STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Our Crime in the City series resumes this week. We've been talking with mystery novelists across the country and around the world. And this week we'll have stories from Paris, Berlin and Beijing. We will start the series, today, in London. Now if you favor a nice whodunit, set in the jolly English countryside, with kindly vicars and fresh-faced debutantes riding to hounds, then whatever you do, do not pick up any of Mark Billingham's novels. Reporter Vicki Barker recently went for a walk with Billingham. It was London, but not as you know it.
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VICKI BARKER: A murderer stalks the homeless through a London night, that, in author Mark Billingham's words, stinks of desperation.
Mr. MARK BILLINGHAM (Author, "Lifeless"): He turned from Dean Street onto Old Compton Street, heading towards Piccadilly, past the cruisers and the coked-up media wankers; past a wild-haired wino breathing heavily and scowling at the world from the doorway of a fetish wear boutique. As he walked, he realized where that dull ache came from. It was the effort of staying self-contained that drains you, of keeping yourself impervious to the offers and the pleas, to the promises of pleasure of one sort or another.
BARKER: Mark Billingham, reading from his 2006 novel, "Lifeless."
Mr. BILLINGHAM: Now, this is Leicester Square. Looks lovely now, doesn't it?
BARKER: On a bright weekday lunchtime, Billingham, a stand-up comic, children's writer and crime novelist, retraces a murderer's steps and describes his own restless quest for settings.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: You write a better scene if you've gone down to the place where it's set. I had to do some stuff right on the banks of the Thames, and I looked on my left and there's a huge blown-up dead dog, you know, stuck in the sludge. It's blown up like a kind of a (unintelligible), kinda snarling. And I look to my right and there's a beautiful heron perched on it. And I kinda think, you know what, I could have sat in my office for two or three hours and I'd never have made that stuff up.
BARKER: The result, novels in which beauty and horror, tragedy and black comedy, interlock. Characters drawn from society's margins collide with the law or with each other, in settings, which though familiar to most Londoners, have been rendered sinister or disturbing.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: It's fun to write about what's hidden, because it has this kind façade. It's touristy and wonderful and look, we've got the royal family and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, you know, but you don't have to look very far to find not only a fantastically dark present but a bit of really evocative dark history.
BARKER: In one novel, "In the Dark," present and past collide when a gang of young black drug dealers falls foul of an old style East End gangster.
Unidentified Man: This weeks Big Issue please, issue please?
BARKER: In Billingham's book, "Lifeless" street people like this man selling the homeless magazine, The Big Issue are not backdrop color but central players in a parallel society to ours, one Billingham discovered while researching the book.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: There's a homeless opera company, there are homeless football leagues, there's a homeless theater company. There's a whole world, a whole community which I kind of discovered - with its own hierarchy. The drinkers don't hang out with the drug addicts. The drug addicts are suspicious of the people with mental illness. They're all suspicious of the immigrants. There's a real kind of society going on just beneath the surface.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
BARKER: As the tourists mill around Leicester Square, buying half-price theater tickets and bumping into nothing more sinister than each other, Billingham watches from his own darker vantage point, drawn from his years playing the local comedy clubs.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: You come into Leicester Square at three or four o'clock in the morning, and it's like the seventh circle of hell. You're like, just don't look anybody in the eye, don't look anybody in the eye if you're looking up. It's how I kind of always imagine New York used to be. I was never a fan of cozy mysteries of anything set in the countryside, you know. I just don't want - I just don't care. I'm a city boy. I grew up in a big city, in Birmingham, and I want to write about a city. It's much richer tapestry for me, than green fields. Fields and wild life make me feel ill. I don't like - I don't want to write about that stuff.
BARKER: Billingham has a lived-in face, a pierced ear. He speaks in quick staccato bursts, a raconteur's voice. Some readers may find his police inspector hero, Tom Thorne, less engaging. He seems more sketchily described than the criminals and the scenery. Billingham says he consciously chose to make Thorne a work in progress.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: I really, genuinely don't - the reader knows as much about Tom Thorne as I do at any one time. Well, what that does mean is that sometimes he goes into areas that readers are uncomfortable with.
BARKER: One of the most uncomfortable moments in his novels is a scene where Thorne is tied up and subjected to a very graphic sexual attack. And now, Billingham reveals, that he too was the victim of a violent attack, a year before he started writing the Thorne novels. It happened at a hotel in the city of Manchester.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: I got room service in this room one night and there was a knock on the door about half an hour later, and I thought they'd come to collect their tray, you know, the empty plate. And there was three guys in ski masks and they just burst in and said they were going to kill me and tied me up, put a bag over my head.
BARKER: The man took Billingham's credit cards and held him there for three hours. He says the experience marked him as a crime writer in two significant ways.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: For in that first book it was really important to me that the victim had a voice and was somebody that you cared about. And secondly, I think one thing I can write about pretty well is what it's like to be afraid. I'm pretty good on fear. I remember when I was tied up in the hotel room, I was bouncing off the carpet because my heart was thumping so much. I can remember literally bouncing on the floor, and so, yeah, I can write about what it's like to be afraid, I think.
BARKER: Did that, in any way, inform your decision to start writing crime fiction?
Unidentified Man: Hello, hello, I say.
BARKER: An interruption - a twitchy, rail-thin guy with x-ray eyes right out of one of Billingham's novels.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) she said no go away. I said later.
Mr. BILLINGHAM: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BILLINGHAM: There's London, right there. That was very impressive. Though I mean that guy, you know, I'm not being judgmental, but that guy's an addict. And there, you know, there are a lot of characters like that wandering around. I don't know how he's going to fill up his day, but I kind of know where he's going to finish up tonight.
BARKER: The police, by the way, never caught the guys who attacked Mark Billingham. He says, they never came close.
For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
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INSKEEP: And Mark Billingham's new Inspector Thorne novel "Death Message" is out in October. You can read an excerpt and check out other recommendations from our crime in the city series at the new npr.org. Tomorrow, on the radio, the series takes us to France.
Unidentified Woman: This was my sort of introduction to this whole other history of Paris - that darker side, that other side, that side that people didn't talk about, really fascinated me, and it really drew me.
INSKEEP: And it will draw us to more Crime in the City tomorrow.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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