In the Dark: Mark Billingham on how being taken hostage informed his crime writing

His novels have been adapted into a four-part drama for BBC1 – here the author reveals why his thrillers are the real deal

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The problem with novelists, says Mark Billingham, is that “as a rule, they tend not to play well with others. You spend a year on your own writing a book. So it’s difficult suddenly to be thrown in a room with loads of other people.”

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But the bestselling crime writer is, in three senses, coming out to play at the moment. He spent time on the set and in the editing suite of In the Dark, a four-part adaptation of two of his novels featuring DS Helen Weeks, a young detective who investigates a child murder while heavily pregnant. The day after we meet at his north London home, he’s off to Liverpool to start a promotional tour for Love like Blood, his 14th novel featuring London homicide detective DI Tom Thorne, and, while there, he has scheduled the first rehearsal for a summer tour with his rock band, the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. 

The quintet features Billingham on guitar and vocals alongside four other bestselling British crime writers: Val McDermid (The Wire in the Blood) and Christopher Brookmyre (Quite Ugly One Morning) sing, Stuart Neville (The Twelve) plays guitar and harmonica, with Doug Johnstone (Hit & Run) on drums. Their song choices are fitting. “We only cover crime-related songs: I Fought the Law, Watching the Detectives, Psycho Killer and so on.” 

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In the Dark

The writer plays a less central role in the group that has made In the Dark. He’s executive producer, but as with Sky’s recent adaptations of the stories about DI Thorne (played by David Morrissey), Billingham wasn’t interested in writing the screenplays himself. “I’d rather someone who knows what they’re doing does it. You need someone to come in and say: we don’t need that, or amalgamate those two characters.”

For Billingham, there’s only one red line in adaptation: “I know a story of a novelist being told by a screenwriter that the main character wouldn’t say that. If that happened to me, I’d say, ‘Shut up! He’s my character.’”

Billingham points out that in Colin Dexter’s books Morse and Lewis take on the physical and vocal characteristics of John Thaw and Kevin Whately in the novels that were written after the TV series began. But he doesn’t expect his own books to carry screen-shadows: “I think it depends on how much you describe your central character. I’ve no idea what Tom Thorne looks like because I’m inside his head looking out. I know what he thinks but not how other people see him. So, hand on heart, when I’m writing, I don’t see Thorne as David Morrissey and I won’t now see MyAnna Buring as Helen Weeks.” 

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David Morrissey as Tom Thorne

He also doesn’t see himself as Thorne, despite his early career as an actor. “I was either a copper or a drug dealer. As a drug dealer, I gave the worst performance ever in The Bill, which is probably saying something.” His acting peak was Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (BBC1, 1989–94) in the Sherwood Forest romp created by Tony Robinson. This first spell in TV also led to Billingham meeting his wife, Claire, a TV director who is prepping two episodes of Call the Midwife at the kitchen table as we speak, and becoming a writer, his first credits being scripts for Maid Marian. He found his vocation as a crime writer with Sleepyhead, the first Tom Thorne novel, in 2001. 

Billingham is rare among writers in his genre in having been a victim of violent crime. In 1997, he and his then writing partner, Peter Cocks, were held hostage in a Manchester hotel room overnight by three masked thieves, whom they believed to be armed.

Lying on the floor with his arms tied behind his back, Billingham could only stare at the trainers of the thieves as they paced around, with one occasionally leaving to use the men’s credit cards at cashpoints. He remembers involuntarily bouncing up and down on the floor because his heart was beating so fast. “That detail amazed me. I also remember that, when they burst into the room, my writing partner literally jumped out of his chair. I’d always thought until then it was just an expression. But he was briefly airborne.”

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Mark Billingham

There’s a rule among novelists that whatever doesn’t kill you provides material for fiction. Billingham drew on the siege directly in a Thorne novel called Scaredy Cat and, two decades on, says: “I guess I still am using it in that way that actors are taught to portray emotions by drawing on something bad that happened to them. I think I’m better than some people at writing about what it’s like to be genuinely afraid. One of the things I most remember from that incident is how angry I felt afterwards about how weak and infantilised I’d been. And I do always remember that when I write about victims.”

Did he suffer post-traumatic stress disorder? “Yes, to a small degree. And, to a small degree, I still do. I developed a thing called ‘hyper-vigilance’, which is, in effect, jumping at your own shadow. To this day – and it’s a joke in my family – if a saucepan is dropped or even if someone just appears unexpectedly in a room, I won’t just jump but will make ludicrous noises out loud. I was never like that before. And I still have the occasional actual nightmare about it.” 

Unlike in a crime novel, there was no resolution: “The police were very gung-ho at the time: ‘We’re going to get these bastards!’ But they never found them.” 

Although, as Nick Ross always said at the end of Crimewatch, it’s rare to become a victim of crime, deep concern with the possibility has led to the genre dominating publishing (30 per cent of all books sold) and peak-time TV drama. 

“There is so much about now,” Billingham agrees, “but crime fiction is very broad. You’ve got Midsomer Murders, where people are being killed by a giant rolling cheese, and you’ve got these very dark Scandi things. And everything in between. Happy Valley is an amazing piece of work. A cut above. And I was as gripped as everyone else by Line of Duty. I loved it. But, from a procedural point of view, it’s preposterous. I don’t think in a book I could get away with some of the directions the plot went in. But it works on TV because we watch in a different way from the way we read. I think we understand that TV has to take certain storytelling leaps that you just go with because you can’t explain them in the way that you might with a novel.”   

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In the Dark begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday 11 July