The same loose way that Billingham forms an idea of his characters also feeds into the manner in which he writes the stories themselves. There is no set plan when he sets out, there is no outline or chapter plan. He may have an idea of the structure of the book and how it will finish and what will happen to the villain, but he's not quite sure how he will reach that ending.
“It’s like driving through fog at night. I know where I’m going to but I can only see as far as my headlights. It will be a pretty circuitous route, I’ll take a few wrong turns and get lost a couple of times, but I’ll get there in the end.”
That circuitousness may hint at twists and turns but Billingham is not totally enamoured of shock twists in crime fiction.
“When you think of a great twist, or a red herring, or a way of misdirecting the reader, it is good but you know that they are just tricks at the end of the day, and the way to keep interest is to write characters that people care about. That's when you've genuinely got suspense, because they know the sort of book they're reading, they know they're reading a book in which people die. If you get them to care about the characters from page 1 you’ve got suspense from page 1.”
That desire not to resort to cheap tricks leads this story to take a sudden turn to reveal that Mark Billingham does actually have rules for writing. It's just that those rules are not abstract proscriptions, rather an avoidance of things that annoy him as a reader.
“I read something and I think, oh I hate that, I hate that. Why did the writer do that to me? Therefore I pledge to not do that to my reader, so I guess the thing that you hate as a reader is to feel cheated. It's terribly easy to cheat the reader.”
More specifically, one of the things that is a great bugbear is the idea of the killer not being in plain sight – which, incidentally, is also one of Ronald Knox's cardinal no-nos – the killer needs to be there all the way through the book.
“You can't suddenly have the killer jump out of a cupboard in chapter 47 and go 'Ha ha, here I am!'”
Another specific bugbear is when the detective carries more knowledge than the reader, with Billingham arguing that a writer has to choose what to withhold. It's all about timing, choosing the time when to reveal those vital bits of information, but always playing fair with the reader. He describes an unpublished book he's just finished reading in which a character who is deeply traumatised by discovering a body at the start of the book ends up being the killer in the end. The illogicality of that made him want it to throw the offending book across the room.
“An unreliable narrator is one thing but that I just thought was cheating. I guess you just try not to cheat your reader, because crime readers are incredibly savvy and they read very widely. They know when they're being had over and they don't like it. So woe betide the crime writer who tries to do it.”
Talking of witholding information, the press release for Billingham's radio programme hints at a forgotten gem that the author discovered in the BBC archives. It teases that it was written by someone who'd worked on Z Cars and Softly Softly, and starred an actor from Cathy Come Home who also voiced a classic children's animation. When confronted with a guess that the writer is Allan Prior and the star is Ray Brooks, Billingham only admits that Brooks was the star.
He drops further clues that it was a cop drama that was actually produced by BBC Light Entertainment rather than the drama department, but claims he can't remember how long the show ran for (press information says from the late 70s to the mid 8os). The most he'll say is, “It's a cracking little bit of archive radio, and it's certainly something I hadn't heard before. It's terrific, it's a real little treat. It has this lightness of touch, which is interesting and makes it very listenable.”
When I admit that internet searches have come up with no results, the glee he feels at having hoodwinked another reader is hard to disguise.
“Ha ha, so you don't know what it is.”
And there the trail runs cold – until the big reveal on Saturday morning.
Mark Billingham's Rulebook of Crime is at 9am on Saturday 2 March on Radio 4 Extra