A Series of Hugely Fortunate Events

Mark Billingham's newest thriller The Last Dance just launched this week. Today he visits the site to share what it's like starting a new series with a new protagonist after years of being known for his Tom Thorne thrillers.

No brand-new writer can confidently assert they are writing a series, however much they might intend to. The sobering fact is that most writers will be given a two-book deal, and unless those books sell enough to merit another contract, there will be no more books at all, never mind any series. Twenty-three years ago when I was writing my first novel—Sleepyhead —I had no ambition to write a series, but that quickly changed. I was in the hugely fortunate position to find myself (well, my book) at the centre of a bidding war and the first question that each of the publishers involved asked me was, “Is this the start of a series?” As an actor, I had learned to say yes to pretty much any question I was asked at an audition: “Do you speak French”? Bien sur! “Can you play the trumpet?” Of course, like Dizzy Gillespie. “Can you ride a horse?” I’m a born equestrian etc. etc. The theory being that you can always learn later on. 

Which, in terms of the Tom Thorne series is more or less what I did.

As I gradually came to terms with the strange mechanics of a series, so I slowly learned about my central character. Impulsively, I took the decision not to make any plans for him and not to have his biography in my back pocket. On reflection, it would probably have been sensible to know where he went to school and what he had for breakfast and who all the members of his extended family were, but I didn’t. Because I’m an idiot. Consequently, I have made mistakes and had to answer perfectly reasonable questions like, “Why are his eyes brown in book six and green in book nine?” but ultimately I’d rather have it this way. Thorne can still surprise me and, while he remains unpredictable, I’d like to think he remains interesting, to me and to the reader. Yes, after eighteen books I know him rather better now than I did then but—and this is the crucial bit—I know no more about him than anyone who’s read all the books. If you are one such person then you’re a reader of immaculate taste and perception. 

I thank you and my children thank you.

Twenty-three years down the line, and starting something new, I find myself in a rather different position. I suffer from impostor syndrome every bit as much as the next neurotic writer but I don’t think my publisher will be dropping me any time soon. I could be wrong of course. I could be about to be told that there was a hideous administrative error and that my career should rightly have been given to Mike Bellingham and please can we have all our advances back? But, being cautiously optimistic, I can say with a degree of confidence that The Last Dance will be the first in a series to feature DS Declan Miller. The caveat to that is, of course, that I’m a writer of commercial fiction, so ultimately that decision lies with the readers. If they embrace Declan Miller as warmly as they have Tom Thorne, I’ll be fine. If not… well, I’d rather not think about that, so for God’s sake embrace him. Go on, he’s lovely!

Things are rather different this time in that I know a lot more about Miller than I did about Thorne. He’s a character I created almost two years ago for a television project that hit the buffers. By the time I’d decided to write books about him instead, Declan Miller was someone to whom I already felt very close and hugely keen to write about. He’s a copper, same as Thorne, but that’s just about all they have in common. Returning to work after the death of his wife, Miller is someone who is defined by grief, but for much of the time that is masked by humour; by a compulsion to say exactly what he’s thinking because it feels like the right thing to do, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that it’s very much the wrong thing.

I don’t want to tell you everything about him, because I want readers to discover Miller for themselves (see previous comment about embracing) but here are a few salient biographical facts:

Declan Miller lives alone following the murder of his wife Alex three months before the book starts. Alone, that is, save for the companionship of his beloved pet rats Fred and Ginger and the callers on phone-in radio, with whom he engages in full-blown and often abusive conversations. He is a man who sometimes does things that many would consider ill-advised (like going back to work way too early), and he says things that almost everyone would say were downright stupid/inappropriate/offensive. He has a butterfly mind (if you’re being generous) or is easily distracted (if you’re not, which probably means you’re working with him).

Miller’s best friend Imran is a local park-keeper, but he is also close to the members of his ballroom dancing group; a disparate group of which he and Alex were the stars before her untimely death. Once a week he dances and then afterwards in the pub, over a pint and a variety of savoury snacks, he discusses whatever case he’s working on with his fellow ballroom enthusiasts: two retired coppers; a couple who run a local florist; a company secretary and a young computer nerd. If Miller was Sherlock Holmes (and that would never happen, because he’d think the hat was stupid) Howard, Mary, Nathan and the rest are his Baker Street Irregulars. And they are most definitely irregular…

Like I said, I think it’s probably best if you get to know Miller and decide what he’s like yourselves, but just for reference…

He likes: Rats. Riding on his friend Imran’s big mower. The Beatles.

He dislikes: Pan-pipes, caravans, baked beans in a ramekin, idiots who say they don’t like the Beatles, electric scooters, non-electric scooters, anyone at a call centre who says “yourself” when they mean “you”, and people who put little dogs in pushchairs.

I think that’s enough to be going on with. This time round I fully intend that The Last Dance will be the start of a series and that I’ll be writing about Miller for years to come. That doesn’t mean I’ll no longer be writing about Tom Thorne. In fact, having already finished the second Miller novel, the next book I write will be Tom Thorne #19. I like writing about them both. The yin and the yang. The soccer and the dancing. The rats and the country music.

    Unlike a lot of men, I can multi-task…

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