How Mark Billingham Keeps Us Fascinated with D.I. Tom Thorne

How Mark Billingham Keeps Us Fascinated with D.I. Tom Thorne

‘As a crime writer, I am often being asked the “best way to create suspense”. Of course, there are certain tricks and techniques; the reveal, the twist, the cliffhanger. But they are just that – tricks of the trade. Tricks usually become predictable. The best and most certain way is simply to give readers characters they care about. Then you have suspense from page one.’ Mark explained. ‘That does not mean that these characters must be likeable or even heroic all the time. It just means that they are engaging. If they aren’t, then all the flash-bang-wallop in the world means bugger all.’

D.I. Tom Thorne is the dedicated and maverick lead in Mark Billingham’s best-loved crime series. Often dismissing the rules and the approval of his peers in his drive to protect victims and get criminals off the streets, Thorne sometimes lands himself in hot water but that just makes him all the more engaging to read about.

‘Thorne is stubborn and, as his name implies, can be prickly and tough to get rid of.’ Mark acknowledged. ‘But if he doesn’t know when he’s not wanted, his tragedy is that he doesn’t always know when he is. This has led to a certain amount of… domestic upheaval. Readers are always asking when I’m going to cut him a break as far as his love life goes.’

It’s no wonder that D.I. Thorne has had a tough time stopping his work life from affecting his personal life. Having dealt with serial killers, vigilantes, gruesome crime scenes, psychopaths, kidnappers, suicides and, most recently, honour killings, the years have not been kind to Thorne.

‘There’s no way that what he does for a living doesn’t impact on him in some way’, Mark commented. ‘If I didn’t put that into the books, they’d be cartoons. I’ve tried to make them as real as I can, which means he’s dealing with grief, pain and violence and that affects him. He is somebody who sees the good people and the very bad side.’

David Morrissey – the actor who plays Tom in the TV adaptation – observed, ‘We’ve seen maverick cops a lot, but Thorne has an idea of himself and his work. He has this hole inside himself that he’s desperate to have filled, and it’s only filled by the work. He’s desperate for personal relationships but he can’t reach out and he can’t form them, because he’s been damaged by the work he does. The things he sees in his everyday life he can’t share with anybody and doesn’t want to share — he doesn’t want to taint anything good. And that’s a terrible place to be. It’s also, if you’re not careful, a massively egotistical place to be.’

But while Tom sometimes seems doomed to be unhappy, Billingham has given us a few flickers of hope throughout the series, currently in Helen and her young son Alfie, whom Tom tries hard to be a good partner and father figure for.

‘The personal relationships have become a far more important part of the books than they used to be. I think as I get older I enjoy writing that stuff more than the crash-bang-wallop scenes.’ Mark noted. ‘Readers are funny about it. They get in touch asking me to make Thorne a bit happier, then, if I do give him a hint of a settled and contented domestic situation, they demand that I take it away from him again.’

Billingham is clearly very fond of his series character, and after sixteen years of living inside Thorne’s head, he knows him inside and out.

‘Beyond the taste in music and hopeless devotion to a frustrating football team, we’ve not got a great deal in common.’ Mark mused. ‘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.’

Tom Thorne is such a well-rounded and engaging character, and so vivd in readers’ heads, that fans are often surprised when they realise that his appearance is kept, for the most part, to our imaginations.

‘You’ll notice that I haven’t described Thorne physically, and there’s a good reason.’ Mark explained. ‘I believe that a character exists in the mind of both the reader and the writer and it’s where those two pictures intersect that the character is really defined. Tall, dark and handsome? Well, Thorne is not exactly tall and is probably dark-ish, but beyond that, I wouldn’t like to say’.

So now that we’re onto the fourteenth novel in the series, what can we expect of Billingham’s stubborn, maverick cop that we’ve come to know so well.

‘As I write each new Thorne novel, I am determined that whatever is happening plot-wise, a new layer of the onion will be peeled away and reveal something about Tom Thorne that is surprising.’ Mark remarked. ‘To me as much as anyone else.’