Walking the high wire with Val McDermid and Mark Billingham

What do you get when you put two heavyweights of the Crime Fiction world together on one stage at Humber Mouth? Chemistry and then some. Val McDermid and Mark Billingham played off each other like they’d been doing a double act for years.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

With thirty novels ‘not out’, endless radio plays and dramas Val McDermid is a true doyenne of the genre. Her books are read worldwide and her Wire in the Blood series found critical and popular acclaim on TV as well as the page, with Geordie actor Robson Green brilliantly taking the role of Dr. Tony Hill. Speaking about her Lifetime Achievement Award Val says,‘You normally have to die before you get one of those.’ It was actually Mark Billingham who presented her with it at Harrogate Crimewriting Festival, she explains how having been part of ‘Harrogate’ since it began, she is especially pleased with that one.

Mark Billingham is also no stranger to success, with sixteen novels to his name, including the deeply disturbing Thorne series, with David Morrissey in the title role, which debuted on Sky One in 2010. He was presented with the UK’s top crime-fiction award the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the year for Lazybones in 2005.

In conversation with Nick Quantrill – a crime fiction writer who set his acclaimed Joe Geraghty series right here on the streets of Hull – the two bestselling authors have been showered with accolades and awards, but you wouldn’t think it to hear them. Incredibly likeable, open ,honest and straightforward about their work they delight, entertain and even thrill, the Hull Central Library crowd.

Between the three of them they talk TV adaptations with Val saying ‘First time I sat down with Robson and co. I thought these people really get it.’ She continues, ‘As long as the tone of the book is still there, and there is not a dislocation between the book and the television it works.’

Reminding us that it doesn’t always work Val explains how Reg Hill did his best not to let any of his fellow authors see the first incarnation of the much loved Dalziel and Pascoe with by all people, Hale and Pace.

The two authors also discuss the importance of having standalone novels as well as the highly anticipated series of books, often featuring one detective.

Speaking about his new standalone ‘Die of Shame’ Mark Billingham says, ’I wanted to write about addiction for a while, during my research I read ‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johann Hari, it changed everything I thought I knew about addiction.’

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Discussing the nature of addiction further Mark outlines the early rat experiments, where the rats’ water was laced with heroin to see if they’d get hooked. The single rat alone in the cage with no distractions drank water from the laced bottle and became addicted. Case closed then? Not so fast. Later an experiment was conducted where the rats had a Rat Paradise with other rats in, to socialise with, mate with etc. The rats’ lives filled with diversions and other pleasures, did not get hooked on the heroin. Citing the Vietnam War Billingham suggests that the same experiment was carried out on humans, and that for addiction to take hold, there has to be a combined element of trauma and isolation. Addicts make the best kind of suspects, all the lies, deceit and denial.’

Val makes the point that authors must be honest with themselves about when it is time to put a series to bed. ‘I don’t want to write the same novel over and over, every time I step on the high wire I want it to be a challenge.’

The pair of them joke about series that have gone on too long, ‘You wouldn’t want to have tea in Cabot Cove would you?

With the jokes and gags freely flowing the subject turns to what makes a good crime novel. The thing that both authors agree upon is that, the world the characters live in, their social situation, is just as important as the other elements. The two authors say that for crime fiction to really work it should be rooted in reality, ‘It’s a story that could only happen here.’

If you have an agenda I think you will write bad books, it has to start with character and story,’ says Billingham.

There is in some quarters prejudice and ignorance surrounding crime fiction, it is often seen as populist and somehow not as meritorious as literary fiction. Val talks about how when literary authors have written a crime novel they say, ’It’s not a crime novel it’s a book about crime.’

Each time a new name or title is mentioned, there’s an audible murmur from the knowledgeable library crowd.

We learn that strangely, it is only here and the U.S. there is this snobby attitude towards crime fiction, on the continent it is seen as equal to other genres. ‘Everything is a genre or nothing is.

Discussions follow on the advent of scandi-noir and the huge boom and bandwagon jumping from publishers with endless crime novels coming from Norway, Finland and Denmark in the past twenty years. Beginning with Henning Mankel’s Wallander, the hugely popular Stieg Larsen’s Millenium Trilogy and the Martin Beck novels. Speaking more about the way publishers jump on these bandwagons and trends and the subsequent over-saturation, Billingham suggests the next book will be ‘The girl who scraped the bottom of the barrel.’

One of the debates that has continued throughout the festival, is the idea of categorising and creating genres to target particular groups, for marketing purposes. What happened to just writing a book and letting anyone read it? ‘A good book is a good book, anyone can read anything they like… as long as it’s not Jeffrey Archer,’ more laughter.

The discussion moves onto the violence in crime fiction and Val makes a very excellent point .’I’ve no appetite for hyper-violence, the reader can imagine things far darker than what we put on the page. Our job is to nudge them towards the shadows and let the films in their heads do the rest.

Val talked about the way readers reacted when she killed of a particular character in Wire of the Blood. ‘But it’s just one paragraph in the whole book,’ she says, ’I’ve no desire to shock and horrify…easiest thing in the world to disgust a reader – but to make your readers care about your characters….

Sharing the secret to being a good writer Mark Billingham says plainly ‘Being lucky and working hard.

Making a little more of it, Val says that first you need a modicum of talent, reminding us all that the internet may have given us democracy of access but it had not delivered democracy of talent.

Second is work really hard and third? Moments of luck, having the right book, at the right place, at the right time; and things to fall in to place.

Asked about the enduring question of the muse, Billingham says rather brilliantly, ’I make stuff up.’

DSCF2748Complimentary about each others’ works and championing many other authors writing today they encourage the audience to read more and talk more about books. It doesn’t matter whether it’s social realism or set in the 12th Century or even if your detective is a robot, a sheep or a dinosaur.

Buy Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Buy Die of Shame by Mark Billingham

Follow @Humbermouth

Here’s a list of authors that both Val and Mark recommended:

Megan Abbot, Belinda Bauer, Andrew Taylor, Steve Mosby, Peter Temple, Michael Robotham, Mick Heron