Crime Novelist: Mark Billingham
PUBLISHED: 18:33 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013
He has murder in mind, but Mark billingham reveals that what he really likes is a quiet life in the country. Katie Jarvis met him. Mike Charity took the pictures.
"A clump of dark hair curled across the only visible cheek. The mouth hung open, its lips flecked with white and a sliver of tongue just visible inside... Tom Thorne knew a dead man when he saw one." Mark Billingham's London-based crime novels have been hailed as authentic, gripping and very dark; but the underworld scenes he conjures up are frequently penned in a very different setting: at the computer of his thatched cottage in the centre of a sleepy Cotswold village.
"I'm sure there's just as much darkness in the Cotswolds," Mark says, "but it's nicer to be sitting here when I'm writing about all the terrible stuff happening on the dark crowded streets of London."
Born and brought up in Birmingham, Mark worked as an actor, TV writer and stand-up comedian before his first crime novel was published in 2001. "Performing stand-up and writing fiction use exactly the same techniques," he says. "It's what comics call 'the reveal' - the moment when you think you know what's happening, when you think you know where a punch line is coming from, but then it hits you from a completely different direction."
Mark and his wife, Claire, have two children: 12-year-old Katie, and Jack who is nine.
We have a large Edwardian house in Barnet, North London, and a tiny thatched cottage in Great Rollright High Street, which we try to get down to at least every other weekend. The main difference is that in London I can walk across a room without banging my head; I live with permanent concussion in the Cotswolds. Our address might be the 'High Street' but there are no shops, just a tiny little post office-cum-general stores. That's one of the things that appealed about the village, though I do wish there was a pub.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
We've had our cottage for about three years. At heart, I'm a Brummy, though I've lived in London for more than half my life. I moved there for work, back in the days when I wanted to be an actor, but we've always had a strong connection with this area. My wife and I used to come to Broadway and Stanton for Christmas and holidays. The great thing about what I do for a living is that I can do it anywhere; I'm here now to get a bit more work done than I would at home. If the phone goes when I'm at the cottage, I know it's family and not someone asking if I want a mobile phone upgrade.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
We all get different things out of it. The kids love horse riding and fishing; Claire loves to walk; I'm perfectly happy sitting in the cottage, curled up with a book, hopefully by a real fire. Obviously, I write crime fiction, so I'm passionate about reading it, though sometimes that can mess with your head. You can wake up in the morning, going, 'I've had a great idea! ...Or was it really my idea?' It's also hard to lose myself in a book; I tend to see it with a professional eye and think: I can see that red herring! Because the crime fiction world is a small one, I find myself reading books by friends, and that can feel weird - especially if there's the odd sex scene!
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Where we live now: we've got the best of both worlds. The cottage is in a lovely quiet village; and Chipping Norton, which I absolutely adore, is five minutes away. Actually, I didn't realize that living in an old cottage would be so pricey. I think we spent something like five grand repairing a dry stone wall. A part of me thinks, 'Sod it! We'll put a fence up!' But you've got to do things properly. We haven't had to go through the nightmare of re-thatching yet. We had a guy round to look at the roof who said it was fine, had a cup of tea, and left. Had that been London, he'd have said: You need this doing, and that, and that. You think to yourself - that's not the way workmen are supposed to be! He was terrific.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Somewhere like Bourton-on-the-Water, which seems like Disneyland to me, without wishing to upset people who live there.
Where's the best pub in the area?
The Falkland Arms in Great Tew, where you can sit outside and enjoy the great views. Or the Chequers in Chippy: a very old-fashioned pub with a lovely sun-lit family area where you can have Sunday lunch. You'd have to walk into a London pub every night for five years before anybody would speak to you, but by the time you've gone into somewhere like the Chequers three times, they actually know what your kids like to drink.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
Jaffe & Neale, an independent bookshop and caf in Chipping Norton. Patrick and Polly - who run it - will say, 'Oh, you liked that book by so and so; we've got another you'll really love'. That's what you don't get in Smith's. The people who run this bookshop love books - it sounds like an obvious thing to say, but not everyone does.
What would you do for a special occasion?
If it were a special occasion and I was really, really rich - say I'd sold the film rights for all my books - I'd go to Daylesford and buy some olives. I think the Cotswolds are genuinely an expensive place to live, but places like that do the area's reputation no good at all. That's not expensive; that's beyond bonkers.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The wildlife: I'll glow for a week if I see a badger.
... and the worst?
Media types like me moving down from London and pushing the prices up.
Which shop could you not live without?
The cheese shop at Moreton-in-Marsh. I could live in there.
What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
One of the big misconceptions about the Cotswolds is that, if you're not into country pursuits, then there's nothing to do. I love Chipping Norton - there's a fantastic leisure centre where the kids will play badminton or go swimming. Or if it's a nice day, we'll go to the lido.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
Is this a quiz question? If so, I don't know the answer. It's as difficult as saying what a Londoner is. We have a media idea of them constantly clicking their heels and going 'Get off me barrer," but I read the other day that one in four people who live in London is not even from the UK.
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
I'd start with some kind of toasty soup - there's something about curling up with hearty soup and real fires - followed by local roast lamb from Chippy butcher, Trev Beadle. I tend to eat big hearty puddings when I'm here so I'd have a treacle sponge. I always think: I've had a bit of a walk today so I've earned it.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
I absolutely adore the Rollright Stones, which are just up the road. There is something weird about them. The place was vandalized so I don't think they do it any more, but there used to be a hut where the guy would give you a set of diviners - like coat hangers on a cork - and you'd walk round the stones and watch these things go mental. There's something really exciting about that. I'm also told that you can never walk round them and count them accurately. I do love all that stuff: history and myth. Real life is always far stranger than anything I could dream up. Even if I've written something horrendously dark, I'll turn on the news the next day and hear something ten times worse.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
A village we're very fond of is Great Tew, with a fantastic pub and really beautiful cottages.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds
A feeling of space;
And though I don't want to be cheesy about saying 'a warm welcome', you can get to know people.
One of the reasons why London is interesting to write about from a crime point of view is also what makes it horrendous: there's something hidden. It's very difficult not to have a love/hate relationship with London. There are times when I'll say it's dirty, expensive, unfriendly, and what the hell are we living here for? Then I'll stand on Waterloo Bridge at midnight and look up and down the river and think 'Wow'!
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
I'll take a guess: Evesham, Woodstock, Gloucester and Banbury. Am I close?
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A copy of the Great Rollright newsletter, which is this strange publication that's always waiting for us when we come down. It is an eye-opener for someone like me who writes crime fiction. The local bobby's report will tell you that someone let their dog foul a footpath in such and such village, and that someone else nicked a wheelie bin. It is kind of funny but it's also a relief. If that's what I'm up against, fine. The crimes of an area tell you a lot about it.
What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?
I'd get rid of the mobile phone masts - I can't get a signal in my cottage anyway. But I would like Broadband; the internet is the way I do research. I often need to know details such as the colour of a bruise after three weeks; or the state of a body dug up after three months in a shallow grave. I've never yet gone to a post mortem, but I will. The most amazing thing was being invited to tour the 'Black Museum' of Scotland Yard. While I was there, we were told quite categorically that Jack The Ripper was a guy named Aaron Kosminsky. They've known who it was for 100 years. They took him off the streets and he died in a sanatorium - bizarrely in Barnet where I now live - and that's why the killing stopped.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Bring your wellies, buy a dog, and get a bigger overdraft if you're going to shop at Daylesford.
And which book should they read?
What about the Tom Thorne thrillers by Mark Billingham? Some people when they go on holiday like to read a book about the place they're in; I like escaping into a very different world. I write about dark events, but I don't believe in evil at all, apart from the fact that it has a religious connotation which makes me uncomfortable. People aren't naturally evil any more than they're naturally good. Of course, a large percentage of child abusers were abused as children; but an awful lot don't become child abusers, so where's the extra push over the edge? For my purposes, though, I'm writing about a copper, and it's not a copper's job to understand; his job is to stop it happening.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
Great Rollright to Hook Norton. You wind up at the Sun Inn for a pint of something authentic from the Hook Norton brewery.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd steal things from Daylesford: it's the only way I'm ever going to get their produce.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
There's a myth in Great Rollright about a boy who's supposed to have drowned in a vat of pigs' swill. Apparently, his gravestone is in the lovely old churchyard of St Andrew. To this day, we've never found it, but there should be some memorial to him.
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
I don't think there is an attitude: people are people wherever you go. The only time I've ever seen Michael Palin lose it on television was at the end of Around the World in 80 days. He'd been on junks in China and camels in the desert, before arriving back in London where a guy selling newspapers was rude to him. Michael Palin went, 'I have just been around the world and I'm back in London half an hour and this happens!' Rudeness drives me crazy, too, but you can also come across acts of incredible generosity, wherever you live.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
Raymond Chandler, who famously liked a drink. I'd get him drunk and ask if he had ever had any great ideas he didn't have time to make into a book, then I'd steal them. He was a writer who was hugely under-appreciated in his life and ended up rather bitter about it; now, of course, he's seen as this literary giant.
- Death Message, the latest thriller featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne, is published by Little, Brown. Mark is now at work on his next novel, a standalone thriller called In The Dark. For more information, visit www.markbillingham.com
- Mark Billingham and Ian Rankin will be appearing in a joint event at Chipping Norton Town Hall on September 10. Tickets and information are available from Jaffe & Neale Bookshop, Chipping Norton; 01608 641033.