Tag Archives: Mark Billingham

The Sock Puppeteers………. And Why Random Strangers Tell Me My Blog Is The Best Blog Ever And All Other Blogs Are Shite!

If you follow authors on Twitter you may well know about the controversial practice of sock puppeting and the war which has broken out between the thriller writers RJ Ellory and Mark Billingham, among others.

Mark Billingham
In The Blue Corner – Crime Novelist Mark Billingham – Who Also Earns Extra Cash As A Graeme Souness Look-A-Like

It started when evidence was published that Ellory had indulged in sock puppeting – essentially

RJ Ellory
In The Red Corner – RJ Ellory – Seen Here Promoting His Book “The Anniversary Man” – Or As It Is Subtitled “The Sad Lying Bastard!”

he posted glowing reviews of his own books on Amazon using dummy accounts and also used the same dummy accounts to mercilessly slate the work of other thriller writers like Billingham and Stuart McBride.

It’s pretty despicable stuff which Ellory has admitted to. You’d think at that point, having been caught all ends up he’d at least have the decency to apologise! But Mr Ellory, or one of his alter-egos, delivered a kind of half arsed mumble which made it sound as if RJ Ellory had himself been badly advised or influenced by another RJ Ellory (called Dick or something…….) – what a bloody scary place Mr Ellory’s head must be!

If I’m honest I read RJ Ellory book A Quiet Belief In Angels and thought it was weak. Conversely I love Billingham’s books! So I’m maybe biased as far as taking sides in this spat goes – but I doubt many people, if any, are defending Ellory. He comes out of it for me looking for all the world like a mediocre writer who’s had his desperate ego and spiteful jealousies of people more talented than him exposed for all to see. Billingham on the other hand has skilfully managed to tread that fine line between rightful criticism of what’s been uncovered but avoiding taking a pompous, up his own arse, moral high ground about it. In the midst of it all though I can’t help wonder about publishers, agents and others – I’d have thought they must have known or at least suspected and seem remarkably quiet about it all.

Still – Ellory – what an eejit! – to praise his own work and slag others. The phrase “needs to get out more” comes to mind!

On a completely separate topic, a recent comment on my blog from someone called  M.Y. Mummy said “When Donkey told Shrek that parfait was the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet he’d clearly not read your blog! In my view The Only Way Is Reading is the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet. I know I’ve never met you and am not related to you in any way son, but I just had to say your blog is the best and every other blog on the planet is shit!” 

Always good to get completely independent, fulsome praise from someone I have never met, not ever, never, never, never……Seems like a good time to stop……………….!

I Wonder If My Favourite Albums And My Favourite Books Would Talk To Each Other If They Met At A Party?……….

……….I got this odd, fanciful notion years ago when I read something similar in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. In the book they had a discussion about the idea of vetting potential girlfriends through a questionnaire focused mainly on their record collections – it was a very funny dig in the ribs for musical snobbery which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve indulged in myself in the past.  I mean there’s no way that a man who loves Ryan Adams and The Cardinals could go on a date, never mind spend their life, with a woman who enjoys listening to Gloria Gaynor screeching about survival!!! (This is as you might imagine a far from random example – my love for all things Ryan Adams can only speak its name when she who loves Gloria Gaynor is not at home!)

Anyway I’ve often wondered if my record collections and book collections are well matched – or if they signify some deep-rooted, sub-conscious, split personality on my part! One of the ways I’ve reassured myself on their compatibility over the years has been the frequent references to music I’ve got on my shelves, in either books I’ve read, or in comments by authors I like. I’ll give you an example. I know from listening to Radio 6 and from his Twitter feed that Ian Rankin likes Teenage Fanclub. So in my mind I then perform the following psychological equation:-

I Think Ian Rankin Is Great + Ian Rankin Thinks Teenage Fanclub Are Great + I Think Teenage Fanclub Are Great = My Book and Record Collections Must Be Compatible!

Obviously, authors use musical tastes and preferences as part of the development of characters in their books and from these I make connections like the one above! In addition there are books, like High Fidelity, or Salman Rushdie’s “the ground beneath her feet” with popular / indie music as the setting or context for their novels. Since I loved both of those books and they focus on much of the kind of music I like, it is of course further evidence of the compatibility of my music and book collections! (Of course when evidence occurs to the contrary – such as some of the country music that DI Thorne likes in the Mark Billingham crime novels – well……I ignore that!)

However as I was listening to the radio this morning I heard Lloyd Cole and The Commotions singing “Rattlesnakes”, with it’s name-check for Simone de Beauvoir in the lyrics, and it suddenly struck me that while I can think of several references to music in my books, the number of references to books in my music are few and far between. So I tried to compile a list and this is what I came up with!

First up is that Lloyd Cole song ‘Rattlesnakes’, which has the wonderful lines “She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront, She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance!” Secondly, The Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” makes a reference to Lolita with the line “just like in that old book by Nabokov!

Next up is a Green Day track called “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” (Personally my sharp intellectual guess is that Billie Joe Armstrong already knows the literal answer to this question!). Most influentially of all for me, the genius that is Ryan Adams wrote a song called “Sylvia Plath”. I love it ( in fact I may have written this post just so I can encourage anybody who reads this to listen to the song!). It goes:-

I wish I had a Sylvia Plath
Busted tooth and a smile
And cigarette ashes in her drink
The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week
The kind that goes out on her
To give me a reason, for well, I dunno

And maybe she’d take me to France
Or maybe to Spain and she’d ask me to dance
In a mansion on the top of a hill
She’d ash on the carpets
And slip me a pill
Then she’d get pretty loaded on gin
And maybe she’d give me a bath
How I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

Beyond those it starts to get a bit tenuous I think. I know the Beatles made a reference to Edgar Allan Poe in I Am The Walrus and I know that while the lyrics to Aqualung’s “Strange and Beautiful” don’t specifically mention Shakespeare, the song is based on the story of A Midsummer Nights Dream –  at least I’ve always thought it was! Even more tenuously, I’ve got a Sheryl Crow album in which one of the songs makes a reference to Aldous Huxley, but as I have never read anything by Huxley and as I hardly ever play the album this isn’t one that’s big with me!)

And, for a final two suggestions, both linked to classics, I’ll first offer Kate Bush going all “out on the wild, windy moors” with Wuthering Heights and lastly the lyrics to Don’t Tell Me To Do The Maths by Los Campesinos refers to Jane Eyre – but not perhaps in the way I’d like. They wail out ” We know that we could sell your magazines, if only you would give your life to literature just
DON’T READ JANE EYRE!!!”

So as I’ve reached the point where I’m struggling so much to list references to literature in my record collection that I am reduced to quoting a song slating one of my favourite books I think it’s time to give in!

Though of course, if you can think of any other songs which make references to great books or authors, let me know! (And let me know if you like Ryan Adams! – I might use the weight of popular opinion to try to re-introduce him at home! Then again, on second thoughts…………………………..)

What I Thought Of………..Good As Dead by Mark Billingham

………..This is the 10th in the series of crime novels about DI Tom Thorne (I think it’s the 10th anyway!) and it’s the 9th of the Thorne novels that I’ve read, and from the outset I have to say this is the best of the lot for me!

The more Thorne novels I read, the more I’m a little uncertain about them before I start. I’ve loved reading these since I first read “Sleepyhead” many moons ago and I guess my uncertainty is that I might suddenly find it all a bit too familiar, a bit predictable, now that I’m 7, 8, 9 novels in. This uncertainty about a series of novels stems from one point in my life when I lived in Tenerife for a few years and getting my hands on reading material wasn’t easy. However through a friend I got a couple of thriller/spy novels by Colin Forbes about Tweed, Bob Newman and Paula Grey. I enjoyed them and read more and more. Unfortunately much as I’d enjoyed early stuff like “The Janus Man”, by the time I got to things like “The Vorpal Blade” it all felt very “conveyor belt production” with the same lines and basically the same plots again and again. (I should have guessed it had reached rock bottom though with a title like “The Vorpal Blade”!!!!!- when an author invents weird, ridiculous titles you kind of know what’s inside will be pretty thin fare!). Ever since then I’ve expected every series of novels I like to start running out of steam – however so far so very, very, good with Mark Billingham (and in a way I should draw positive encouragement from Rebus and Ian Rankin – I’ve read 18 Ian Rankin novels over the years, with most of those about DI Rebus and I’ve loved every single one of them!)

The story centres on Thorne being required to look into the circumstances of a young man’s death in custody, which in turn is linked to a hostage-taking in a South London grocers. It all starts innocuously enough when Detective Helen Weeks (who’d appeared in Billingham’s stand-alone novel “In The Dark” which I thoroughly enjoyed!) pops into her local grocers shop. Following some unpleasantness between the shop owner and some youths, Helen is debating whether or not to get involved officially when all hell breaks loose and the incident transforms itself into Helen and another member of the public being taken hostage at gun-point. And where does DI Thorne come in as a Murder Squad detective? Well the motivation for the hostage-taking is more deliberate than it first appears and the shopkeeper demands Thorne investigate the so-called suicide of his son, while serving time in a Youth Offenders Institution for a crime which was originally investigated by Thorne. And so the hares are set off and running!

This DI Thorne novel is a step up for me though from the others to date. The action essentially flits back and forward between the shop, the work of Thorne and his team, and the police command point for the hostage situation. It’s archetypal race-against-time stuff in many ways but it’s exceptionally well done race-against-time stuff. The events at the hostage taking are drawn in really tight and as a result the book really does create a palpable feel of tension and edge, which it then cleverly releases its grip and then re-tightens again throughout the novel and you therefore get this real feel of the roller-coaster of mood and emotion for both the hostages and the hostage-taker. Meantime Thorne is a great character to build all this action around. He’s still got that down-at-heel, kicked around by the world sort of feel to him, which seems to be classic American gumshoe territory but again it’s brilliantly handled by Mark Billingham. The added touches of humour through Thorne, his pathologist mate Hendricks and in some of the one line banter between Thorne and his team all add to the richness of the book and the characters.

But of course all of that is just as abundantly on offer in all the other great DI Thorne stories so what made this one the stand-out for me? Well it’s basically the way the shift from one part of the storyline to the other and then back again and so on and so forth is built up to a really believable pitch. What was great about this book was that I knew who the killer was well before the end – but I didn’t know how the book was going to end even though I knew who the killer was. And that’s what made this just that bit extra, extra, extra, special for me. I was fit to bursting to get to the end and see how Mark Billingham brought it to a close – I won’t of course say here how it ends but perhaps it’s a final testimony to how good a crime novel this is if I say that I actually didn’t like the ending of the book and yet I still loved it!!! I’ve not had that feeling since I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when, for me, Louis de Bernieres got the ending to that book all wrong!  And it’s still in my view one of the best books I’ve ever read!

While Good As Dead isn’t a Corelli, it is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read, despite the rotten ending!! I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who likes reading and if you like reading crime fiction in particular I’d say this is definitely a “Not To Be Missed!”

There are other blogs out there with reviews on Good As Dead. There’s one here at Book Geeks, another at Guilty Conscience (which coincidentally seems to agree with me that this is the best of the DI Thorne books so far!) and at Books and Writers. In addition I’d always recommend the “It’s A Crime” blog to anyone interested in crime fiction, whether in books or on TV (it is just such a good blog about all things crime fiction that it’s become a bit of a one-stop-shop for me!)

There was only one surprise for me in Good As Dead – as a mad-keen though despairing Tottenham fan I thought Thorne would have had a view on the Harry Redknapp for England manager saga – but then as it was announced yesterday that the FA have chosen Roy Hodgson rather than Redknapp perhaps that just shows that Thorne knew all along that the Harry-For-England campaign never stood a chance! That’s what I call a detective!

Watching The Detectives Makes You Realise That Even The Great Ones Aren’t As Cute As Elvis Says They Are!

………. I don’t ever think detectives in fiction are cute (though Suranne Jones as one part of “Scott and Bailey” comes pretty damn close for me!). But while they may not be that cute, there are several that are great!

I’ve just finished the latest paperback crime novel from Mark Billingham about the wonderful Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. I’ve liked Thorne since I read “Sleepyhead” several years ago and the latest “Good As Dead”. I’ll do a more detailed review of the latest DI Thorne book later this week, but for now I’d simply sum it up by saying “Good As Dead” is in my humble opinion the best DI Thorne novel so far. I don’t even hold it against him that he’s a Tottenham fan!

Crime fiction is a kind of slightly odd genre for me. Most of the time, when I read crime fiction, what I’m most “into” is the plot itself, which is frequently not the case when I read other fiction. I find that I can read crime fiction which isn’t that well written or where the dialogue is a bit functional and pedestrian or where the characters are a bit one-dimensional, and yet if the plot is good, I can still enjoy reading it. I doubt that ever happens for me with any other genre of fiction.

But I’m also particular about which coppers I let share my bookshelves so to speak! Because while the plot can make up for everything else, I also find there’s a lot of great crime fiction that I love – and when that happens it’s not just for the plot but for the writing and the main characters.

However I have a rather irrational relationship with fiction detectives who flick back and forward between the pages of my books and the TV or cinema screen.

I love DI Thorne as I say, and I get the impression that Mark Billingham as an author really liked the portrayal of Thorne by David Morrisey in the TV series “Thorne”. In fact I think Mark Billingham had expressed his preference for Morrisey to play Thorne before he’d even been signed up. I liked the TV series but for me David Morrisey didn’t quite work as Thorne. Somehow from the novels, I’d built up an image of someone who was heavier, rounder in the face, more gruff and frankly not as good-looking as David Morrisey.

Another that I didn’t get on with was when John Hannah played the part of my favourite detective, DI Rebus. I think he’s a great actor but for Rebus, he was, like David Morrisey, too young and too good-looking to fit with the picture of the odd but really likeable misfit that Ian Rankin’s books had created in my mind! The later series switched to Ken Stott and suddenly Rebus was alive in front of me as I’d always imagined him.

Mind you, I read on Twitter that Ian Rankin himself always thought James Cosmo would have been the perfect choice for Rebus! I’d not thought of him, as my own personal preference was for Brian Cox, but I immediately saw that Rankin’s personal preference fitted perfectly with my image of Rebus and was certainly much more in line with the picture in my head than Mark Billingham had been with his preference for David Morrisey.

Early screen-test for the Stephen Tompkinson School Of Eyebrow Acting

The most disappointing translation of a book detective I love onto the screen was the choice of Stephen Tompkinson to play DCI Banks, who I’d really grown to like in the books of Peter Robinson. I thought he was an awful choice. I read an article from the author around the time it aired where he gave a vote of confidence in Tompkinson, but it didn’t read to me like he really believed what he was saying in the article. Consequently I thought the series was awful. His sole contribution to “serious” acting seemed to wholly depend on working his eyebrows up and down! The phrase “couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag” applies! He ruined DCI Banks for me!

On the good side, I thought Roy Marsden was perfect as PD James’s Commander Adam Dalgleish – to this day I still see him when I read one of those books! I loved Kenneth Branagh as Wallender – I shouldn’t have done as it sounds all wrong but it wasn’t somehow!

There are however some detectives that I’m wary of following in the opposite direction. I loved Frost on TV but have never read any of the RD Wingfield books and I don’t think I ever will as I want Frost to stay as I remember him! I’m in a similar position with Vera at the moment. I think she’s a creation of absolute genius and I love the programmes – above all her dry, sarcastic humour is magnificent. However I’ve never read any of the books by Ann Cleeves and I’m reluctant to as I don’t know if Vera will come off the page as well as she comes off the screen. Having said that I’ve read several great reviews of Ann Cleeves books, so I may well swallow my prejudice on that one!

If you are interested in TV detectives, The Guardian is currently running a series of articles called Natalie Haynes Guide To TV Detectives – I have to say that with the exception of number 6, Scott and Bailey, the choices haven’t been my thing (for example Number 7 was the Dick Van Dyke part life-saving doctor and part genius detective Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder! Personally I think if Dr Sloan ever met DI Rebus or DI Thorne they’d punch him!)

Best of all though, both Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson are due to appear together at Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July and I intend to go along and wallow in the joy of all things Rebus and Banks. And if I get the chance I might ask Peter Robinson what he REALLY thought of Stephen Tompkinson’s acting?!

April 23rd finds Cervantes sneaking out the back door with a grin….!

Today is a bit of a “Happy” this or that day.

It is of course Shakespeare’s birthday and the news is filled with interesting stuff about 37 plays in 37 different languages about to be performed to mark the great man’s birthday and as part of the cultural events on the lead in to London 2012. So the first ‘happy’ of the day is “Happy Birthday Wullie!”

Today also marks St. George’s Day. Now for a Scotsman that’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to note or mark! I’m the sort of Scotsman who waxes lyrical about Scotland and all things Scottish, retains a perennial optimism for Scotland to conquer England at sport be it football, rugby, tennis or any other sport and only sulks for a little bit when it never happens, and of course when I watch Braveheart I forget Mel Gibson’s slightly dodgy Scottish accent and have been known to utter the odd derogatory comment to my English friends and families (I’ve even gone as far as chiding my daughter that she is “a daughter of Longshanks – a terrible, terrible thing to be!’, to which she just smiles sweetly and shares a patronising “you’ve got to feel sorry for him!” look with her mother!). However I’m also the sort of Scotsman who actually loves living in England and I love the people here, so, admittedly through slightly gritted teeth as old habits die-hard, my second happy of the day is of course “Happy St. George’s Day!”

Thirdly it’s World Book Night. There are many, many events taking place all over the country, as well as in Germany, Ireland and the USA, which all have the underlying aim of encouraging reading by giving away books. It essentially seeks to give a taste of the joys of books to those who might not be into books and into reading. Consequently much of the focus for the books is on places where there may be people who might be harder to reach readers, including prisons, homeless shelters and care homes. This is the second year of World Book Night but it’s already well established and is likely to remain a hugely important and very worthwhile part of the book calendar. There are 25 books on the list for give-away this year ranging from real-life stories like Joe Simpson’s ‘Touching The Void’ (which is a moving and simply awesome story of one man’s fight for survival), through classics like Pride and Prejudice and Rebecca, and thrillers like Mark Billingham’s “Sleepyhead” to more contemporary fiction like Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ (wow!) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ (wow x 1000!). So my third “happy” of the day is Happy World Book Night!

But, ‘sneaking out the back door with a grin’, is Miguel Cervantes, who gets my last ‘happy’ because of all of the above he’s the most special to me personally. One of the reasons for the choice of April 23rd as World Book Night was that not only is April 23rd the date of Shakespeare’s birthday (and anniversary of his death), it is also the anniversary of the death of the wonderful Miguel Cervantes, who died on April 23rd 1616. I’ve linked this with a line from a very cheesy Matt Bianco song from the 80′s (a bit of a guilty pleasure for me this song!) which is a line I oft-quote! To me ‘sneaking out the back door with a grin’ is a slightly mischievous, slightly ‘cat’s got the cream’ way of moving out of the scene but really being the star of the show – and that fits Cervantes for me. I loved Don Quixote, absolutely loved it. I first read it one summer in about 1980, as a then student bumming around Greece. It simply made me giggle and laugh out loud from start to finish. I found Sancho Panza and Quixote to be the best comic creations I’d ever read – and even though I first read it over thirty years ago I’ve read nothing to come close to them ever since. As part of a Book Club at work a couple of years back we read “Salmon Fishing In Yemen” which I noticed recently has been made into a film with Ewan McGregor. To be honest I didn’t think much of that book and found only the odd bit here and there which was mildly amusing – for the most part it just seemed a bit dull to me! I think it must be incredibly difficult to write humour (at least to write it in a way that makes me laugh!) – Cervantes definitely had the touch for me! So my fourth and final ‘happy’ of the day is the Happy Anniversary of Cervantes death (having written that it sounds slightly macabre and weird but you know what I mean!!)

Here’s to El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha!