indian Pale Ale and munching on fish suppers. You join me just as so-called stand-up comedian, Mark Billingham, is being soundly booed off stage in time honoured fashion for having the cheek to imagine these poorly dressed social misfits will understand his English sense of humour, or even his accent come to that. Oh dear, someone has just thrown a turnip. Ha! Missed by a mile. Hang on. Did someone just yell Tosser from the front stalls? How the hell did Stephen Leather get in here? Security! Eject that man immediately. And don't forget to shoot the three rows of sock-puppets sitting directly behind him.

Hello and welcome to Dead Man Talking, Billingham. I shouldn't worry too much about the partisan audience response. I've seen all the comedy greats die a miserable death in this graveyard for entertainers. Morecambe and Wise, Roy Hudd, Arthur Askey, and even Harold Wilson. So, stop shaking in your shoes and answer this three part question. Firstly, what gives you a bigger adrenaline rush - performing live on stage or having a new book hit the best seller charts? Secondly, what's the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you while treading the boards? And thirdly - can I have that turnip?

Billingham: I’ve died many times, so I’m not scared! Should I be? (Editor - You have no fear of turnips? I’m impressed.) The two adrenaline rushes are very different. It took me a while to get used to how different they are. With stand-up, it’s an instant thing. You know straight away if a joke has worked and believe me, you know very quickly when it hasn’t! It could not be more different with a book. You write it, you deliver it then it might be a year before it comes out. You get a few reviews, some reader feedback, but you’ve no idea how it’s being received by the vast majority of your readers. It’s still a buzz though. I still get excited seeing the books in shops or being read. The day that stops being exciting is the day to quit. Stand-up in the clubs is something I’ve stopped doing now. I miss it, but still get my performing jollies at book festivals when the audience will be subjected to some cheap and cheerful gags before I read anything.

McQuade: I've only died once and that quite enough for me. Especially when my life flashed before me and I had to sit through thousands of my own boring Sunday sermons. Not to mention that unfortunate incident with the cobbler's flirtatious niece. Ahem............ maybe best if I don't elaborate.

While writing my best-selling novel, 'Invergallus' - any time I wanted to change the location to somewhere more swanky, like Stranraer or Girvan, I had to steal glossy brochures from our local travel agent to obtain useful research material. These days writers simply hop on a Lear jet and swan off to all sorts of glamorous places. Your latest book, the excellent 'Rush of Blood' was partly set in Florida. Was the location really necessary to the plot? Or did you just fancy a cheap, tax-deductible holiday in the sun?

Billingham: It’s a fair assumption, but the truth is that I’ve had a house out there for a few years, so it’s a part of the world I’ve come to know fairly well. It seemed the perfect place to set that part of the book; somewhere that seems like paradise but with a dark side.

McQuade: What? You own property in Florida? Ha! Bet you fell victim to one of those Time-share scoundrels who were doing the rounds some years ago. I too neglected to read the small print and found myself paying two thousand pounds per annum to sleep in a converted septic tank in Ullapool. I'll wager it still smelled better than Florida.

Now, in your educated opinion, who was the greatest ever Country and Western singer? Slim Whitman, Hank Williams, or Ted Rodgers (without or without Dolly Parton).

Billingham: Do you really need me to tell you? Hank was the daddy. All those great songs and dead in the back of a Cadillac at 29. An absolute legend and an artist I never tire of listening to. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m partial to a bit of Slim too…

McQuade: I do quite enjoy Scotland's very own King of Country and Western, Sydney Devine, when in the mood for songs about dead dogs and faithless women. Sometimes just to mix things up I also listen to Kenneth McKellar singing about dead women and faithless dogs. 

There was much laughter and derision when tiny-teeny little Tom Cruise was cast as Lee Child's huge Jack Reacher character. However, not too much was said when Tom Thorne, a bit of a short-arse like myself was played on-screen by that veritable twelve foot giant, David Morrissey. Do you think producers and casting agents actually read  books before filming? Oh look! The Bag-Pipe Playing Horse is on stage! It’s amazing what performing animals can be trained to do. Oh sorry, you’re waiting to answer the question, aren’t you.

: Well, I think the difference in stature between Cruise and Reacher is rather greater than that between Morrissey and Thorne! In all seriousness, I don’t think it matters a toss. When your character has a screen incarnation, all you really want – the best you can wish for – is a good actor, and with David I had one of the best in the business. I loved what he did with Thorne. The truth is that no actor will ever live up to a reader’s expectations. Every reader will have a different picture in their head. That’s what makes reading such a unique experience; such a different experience from watching a film or a TV show. Bloody hell, that horse is seriously talented…

McQuade: Steady on,
Billingham, it's not that talented. I did notice a few flat notes during the intro to Amazing Grace.

Now, although a great admirer of your Tom Thorne novels, I am somewhat dismayed by the amount of time he spends gambling and playing on-line poker. Wouldn't Thorne be a more upstanding role model for today's younger generation if instead of poker you had him playing cribbage or internet Bingo? Here, you waffle into to this Dictaphone while I stand on my head. Ever since I expired my circulation has been a bit sluggish. The only way to keep the blood moving from head to feet is to behave like a human sand clock and turn myself upside down every now and then. It can be inconvenient, especially while queuing at the butcher's but on the plus side I can now make the perfect boiled egg without investing in an egg timer.

Billingham: Actually, Thorne only really went through that in one book. I went through it myself for rather longer and in fact, I still play poker every week. Only with friends, though. Thorne tends to take up my habits at one time or another. He shares my musical tastes and is a football fan like I am. He doesn’t share my passion for Victorian taxidermy and spooky doll’s heads though. Have I said too much?

McQuade: Most definitely, sir. Victorian taxidermy is viewed as very much a girly hobby up here in Scotland. Not sure about spooky doll's heads. that might simply be looked upon as weird.

Your TV credits as an actor included Dempsey and Makepeace, The Bill, Juliet Bravo and Boon. In each of these shows you were always cast as a drunkard, a drug pusher or some other dastardly villain. Why was that? Did they mistakenly think you were from Glasgow?
Billingham: Well I tended to play villains or coppers. Mind you, even the coppers were all bent. It’s strange, because in my head I thought I looked cute and friendly, yet on screen I was always clobbering someone. Actually, my first job involved getting blasted across the bonnet of a car with a sawn-off shotgun. I shouldn’t knock the acting. If I hadn’t got the part in Maid Marian And Her Merry Men it’s arguable that I would not be a writer. It was through that show that I became a TV writer in the first place. Not that I enjoyed it a great deal. I never really felt like I was home until I started writing the books…

 McQuade: To be honest I never even recognised you in that Maid Marian dress. Perhaps you should have demanded a role as one of the Merry Men. (Editor - He played a henchman called Gary, you fool!) It's very strange, my secretary, Allan Watson, also enjoyed a spot of cross dressing while he was writing his rubbish novels. (Editor - I did not! And I'm not your frigging secretary!)

And now, Billingham, for the inevitable question about your next book. Will it be another Thorne book, a standalone novel like ‘Rush of Blood’, or will we see you perhaps venturing into the field of comedy fiction like erm....... James Herbert?

Billingham: Well, the publisher turned down my slim volume of poetry, the recipe book and the bodice-ripper, so I’ve had no choice but to bang out another Thorne caper. It’s called The Dying Hours and sees Thorne living with the ramifications of what he did at the end of Good As Dead. Oh, and some people die. And there’s mention of a country singer or two. And Thorne and Hendricks eat at the Bengal Lancer. You get the picture, right? I’ve already started planning out the next novel and that will also be a Thorne book. After that? Maybe another standalone or maybe readers will have grown heartily sick of me and I’ll go back to telling jokes to drunks at the Comedy Store. We’ll have to see…

McQuade: I sincerely hope it's a huge success as it might not be turnips they throw next time. Anyway, for your plucky attitude and snappy answers I'd like to present you with a packet of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers. I'd be careful chewing on these bad boys as they're lethal on loose dental fillings. Maybe you should have Thorne improve his rough-diamond image by munching on a few of these tough-guy biscuits during his tea breaks. Now off you go. The Glasgow Empire thanks you for your time and trouble. Don't call us, we'll call you etc etc. And watch you don't step on that faulty stage trapdoor...........

Billingham: Aaaaaaargh!

McQuade: Help! Help! Is there a Victorian taxidermist in the house?

Buy Mark's latest bestseller 'A Rush of Blood'

Visit Mark's web site at

Visit Mark's Crime Vault page at

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant, as always. Does Billingham really collect Victorian taxidermy, she asked, eyes lighting up? How wonderfully creepy... Probably not, just a literary tool to advance the story .