I find few greater joys in life than discovering a new book series that I really enjoy, especially when said series has been around for a while so there are plenty of books to read. My latest discovery of this type is Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne series.
The latest Tom Thorne tale to be published in the U.S. is BLOODLINE, out now from Mulholland Books. Last month, Billingham was kind enough to sit down with me for a chat following an event at the Sarasota Library where he was interviewed by none other than Michael Connelly.
Tom Thorne lives in London, and one of the things I like most about Billingham’s books is that he doesn’t condescend to his readers by over-translating cultural references. He said that he sometimes asks American friends about phrases that might be unfamiliar to Americans but are important in the context of the story he’s telling, but he remains true to his voice.
When I asked him about differences between American and English readers, he explained that he’s found American audiences quite willing to give his books a try, although he’s heard from some who are less tolerant of “bad” language and sex outside of marriage.
I’m sorry, but these are police procedurals. What do readers expect?? Geesh.
Billingham said that while the general likes and dislikes of readers are fairly parallel, he is acutely aware of how much easier it is to tour in the UK than the US. After all, one can fly from Aberdeen to Bristol in just over an hour. Compared to the 6+ hours it takes to fly from Seattle to Miami, connecting with American readers becomes a herculean task.
Because police procedurals are probably my single favorite genre, I was curious to understand how Billingham interacts—if he does—with the Greater London Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met. He explained that when his first books came out, he was assigned a detective to whom he could pose questions, and who would put him in touch with specific units he needed to contact for research. As Billingham’s career has progressed, his Met contact’s has as well, and he’s now quite senior within the Met hierarchy.
Interestingly, though—and this very much shows in his books—Billingham said that his primary concern has always been telling great stories, rather than including every possible precise detail. He explained that when he reads, he wants to use his imagination—because that’s what reading is.
Can I have an amen!?! I find Billingham’s books all the more accessible for having just the right amount of detail, and that he approaches this aspect of his writing as a reader first is worthy of a cheer.
Billingham made the excellent point, too, that great stories stand the test of time, but smaller details sometimes do not. For example, as regards crime scene technicians, SOCOs are increasingly called CSIs in the UK.
One of the aspects of crime fiction series that has always fascinated me is how one book becomes a series, and whether an author knows, when he meets a character, that he’s begun a series. Billingham said that when he first wrote Tom Thorne in SLEEPYHEAD he certainly hoped it would be a series, in part because the process of being wooed into publication through an auction was a lot of fun, involving lavish buffet spreads specifically designed to make him feel like a Very Important Author (smart publishers!).
Proving that he’s smart enough to make even seasoned crime fiction readers think, one of the most interesting concepts Billingham described is that with a series, the author—and the series characters—have to both love and hate the city in which tales are set. I’d never thought of it this way exactly, but it makes perfect sense, whether it’s Mickey Haller in LA, Dave Robicheaux in New Iberia, or Tom Thorne in London.
While Billingham shares some traits with Thorne—including his love of real country music and opinions on the National Health Service or London’s public transportation—he said that Thorne is much braver than he is. But Thorne’s (funny) jokes? All Billingham.
Have I mentioned that Billingham has a most excellent sense of humo(u)r? His background as a stand-up comedian probably helps, and he is one of the wittiest authors I’ve had the pleasure to speak with. Also, seems to me there are few braver acts than sharing a story you’ve written with the world!
Billingham’s first two books, SLEEPYHEAD and SCAREDY CAT have been made into a TV series, Thorne, and if the previews and critical acclaim are any indication at all, it’s a doozy. Billingham said that he hopes it will be available in the U.S. once they’ve completed more episodes (in the UK, a series is often shorter than an American season). When he talked about the TV series, he seemed genuinely excited—which, of course, only makes me want to see it even more. He served as an executive producer for the series, and so he was able to oversee the inevitable changes that come with moving a written work onto a screen. He did share that he’s had some complaints from readers, everything from Thorne being too tall to the absence of his cat from the series. As much as I love cats, it made me want to see the series no less.
And speaking of stories in different formats, Billingham had an interesting take on ebooks. He said that he has no issue whatsoever with the concept, but does have concerns about the quality, especially of self-published ebooks because, “there isn’t a writer on the planet who doesn’t need editing.” Each writer’s process is slightly different, and Billingham explained that he edits carefully chapter by chapter, so his first draft is really more like a 101st draft. He believes, he said, in the value of editing “brutally and carefully.”
Next up on my Billingham reading list is IN THE DARK, his stand-alone that was published in 2008. Billingham spoke fondly of this book, pointing out that for many authors of successful series, it is their stand-alone books that bring them to a broader global audience. That will keep me going until FROM THE DEAD and GOOD AS DEAD are published in the US (the latter will be called THE DEMANDS when it comes out here next year).
And while we await the arrival of the Thorne TV series, check out the thorne app, which has fun videos, including a series of “Tom Thorne’s London” shorts introduced by none other than Mark Billingham himself.
I’ve seen Billingham’s books described more than once as “literary,” and they certainly are. The description, though, bothers me somewhat because my experience of his books is that they are imminently accessible. Whether you’ve ever traveled across the pond or watched an episode of The Bill (did I mentioned Billingham had a part on The Bill in 1989? Yeah, he’s that cool), you will enjoy his books. You don’t need to “speak” London to see Tom Thorne’s city come to life.
I’m very grateful to Mark Billingham for taking the time to chat with me, and also to his lovely wife and kids, who let me borrow him for a bit!