Interview with Mark Billingham


My obvious question after reading Die Of Shame would have been if you’ve ever been in a position like the protagonists in your novel alas your acknowledgements state no juicy confession is to be expected from you. I had at least hoped you’d confess your well-known addiction to check shirts.
Your main characters are all recovering addicts, young and older, rich and poor, academic or no job…did you want to make it clear from the start that addiction is something that affects all social classes and that no one is immune? Do you know someone that has been to therapy?
Well, cigarettes kill far more people than heroin and I was addicted to those, but that aside, nothing more damaging than cheese and country music. My closest friend is a recovering addict and his input to the book was hugely important. We’ve talked about addiction a lot over the years and one of the things that became abundantly clear is that, as you say, addiction can affect people from all sorts of backgrounds. My friend’s experience of therapy was also useful, not least because he was able to put me in touch with a couple of psychotherapists who were hugely helpful. I really enjoyed putting this cast of characters together and, in doing so, began to realise that I was writing a locked room mystery of sorts, except that instead of a country house, I’ve got the closed circle of my therapy group.

The therapist in Die Of Shame carries a lot of his own baggage and is far from being a saint. Do you think that constantly providing guidance and help for others might lead society to expect them to deal with their own problems alone due to their jobs? And that the pressure caused by their job as therapists can eventually lead them to become addicted too?
I don’t think there are any saints in the book. Tony, my therapist is actually a recovering addict himself and this is very common. The psychotherapists I talked to were are both people my friend met in rehab. It’s a common journey.

Maybe I am on the wrong track here but somehow I could not shake the feeling that the person that gets killed in Die Of Shame somehow had it coming due to some really bad karma in the past. Do you believe if you’ve done something despicable and have never repented for it that it’ll come back to bite you in the arse sooner or later? Maybe not by the person you wronged but surely one way or another?
I don’t think I believe in karma though it would be nice. There are a couple of people who’ve stitched me up recently and I would not be too upset if karma bit them in the arse at some point. Nothing serious, you know, just enough to remind them how to behave like a human being. I’m no saint either, of course. Which of us is? But I don’t think I’ve done anything worthy of karmic teeth in my backside. I did something beastly to a frog when I was a kid, so maybe I’ll pay for that one day, but in my defence, another boy bullied me into it. In fact, that power that one child can wield over another is something I wrote about years ago in “Scaredy Cat” so that poor frog did me a favour in the end.

In contrast to your Tom Thorne novels it’s the circle of suspects that are the main characters in Die Of Shame while the investigating DI and her private life are being mentioned sporadically. As with Rush Of Blood I had the feeling you take pleasure in creating those different protagonists and that you enjoy the diversion and the different perspective of not mainly writing about a cop? Also, I take it you are a very keen observer of the people around you judging from your characterisations?
Absolutely. One of the joys of stepping away from the series is to create a different set of characters. It’s easy to write about Tom Thorne. I’ve been doing it for 15 years and he’s a bloke in his mid-fifties, same as I am. It’s more of a challenge to get inside the head of a woman in her seventies or a teenage boy. Writing a different kind of novel, that is not a straightforward police procedural was hugely enjoyable and it has allowed me to come back to the series fired up. And yes, of course I observe the people around me. Not in a stalkerish creepy way, obviously. You just need to keep your eyes and ears open and then steal whatever you can.

The ending of Die Of Shame is unusual for most crime novels (don’t want to give too much away though) and also a beloved character is making a cameo. I had the distinct feeling you were hinting at a possible sequel? Did you always think about having the story end the way it does when you began writing?
The ending, in detail, didn’t occur to me until I was well into the book. It never does. I only ever know how I want the ending to FEEL. I can’t put it any better than this: I know the taste I want to leave in the reader’s mouth. Yes, it’s an unconventional ending, but I think it’s a satisfying one. I am writing a sequel of sorts, I suppose. The next book begins with the trial of the killer in Die Of Shame and this is when Tanner will meet Thorne for the first time. Having the two of them team up for this next book is proving to be a lot of fun, although the subject matter is making me angrier than I can ever remember while writing. I hope that feeling finds its way into the novel, much as my feelings about the subject matter did in Die Of Shame.
And I’m sorry about the frog…