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It was said that you could track the upward trajectory of the late Douglas Adams's career by how quickly his jokes changed from laughing at the absurdities of having no money to laughing at the absurdities of having lunch with his accountants. That Mark Billingham's latest novel, Rush of Blood, is partly set in the Florida resort town where he has owned a holiday home for the last few years is likewise testament to the success of a career that has previously been associated with the up-close study of the meaner streets of London. "But I now do know that part of Florida pretty well," Billingham explains. "And as I've always believed that location is a character, it seemed a natural thing to do. When I began to write I was surprised at how little London had been used in crime fiction. Places such as Edinburgh or Oxford or LA seemed to have stronger identities. Part of the reason why Scandinavian crime has been so popular is the landscape. It is just so strong and alien. Although without taking anything away, you should probably also never discount the fact that blood does look particularly good against snow."
Since moving from acting and stand-up comedy to crime writing with his 2001 debut Sleepyhead, Billingham has written 11 novels, which have met with both commercial and critical success. An increasingly prominent figure in the crime-writing world, he was this year's chair of the annual gathering of the clans at the Harrogate crime festival, and was the first writer to win the Theakston's best crime novel of the year prize twice; his DI Tom Thorne has been portrayed on TV by David Morrissey. He says that, from the beginning, the Thorne books were about his often troubled detective's relationship with an often troubled city.
"There is all the wonderful tourist stuff, but it is also a city of ghosts and of contrasts. It's ludicrously expensive, filthy and crime ridden, but when you stand on Waterloo Bridge and look up and down the river … it's almost impossible not to have a love-hate relationship with the place. And while there's pretty much a webcam for everywhere these days, it's just not the same as actually recceing a location. I once needed to set a scene on the muddy bit at the side of the Thames. I might, just, have seen the dead dog blown up like a space hopper next to the beautiful heron on some internet site, but to get that smell I had to go there. It all adds richness to your writing, and I hope that local knowledge works just as well for Florida as for London."
Thorne does have a fleeting cameo in Rush of Blood, but Billingham's second standalone book primarily features three British couples who meet on a Florida holiday. A local child is murdered just before they return home, and when they meet up again in the UK for supper and an exchange of holiday snaps their relationships seem to have subtly changed. "The idea came from a friend who did one of those classic post-holiday dinners and realised that things were instantly different. The guy who they had liked on holiday appeared slightly sleazier than they remembered. When they went back for a reciprocal dinner this other couple had copied everything about my friends' home: the rugs, things on the walls, even a dress that his wife had worn. He said it was as if they were trying to steal their lives. They ended up having to sever all communications and change email addresses. As a crime writer you take something like that, which is quite spooky to begin with, and see just how dark you can take it."
The received wisdom has long been that standalone novels are fun for the writer of an established series, but result in fewer sales. "That seems to have changed a bit," says Billingham. "There have been some brilliant and very successful standalone books that work in themselves and also seem to refresh a series. Anyone who writes a series lives in fear of it becoming stale, so you do whatever you can to keep it fresh – although it does feel a bit nerve-racking to write outside of your comfort zone."
Billingham and Thorne share a birthday and a fondness for country music, among other things. "He is the person I get stuff off my chest through. If he is banging on about public transport or the health service, then that is probably me. But here I have six major characters to play with, and it's not just a 50-year-old bloke writing about a 50-year-old bloke. It feels far more like an acting job, which I guess is no coincidence as I've always enjoyed putting on another person's shoes."
Born in 1961 and brought up in Birmingham, Billingham's early exposure to crime fiction came via an eccentric maths teacher who read Sherlock Holmes stories to his class, and from 1970s TV cops. "A lot of crime writers of about my age cite these shows. I'm not sure how well they all would stand up to the HBO shows of today, but I'm still a big fan of Columbo, which really was revolutionary television. Not just because it was more about the dance of death between Columbo and the perpetrator than simply who did it, but also because of the people who worked on it, such as Spielberg and Jonathan Demme."
At school he was "a show-off" for whom reading out a story to the class, "even tiny stuff about my pet or what I did on my holidays, would give me a buzz that would last all week". From the age of 14 all he wanted was to become an actor, and he fulfilled his ambition in a socialist theatre troupe "not unlike Legs Akimbo in the League of Gentlemen. I'm still not sure how many people we converted by our protests against nuclear war in a Coventry shopping centre." He was soon appearing on TV and gravitated towards children's programmes, and then began writing and performing comedy. "From that point on professionally, I was just trying to get a laugh. But in my reading life, if the word 'caper' was on a book jacket I would refuse to read the book. I didn't want comedy crime. I wanted much stronger stuff."
The depiction of violence in crime fiction is a perennial source of argument: Val McDermid has claimed that women writers, used to a lifetime of experiencing potential dangers, tend to write about what violence feels like, while men more often write about what it looks like; but she expressly exempted Billingham from this characterisation. He says: "I think I am an exception because I have been through it." In 1997, Billingham was held hostage at gunpoint in a hotel room and robbed. "When I sat down to write about a year after I was attacked, reflecting the victim's experience was very important to me. From book one, I wanted the victim to be a major character and not just a plot device. I didn't want a cop and a killer and victims 1-6 who you don't know or care about. Even though Thorne had the most onstage time in Sleepyhead, the character I got most feedback about was the victim, Alison, who was in a locked-in state and doesn't speak. She was actually much more fully formed than Thorne, although I hope he's become a bit more fleshed out as time has gone on."
Since that first book, he says, his work has become even darker in tone, but far less violent on the page – "I hope that's to do with me becoming a better writer. I still believe you should show what violence does to people, but it's done best without depicting the actual mechanics. The single spot of blood on a pristine kitchen floor is far more powerful than blood-spattered walls with messages smeared in it, and it doesn't detract from how dark or suspenseful a story is."
It has been an approach that has seen Sleepyhead and his subsequent books become bestsellers and Thorne get the inevitable TV call-up. Billingham was involved with the production company and was pleased with the finished result. "It had a fantastic cast and scripts, but in the end it was not a happy experience and ultimately it reminded me of why I stopped working in television and started to write books in the first place. It is a pretty beastly and venal industry, and publishing – compared to television, let alone to comedy for God's sake – is such a wonderful oasis of politeness and honesty."
He says now all he worries about is making the books as good as he can on the assumption that everything else will look after itself. But as chair of the Harrogate crime festival, he also has half an eye on the bigger crime picture. "The usual criticism used to be someone holding the new Ian McEwan in one hand and the worst schlocky crime beach read in the other and asking: how is this literature? Of course the McEwan is better. Equally, we should say that a piece of up-itself literary fiction about nothing is not better than, say, a James Lee Burke novel. But for all that, I do detect that the genre wars are running out of steam." He cites the fact that, last year, Snowdrops by AD Miller was on both the Booker and the Crime Writers Dagger shortlist for the first time, "and that's pretty much as it should be. A good book is a good book, and that's all I'm really interested in."
As to the wider state of the crime nation, he detects that the Scandi-crime era may be coming to an end. "And that's probably not a bad thing. One of the downsides has been that it has slightly closed the door to crime fiction in translation from other countries, and there have been fewer Spanish or French or Italian writers published in the UK than there might have been. But in general terms we are, arguably, living through a golden age. Crime is the biggest genre in libraries and in bookshops, and it is hugely varied. From the gentlest reworkings of vicarages and cups of tea right through to things that come pretty close to torture porn. Go to a bookshop in America and there are golf mysteries, cat mysteries, cooking mysteries, cat and cooking mysteries … "
Billingham has just finished the next Thorne, in which he deals with the ramifications of his cameo role in Rush of Blood. He is not contractually obliged to write Thorne novels and only plans one book ahead. "Whether there is an end in sight for him, I don't know. I'm not moving towards anything, but I hope I am moving. You always want to peel away another layer of the onion and keep readers interested. You also need to keep him relevant. So who knows what's next? Fifty Shades of Thorne?"