Mark Billingham & Paul Johnston

in conversation

About Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian his first crime novel was published in 2001. Sleepyhead was an instant bestseller in the UK. It has been sold widely throughout the world and was published in the USA in the summer of 2002.  The series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne continued with Scaredy Cat and was followed by LazybonesThe Burning GirlLifelessBuriedDeath MessageBloodline and From The Dead. The latest in the series – Good As Dead – is published in August 2011. Mark is also the author of the standalone novel In The Dark as well as a series of children’s thrillers – Triskellion – written under the pseudonym Will Peterson. An acclaimed television series based on the Thorne novels was screened on Sky One in Autumn 2010, starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne. The second series is now in production. Mark lives in London with his wife and two children. He is currently writing his next novel.

Visit his website: http://www.markbillingham.com/

About Paul Johnston

Paul Johnston

Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1957. His father Ronald was a successful thriller writer. Paul attended state primary school in Berwickshire and private schools in Edinburgh. He subsequently studied ancient and modern Greek at the University of Oxford, then added an M.Phil in comparative literature to his M.A.. After leaving Oxford in 1982, Paul worked for shipping companies in London and Belgium. He moved to Greece in 1987, working on a newspaper, in shipping and then teaching English. His daughter Silje was born in 1988. He started writing seriously in 1989 when he went to live on the small Aegean island of Antiparos. Paul returned to Edinburgh to do another master’s degree in 1995 and then started studying for a doctorate. Paul remarried in 2005. His wife Roula is a Greek civil servant. Their daughter Maggie was born in Athens in January 2006 and their son Alexander in January 2008. Paul has come through (touch wood) two unconnected bouts of cancer in the last five years and underwent chemotherapy until November 2008. That hasn’t stopped him from writing or from studying for a PhD in creative writing.He still divides his time between Scotland and Greece – having left Athens, he and his family now live in the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. His next project is The Green Lady, the fifth Alex Mavros novel.

Visit his website: http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk/

 

PJ -You worked in children’s TV and stand up before becoming a crime novelist? What nudge you towards the genre?

 

Good As Dead

MB – I was really not enjoying the work I was doing for TV where scripts tend to be developed by committee. I’d taken my name off several projects before I finally decided I’d had enough, but even though I’d written all sorts of stuff before that (terrible poetry, bad plays, my own stand-up material) I was wary about trying my hand at a novel. Once I took the plunge, however, it was always going to be crime. Put simply, crime fiction had been my passion from a very early age. Once I’d discovered Sherlock Holmes, aged eleven (me, not him) I was hooked. I’ve talked in many interviews about how the work I’d done up to that point influenced and helped me. From TV writing I learned the discipline of deadlines and delivery and the importance of dialogue, which, as a TV writer is pretty much all you have to work with. Stand-up taught me about engaging with your audience quickly and keeping them engaged. A crime novel contains many similar elements to a stand-up routine. It is full of punchlines (though usually very dark ones) and, of course, timing is everything. I firmly believe that a novel is a performance…

What about you? Your background is rather more academic than mine. How does a classicist come to murder so many people on the page? Was it all that Greek tragedy?

PJ – No, I think it was Homer’s Odyssey, which I read in English when I was about seven (precocious, moi?) – plenty of crimes in there. Although I read classics for a couple of years at Oxford, I then changed to Modern Greek and did a Masters in comparative  literature, much of which involved analysing that well known crime writer DH Lawrence. I’m really an academic manque, whence my studying for a PhD in creative writing at this advanced  age. You mention Greek tragedy, which I read a lot of – no shortage of crime, murder etc in that either, but the biggest classical influence on my early writing was Plato. My Quint Dalrymple series, set in an independent Edinburgh in the 2020s, had more to do with the Republic than science fiction, though Orwell and Huxley are also presiding deities and there’s a hefty Blade Runner homage in the last book. I think I’d describe my approach to crime writing as intellectual rather than academic, actually, even though I know that will lead to endless mockery. I start a book with ideas – I don’t mean plot or character ideas, though they’re there too, but political or even philosophical concepts. Body Politic and its successors raise all sorts of issues about totalitarianism, education, the environment (especially the energy and water supplies), censorship, cloning and so on. I like a crime novel that asks the reader to think. So, big man, any problem with that?

MB – No problem at all. Any crime novel that does not ask the reader to think is not worth reading, though it does of course also need to ask the reader to feel. That said, I’m wary of any novel that is issue-led. I think if you sit down to write your ‘child abuse’ novel or your ‘multiculturalism’ novel or whatever it might be, the chances are that you will write a bad book. I completely agree with the notion that crime fiction is uniquely placed to look at the world we live in ways that perhaps the so-called literary novel has neglected to do in  recent years. But it still has to begin with the story. If in the course of telling that story, the writer gets to shine a light into certain dark corners of the world, to explore big ideas, then so much the better, but…at least for me…story is King. You can raise the issues of course, but surely the best way to make them  palatable, to sugar what is not always a particularly pleasant pill, is to cloak them within a compelling narrative.

PJ – Certainly emotion and story are essential components of a fictional approach to ideas, but let me go back to your interesting point about the novel as performance. With your background in theatre/YV, that may mean something different to you than it would to certain modern theorists. We could go as far back as the original theatre/ literary critic, Aristotle, with his unities of action, time and space; the emotions of pity and fear roused by the performance/ text which lead to catharsis for the viewer/ reader; the ideas of sin and the tragic flaw; as well as the concepts of ‘peripeteia’, the sudden change that reverses the hero’s fortune, and ‘anagnorisis’, the moment of recognition when ignorance gives way to understanding. Critics have applied these lines of thought to crime fiction with varied results. As both practising crime novelist and theatrical type, do you find them relevant at any stage in the creative process?

MB – These were certainly concepts that I was very familiar with as someone who had studied drama at university and I think they can certainly be applied to a lot of crime fiction. Anagnorisis is surely of fundamental importance in most conventional mystery fiction. That said, I would categorise myself as less of a theorist in this regard and more of a ‘shameless show-off’. I vividly remember writing stories at school and the overwhelming buzz at being asked to come to the front of the class and read it to my classmates. That was an incredible rush. I think – and I’m really not being flippant here – that this is still part of the impetus for me to write today. I am still in some senses performing to others (though hopefully the class is a little bigger…) A writer is performing, providing an entertainment – though that of course can take many forms. Added to that, these days the writer is constantly asked to perform in a more conventional sense, at festivals and so on. I know that many writers hate this, but it is very much part and parcel of the writer’s role today. A writer must sell themselves as much as their work. Is this an aspect of the business that you’re totally comfortable with? I’ve happily shared many platforms with you over the years and I know how good you are at this stuff, but would you be happier going back to those days when it was no longer necessary? When the writer’s job finished when they had delivered the book?

PJ – I was fortunate to do  a lot of touring earlier in my career and did indeed enjoy the performance side of the  business, even when you were on the stage with me… But seriously, I agree that standing up in public and reading from your work is as much a part of it as the actual writing – we are,  after all, in our small way the heirs of Homer and the rhapsodes, who provided the only form of entertainment in their time (well, apart from cutting people to pieces in battle). And an important part of the self-editing process is rereading the text, preferably aloud, to be sure it flows well – especially the dialogue sections. Is that something you do (in a locked room with the curtains drawn, of course – wouldn’t want to frighten the neighbours)? And do you think it’s actually impossible now for authors to ‘make the grade’ if they’re shy and retiring?

MB – I think that sadly we may have got to that point. I think many agents are reluctant to take on new authors unless those authors show at least some enthusiasm for self-promotion. It’s pretty obvious that even though you’ve written a wonderful book, your chances of that book even being taken on if you’re a painfully shy hermit are seriously reduced. It’s not just personal appearances, of course. These days we are all encouraged to engage frequently with social media – Facebook, Twitter, blogs like this one – and all these things involve time that might be better spent writing. But these are the realities of modern-day commercial publishing and speaking personally, I’m fairly happy doing all that stuff. And yes…when I’m not wasting my time on Twitter I am often to be found pacing around my office reading dialogue out loud. As you say, it’s the best way of finding out if the flow is right, if the words you have blithely put into a character’s mouth are bogus. For me, dialogue is everything. A writer may write like an angel when it comes to describing landscape – interior or exterior – but if they have a tin-ear for dialogue, I’m not interested. The writers I have always admired are those that can reveal everything through their dialogue. Who needs clumsy backstory if you can tell a reader all they need to know about a character in a few lines of dialogue? You can see it in novels like The Friends Of Eddie Coyle or in the work of the greats like Elmore Leonard of course and I think a writer like George Pelecanos is wonderful at this. Just fantastic dialogue. I’ve always believed that it’s a good thing as a writer to know your limitations; to have a good grasp of the things you’re good and bad at. I think that dialogue is something I do pretty well, whereas I’m utterly lost when it comes to descriptions of landscape for example. What do you think your particular strengths and weaknesses are? I’m talking about writing, obviously. Your support for certain Scottish sporting teams is clearly a huge weakness…

PJ – It’s never struck me that your descriptions of place are limited, though that may be a) because they’re urban and thus tap into the classic noir setting and b) my critical faculties have been donkey punched by your coruscating passages of dialogue. I agree with you about George Pelecanos, very much the heir to Chandler, Higgins and the still very much alive Leonard. I certainly regard dialogue as more of a means to various ends regarding character and plot rather than the jewel in the crown. Knowing your limitations, as Clint said, is essential. I’m tempted to say – again, not wholly flippantly – that I don’t have any. This is not a boast, rather a desperate attempt to convince myself that the world is my mussel, winkle and, er oyster. Realistically, I know that I have to tone down my desire to write ideas-led and symbolic/metaphorical crime fiction and concentrate more on character development. I think I’m pretty good at plot surprises – I like to keep myself and the reader on our toes. Enough about moi (for the time being). Let’s turn to the issue of the series. You’ve concentrated on DI Tom Thorne, though you have written a stand-alone novel as well as collaborating on a teen fiction trilogy. Was writing a series something you wanted to do from before you were even published? Is it a result of commercial demands since publication? How do you motivate yourself to stick with the same characters, and do you see there being a limit (a la Rebus) to Thorne’s career?

MB – I always wanted to write a series. I had read the Robicheaux and Bosch novels. I had read all of Chandler, I had read Rebus, Resnick et al. Perhaps things might have worked out differently if I had read a few series that were past their sell-by date, but I was lucky enough to have read some of the best and I always wanted to do it. Of course, at the time I sold my first book, series were the Holy Grail and pretty much the first question publishers asked about Sleepyhead – the first book – was, ‘is it the start of a series?’ I could honestly say then that it was (though I might well have lied even if that hadn’t been my plan). Of course, I think things have changed, thanks to the success of standalone books such as Tell No One and Mystic River from authors who, up to that point had been best known for series, but the series remains very popular. I’m still very happy writing the Thorne book, but remain aware that the series has its pitfalls and that you have to take steps to avoid getting stale. For me, this means stepping away from Thorne now and again to refresh myself and to refresh the series. I did this with In The Dark and have just done it again with the book that’s coming in August. That is not only a standalone novel, but something very different to anything I’ve written before. So, I’m fully prepared to fall on my arse. It certainly worked first time around, in that I think the book that followed In The Dark (Bloodline) is one of the strongest books in the series. Taking that break allows you to return to familiar territory fired up and I think the character is re-energised as well. Or you can take a different approach to a series: switch from a third to a first person narrative for example, as Michael Connelly did brilliantly with Lost Light. As to there being a limit…well I hope I know when I’ve reached it. That’s the key, isn’t it? Someone once said that all writers write one book too many. Often it’s more than one, of course, but the trick is knowing when that is. I’ll certainly stop writing about Thorne the day I’m bored with him. If I don’t, then readers will get bored with him too. At the moment, I’m still enjoying it. I like the cast of characters, moving them from foreground to background and vice versa. I like the long threads interweaving…

You’ve written three different series: Quint, Mavros and Wells. All very different, of course. There is far more action and a lot more on-stage violence in the Wells books, which, it could be argued are subsequently more commercial than the earlier books. Having written those earlier books, was it cathartic in any way (we’re back to the Greeks again!) to kick some ass in the Wells books? And what’s it been like going back to Mavros and Quint?

PJ – I fully agree that taking a break from a series – even if it’s to write other series, as in my case – is beneficial to the writer. Whether it is to the reader is another matter – I’ve had people asking for more Quint books for years. That series was more ideas-driven and overtly satirical than my others and a new book would clearly have extra interest, given the current burning issue of Scottish independence. Of course, my 2020s Edinburgh was an independent city-state from the beginning, so it could be argued that I’ve already handled the question. But it would be interesting to consider if a group of city-states (with Glasgow an international centre of the fashion industry, natch) could come together as a nation – a bit like the cities in ancient Greece did when their interests  (occasionally) coincided. The Quint backlist has recently come out in eBook form and I have a deal for a new book – when I get round to writing it. The thing with series is never say never. After the synopsis for the fourth Mavros book was turned down, I went off in a major huff and wrote the first of the Matt Wells books, The Death List – driven by anger and the desire for revenge on my ex-publishers and agent. I certainly had the last laugh as the book is my bestselling title and did well in the US as well as the UK and several other countries. On the surface, it’s true that the Wells books are more commercial, but there’s plenty of satire going on underneath - among my targets have been crime writers, neo-Nazis, Satanists, Christian fundamentalists, the serial killer novel, the FBI etc etc. And just when I thought it was safe to go back in the Aegean, along came an offer for two more Mavros books. That series, featuring a half Scots half Greek missing persons specialist, tries to relate the various very different Greek pasts to the very complicated Greek present. Each book has a different setting (cf Michael Dibdin’s Zen novels) and each is a take on different crime genres – noir (very non-urban), the political thriller, the gangster novel. The most recent, The Silver Stain, set in Crete, has several large digs at Hollywood, as well as describing the horrors of war and their long-lasting effects. As you say, it’s important to ring the changes before the writer and the reader get bored. I’m interested by your forthcoming ‘very different’ novel (and, of course, the idea that you might fall on your arse). Want to tell us anything about it?

MB – It’s about three British couples who meet on holiday in Florida and – in the way that people often do on holiday – become fast friends. As is nearly always the case with these things, this turns out to be a terrible mistake. They stay in touch when they return home and the novel is structured in three parts, each of which revolves around a dinner party at the house of each couple. It’s almost like a classic three act play, though of course it’s still a crime novel, so there is an extremely dark undercurrent. On the last day of their holiday, a girl has gone missing and this very much colours what happens between these  six people when they get back to the UK. So, it’s a far more ‘domestic’ book than anything I’ve written before and is also the first in which a significant amount of the action takes place in the US. The book’s shout line will almost certainly be something like: ‘Perfect strangers. Perfect holiday. Perfect murder.’ You get the idea. So, we’ll see, but I’m very excited about it. As I did with In The Dark, there is a brief cameo at the end from a certain country music-loving copper which will reveal what has happened to Thorne since the end of Good As Dead and therefore where we will pick him up in the book I’m currently writing. More and more I think I’m concerned with the effects of violence on people, the different ways that it touches their lives, more so than the violence itself and the mechanics of it. This is what most of the writers I respect seem to be doing and I’ve noticed that often it tends to be the way writers in this genre go as they get older and more experienced. I’m perfectly happy writing about violence, don’t get me wrong, and I won’t deny that the very act of doing so can often be thrilling in itself – but I think I discovered in this book that there can be as much violence (albeit of a different sort) - as much damage inflicted in a seemingly innocuous conversation between two women over coffee as there is in the sort of scene I might be more associated with. I don’t think I’ll be writing a cosy anytime soon, but there’s not as much…blood. And yourself? You still spraying plenty of gore up the walls?

PJ – You certainly seem to be making full use of both your imagination and your theatrical background there. Good luck with it. Two of my Matt Wells novels were set in the States (Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead). I was fortunate in having an American editor, who corrected my numerous linguistic and other solecisms. As for my current painting-the-walls-red activities, I’ve just completed a book, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it for the time being. So there. I’ll shortly be starting the fifth Mavros novel, The Green Lady, set in 2004 (the year of the Athens Olympics) and dealing with the disappearance of a young girl (the inspiration being a British toddler called Ben Needham, who vanished on the island of Kos in 1991 and has never been seen since, rather than Madeleine McCann).

Moving on, consider this. The crime novel, and I use the term to include everything from cat mysteries to ultra-hardboiled, is a curiously conflicted genre from a theoretical point of view. On the one hand, the detective’s efforts almost always lead to the re-establishment of order, at least to some extent – ie it’s a conservative, maybe even repressive/opium of the masses genre. On the other, protagonists – even cops – are often anti-authoritarian, self-obsessed and problematised by their jobs, often despairing that the criminal side of human nature can ever be brought under control. Do you think this inherent contradiction undermines crime novels? Or are you primarily interested in telling stories that people enjoy, without reference to theoretical and ideological issues?

MB – You’re being awfully mysterious about the novel you’ve just completed. Is it your chick-lit opus? A serial-killer thriller set in the early seventies where a murderer dispatches his victims in accordance with the narrative of assorted prog-rock classics? I’m presuming you won’t dignify those questions with an answer…

So, back to the highbrow stuff. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the detective novel is by its very nature conservative. Plenty of writers use the form as a way into an analysis of the world that is anything but conservative and while I would not categorise myself as such, I reject the idea that it is repressive or an opium of the masses. At the same time, I am firmly opposed to the idea that reading – in whatever genre – must be hard work/good for you. That seems to me to be an antiquated idea that would seem ridiculous were you to apply it to almost any other art-form. Does the majority of rock music or popular cinema have less importance than up-itself tuneless jazz or arthouse movies? I don’t think that any work of art is undermined by the simple fact that it does not have people scratching their chins in a thoughtful manner afterwards. I said something similar earlier, but it seems to be that reading for pleasure is perfectly valid. I start from the premise of a story that readers will enjoy. That enjoyment can take many forms of course and there may well be an examination of ideological issues in there somewhere, but story comes first. Character comes first. I think there’s a danger of over-thinking this stuff. While I myself have often talked about the unique position of crime fiction as a vehicle for looking at the world, there are occasions when crime writers are simply guilty of stamping their feet in the face of literary snobbery, as though saying, ‘God damn it, WE have ideas too! WE are writing thoughtful and analytical stuff too!’ Fine and dandy, but you know what? Sometimes we aren’t and I have no problem with that. Do you not think that the very strength of this genre lies in its size and scope? From Morse to Reacher? From Martin Beck to Stephanie Plum?

PJ – I might have know you’d bring prog-rock in. The previous space was my not dignifying your questions with an etc. There’s so much talk about people’s next books these days – Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc – that I’ve decided to write a book without telling anyone what it is. Obviously that game will have to stop some time, but not yet… Point of clarification – in your last section, you say story comes first. And then you say character comes first. But earlier you said dialogue came first. Is this a three-way tie or are you being the Guy Pearce character in Memento (it’s amazing where Post-Its can be stuck, isn’t it?)? The point is, I suppose, that the writing process is organic and all its components work together like a well-tuned engine when things are going well. Can I press you some of your answers? (Not that I necessarily disagree, but I’d like some more fleshing out – term courtesy of P. Cornwell.) What evidence do you have for crime fiction not being the opium of the masses? The high proportion of books from the genre in the bestseller lists suggests it might be. It’s certainly true that many writers (including moi) use the genre to explore subversive ideas and attempt to overturn ideologies, but is that actually possible in a commercial market, where publishers control what is available to readers? (We’ll talk about eBooks later if we’re still alive.) Put it this way – while some of my favourite crime writers are bestsellers, many aren’t. Would you at least accept that some bestselling crime fiction aims low (and sometimes still misses) in terms of providing reading pleasure of a reasonable quality? How many more unimaginatively written and weakly plotted serial killers novels does the reading public need? My problem (or rather joy) is that I’m doing a PhD in creative writing. That involves both writing a novel and commenting on it critically, so I’m coming at the issue from two rather different angles. Of course, the writer can merrily produce books for large numbers of adoring readers and blithely imagine that there’s nothing ideological going on – but critics will see structures of power and entitlement whatever the writer and reader think. The police procedural is a good example of this (and, in fact, the mysterious novel I’ve just finished is one – oops…). Many people would accept that contemporary British society has a lot going wrong for it, but most cop novels end with the baddies in jail or dead and the status quo re-established, even if the protagonist has been physically or psychologically damaged. This is very different from the great noir writers of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, who were much more pessimistic about capitalist society. Is there a danger that telling a good story is actually telling a pack of lies? (I know you won’t take this personally – I subject my own writing to this kind of questioning.) As regards size and scope – well, I think that there was much more of that about a decade ago, when publishers were less squeezed economically. I’m a hundred per cent certain that the Quint novels wouldn’t be taken on by a major publisher nowadays.

MB – Yes, story comes first. And character. Oh, and dialogue. It’s turning into that old Monty Python sketch. Our first weapon is fear. Fear and surprise. OK, our two weapons are etc etc. I suppose I’m saying that these three things are fairly inseparable and are all more important to me when I begin a book than any ‘issue’. It’s very hard for me to provide evidence as to why crime fiction is not the opium of the masses, though I think Stieg Larsson is probably the crack-cocaine. I’m not sure that publishers control what is available to readers. Yes, they have a very major say in which books end up on supermarket shelves perhaps, but almost all books are available from independent bookshops or online, aren’t they? I’m not sure that bestseller lists have ever been chock-full of ideas-led novels and – playing devil’s avocado here - that may of course be because the majority of readers prefer something a little less challenging. Or occasionally, things that may actually seem a little more challenging because they have an arty-looking jacket and are translated from Norwegian/Danish/Icelandic. Yes, nobody could deny that some crime novels aim rather low, or it might be kinder to say that they could be aiming a little higher, but I’m not quite cynical enough to believe that the majority of writers aren’t at least trying to write a better novel than they did last time. I’m afraid I don’t quite buy into the idea that ‘noir’ writers are somehow, by their very pessimism, doing anything more worthwhile than anybody else. It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with an iota of sense that the vast majority of violent crime is never neatly solved. Loose ends are not tied up in a nice neat bow. The goodies are not wholly good and are often far worse than the baddies. That said, there is a place for those novels that seek to do no more than provide an escape; to ring-fence the darkness. It’s not what either of us is interested in doing, but I’m not about telling anyone what they should and should not be reading. Aside from Jeffrey Archer of course. No excuse for that. And I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that a good story is a pack of lies. You’ll be suggesting that Orcs and Hobbits don’t exist in a minute…

I mentioned buying books online and clearly there has been an enormous change in the way people buy and read books in the last couple of years. I’m less worried about how people read books and rather more concerned about the quality of the books available to them. Now, it’s easy for anyone – and there are plenty of them doing it – to write a novel in a few weeks, slap a jacket on it and bung it up on Kindle for 99p. I have no problem with that per se, but what I do see happening is that this is leading to people demanding that the price of e-books comes down across the board. Readers are being hoodwinked into believing that books are too expensive. The fact is that books remain very cheap in this country (try buying one in Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa) but with the advent of the e-book, people are becoming convinced that they should get them for next to nothing; that they are somehow entitled to get them for next to nothing. They believe – wrongly – that the packaging and production of a traditional book is expensive and therefore an e-book should be substantially cheaper. The fact is that on a £6.99 paperback, the cost of producing the book is about 20p, and let’s not forget that e-books are also subject to VAT. I recently received an e-mail from someone complaining about having to pay £3.99 for one of my e-books.  Why should I pay so much for something as ephemeral as the words?  This is profoundly depressing and more than a little worrying. How do you see this brave new world of e-publishing panning out?

PJ – And our fourth weapon is theme…as demonstrated by the original Swedish title of Larsson’s first book, Men Who Hate Women. Interesting to consider why it was changed so radically in English. Anyway, my point about publishers – and it would apply to agents too - is that they act as gatekeepers as regards whose books are published in the first place. Of course, to jump ahead to your comments about eBooks, that is no longer completely the case, but I’ll come back to that. I don’t think I’d necessarily use the term ‘ideas-led’ to describe the kind of book I enjoy most – and I certainly wouldn’t force it or anything else on others (at least until after the revolution). It’s rather that there are ideas in the books – either in the characters’ heads or in the plot or whatever. Dickens is a good example of a writer who was hugely interested in ideas and even more in their practical application. Interestingly, he was also fascinated by crime and criminals, as well as coming up with the immortal Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, one of the first fictional police detectives. Obviously Dickens was a genius, but he was also a bestseller.

There are contemporary crime writers who take on big issues and sell well – Ian Rankin and Minette Walters spring to mind. In fact, you’ve done so yourself. But there are also a lot who aren’t interested in anything but the old tropes (I LOVE that word, and not just because it comes from the Greek). Of course, as there are plenty of readers who want nothing more than a straightforward read on their way to/ from work – who’s to say that there’s anything wrong with that? It’s still a free country…just. OK with that, Griznahk?

And so to epublishing. It’s HERE and there’s very little we as authors can do about it – except maybe considering doing the whole publishing thing ourselves. There will still have to be gatekeepers, but I suspect they’re more likely to be web-based entities (bloggers, on-line reviewers etc) than traditional publishers. The fate of the old-style music business suggests that publishers who don’t embrace the eworld are doomed. Many of them are trying to do so, to their credit, but change is so rapid that one wonders how successful they’ll be. The issue of price is a tricky one. To be honest, I think the 99p eBook may be a passing phase. Soon most readers will realise that the majority of those are trash. As for the person who believes that words are ephemeral, I refer her/ him to the Roman poet Horace (crazy name…), who correctly foresaw his work (ie his words) as a ‘monumentum aere perennius’, a momument (duh) that will outlast those cast in bronze. The digital age makes this even more certain, although there will be an awful lot of age-proof works floating around in the clouds. It’s immortality, Mark, but not as we know it.

I guess we should end by a quick mention of our most recently published books. What’s yours?

MB – The book that’s out at the moment is Good As Dead, which will be published in paperback in March. The new novel – the fall-on-my-arse one, will be published in August. Just in time for people to read it on holiday as a warning against befriending anyone they encounter round the pool. Yourself?

PJ – My latest hardback, hot off the press (for how many more years will we be able to say that?), is The Silver Stain, the fourth Alex Mavros novel, this one set in Crete and referring to the German invasion in 1941, as well contemporary issues such as dope cultivation.

And having said that’s the end, here’s the real end. Name your three favourite crime novels.

MB – Trust you to finish with the toughest question at all. This list will be completely different ten minutes from now, but since you’re pushing me…OK, three books in no particular order and for very different reasons:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

God, now I’ve thought of three completely different ones…bugger!

PJ – It is a completely frustrating exercise, as you say, but my three would be the Sherlock Holmes stories (not novels), Hammett’s Red Harvest and Ellroy’s White Jazz. Arg, that makes both of us look like macho noirists. To balance that – something MB won’t be allowed to do – ha! – I would say that I also admire Patricia Highsmith and have a soft spot for the glorious Gladys Mitchell.

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Crimeculture was created in 2002 by Lee Horsley and Kate Horsley. Our online magazine features reviews of film and fiction and interviews with writers as well as essays on crime fiction, crime films and representations of criminality. The site receives well over 5 million hits a year from all over the world. Our current series, Pulp Nostalgia delves into writers' childhood memories and their favourite books, films and bad girls.

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