The LoveReading team is rather giddy with excitement as we welcome award-winning Mark Billingham as our Guest Editor. He is a particular favourite of ours (and I include our friends, family, and the LoveReading world in general within that). Our Managing Director, Debs, shared a photo with us recently, in it her husband is absolutely beaming after seeing Deb’s proof copy of Mark’s second book in the Detective Miller series, The Wrong Hands.

Since his debut Sleepyhead, the first DI Tom Thorne novel, Mark has been on the bestsellers lists. He writes addictive, edgy, brilliantly plotted novels with unforgettable characters and he is one of my all-time favourite authors of any genre. His stand-alone novels are just as fabulous, I absolutely adored Rabbit Hole where a murder is investigated by DC Alice Armitage on the psychiatric ward where she is a patient. Mark’s latest series which started with The Last Dance welcomes DS Declan Miller, and it showcases Mark’s talent for humour, while keeping a biting reality and darkness to the forefront. His novels are well known for making me smirk, cackle, and full on blurt with laughter, consequently I have to be careful where I read his books!

I was thrilled when I saw Mark’s choice of topic as Guest Editor, it feels oh-so right and I was absolutely fascinated by his thoughts on his chosen books. I will admit to snorting when I read the final line for the last book on his list (you will understand if you’ve read The Wrong Hands).

We asked him a few questions before he shared his selection (and I so wish I had asked him my chocolate question now…):

What do you most admire in other people’s writing?

I admire a great many writers for different things. I hugely admire writers like Chris Brookmyre, John Connolly and Val McDermid for their restlessness; for their refusal to write the same book again and again and to branch out in new directions. I’m in awe of writers like James Lee Burke who can bring landscape to life in ways that have always been beyond me. In terms of those ploughing a fictional furrow that’s similar to my own, I venerate Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch series is quite simply the best there is and who has maintained an almost supernatural level of quality for more than thirty years.

You have some absolutely cracking ‘minor’ characters in your books, who has been your favourite to write and why?

I’m very fond of Declan Miller’s ballroom dancing colleagues who are very much his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ even if they have rather more hip replacements between them. I adore Howard and Mary, the elderly couple who are clearly devoted to Declan, but whose insights – as retired coppers – always prove invaluable. I really enjoyed writing a character called ‘Chesshead’ in The Last Dance. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into details as to why he was given that nickname, but he is based largely on a real ne’er-do-well who was described to me a serving police officer. Every misfortune that I heaped on poor old Chesshead actually happened.

What is your favourite literary festival memory?

I host the quiz each year at the Harrogate Crime-Writing Festival. Once I asked the question, ‘In which Agatha Christie novel does Hercule Poirot die?’ There was a gasp of horror from the back of the room and a woman shouted out (in a voice cracked with shock and horror) ‘What? He dies??’

For how long was DS Declan Miller knocking about in your mind before he hit paper?

Quite a long time, as it happens, because he was a character I’d originally created for a television series that didn’t happen. I eventually got tired of waiting for that green light that was never going to come and decided to write the books instead. It was somewhat frustrating at the time, but it did mean that when I finally sat down to write The Last Dance, I knew Declan Miller pretty well.

How do you make a judgement call on balancing the humour in your books?

Well, if something strikes me as funny it tends to go in, because if something strikes Declan as funny, he comes out with it. With the Thorne books, I was constantly having to curb my comedic instincts because they are in no sense comic novels, but the Miller books have given me the chance to let those instincts run riot. As with all the books I’ve chosen as guest editor, The Last Dance and The Wrong Hands are dealing with serious issues, but I want to look at them through a comic, or tragi-comic prism. To put that rather less pretentiously, there are jokes and, because humour is so subjective, I can’t always be certain that all of them will work. It doesn’t stop me putting them in, though. As to whether I get the balance right…that’s up to the reader I suppose. Having said that, I sometimes think that balance is overrated.

What has been the best non-literary thing to come out of your writing?

Without doubt, it’s the chance I’ve been given to live out rock-star fantasies as a member of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. I teamed up with Val McDermid, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste, Chris Brookmyre and Doug Johnstone back in 2018 to play a few songs together, but what started out as a bit of late night nonsense at crime festivals has rather got out of hand. Since then we’ve ‘murdered songs for fun’ at book festivals and music venues all over the country as well as in Iceland and Canada and – ticking an item of all our bucket lists – in a month’s time we’ll be playing at Glastonbury! The gigs aside (and they are great fun) it’s just a treat to spend time with a gang of mates, being daft and setting the world to rights. That we also get to sing and play together on stage is a bonus. 

It feels as though you have had an absolute blast writing your latest book The Wrong Hands, particularly with the hitman, was he easy or difficult to bring to the page

Ha! My hitman, with his unyielding devotion to Midsomer Murders and a seemingly endless array of aliases, was an absolute treat to write. I especially enjoyed helping him compile his bizarre lists. That said, I loved all the characters in The Wrong Hands. You’re bang on – I had such a blast writing this and I’m glad that’s obvious. When I read a book, I can usually tell if the writer has enjoyed themselves, so I hope anyone reading my latest will have that same experience. And that they can forgive me for laughing at my own jokes. 


Serious Books That Are Funny Or... Funny Books That Are Serious

My Tom Thorne novels are dark police procedurals that deal with some very serious subjects, but there has always been humour in them. It’s pitch-black humour for the most part, more often than not used by characters as a coping mechanism, but the simple fact is that I couldn’t write a book that didn’t contain a few lighter moments. I can’t read anything that doesn’t contain some humour because, to me, that is simply not a reflection of what life is really like. Life is wonderfully and sometimes horribly…tragi-comic. I’ve now started writing a series, featuring a new detective called Declan Miller, in which – despite being very much a study of grief – humour is very much at the forefront, because I firmly believe that humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. 

They never have been.

People often say that humour is the opposite of seriousness and that is simply not the case. The opposite of seriousness is triviality and the best jokes, the jokes that can do something other than just make you laugh, are never trivial. They are actually deeply serious. Here is my favourite example:

A holocaust survivor dies, goes to heaven and meets God. He says to God, “Can I tell you a joke about the holocaust?”

“Go ahead,” God says.

So the holocaust survivor tells God the holocaust joke and God just stares at him. “I don’t think that’s funny,” God says.

The holocaust survivor shrugs and says, “Oh well, I suppose you had to be there…”

This is a prime example of how humour can actually enhance or highlight the seriousness of a subject. Plenty of books can be deadly serious and at the same time very funny and these are the books I turn to again and again. Comedy and tragedy are inextricably entwined and those writers who can reflect this – who can write about serious subjects while also making us laugh – are the ones we should treasure and celebrate. This does not simply mean a gratuitous smattering of jokes or slapstick into the narrative, but rather a skilful weaving of humour into the fabric of the novel itself. At its best, this can not only disarm the reader, but, if you are writing about death, violence and loss – which as a crime writer I usually am – it can sugar an otherwise bitter pill.

There is nothing wrong with books that just make you laugh of course. Who doesn’t love them? But with the world in as much of a mess as it is, I find myself increasingly drawn to those authors and books who use humour to help us process the awfulness and navigate the darkness. After all, sometimes, when things are looking unbearably bleak, the only thing left for us to do is laugh.

It’s inexplicable to me that ‘comic’ novels are often overlooked when it comes to critical appreciation or the doling out of literary prizes. A couple of my recommended reads are by writers who have won such awards – Jonathan Coe and Christopher Brookmyre – but sadly they are the exceptions that prove the rule. This prejudice against humour in fiction is silly and snobbish and I hope it will change, but in the meantime here are five brilliant and very different books that are both serious and funny. That will make you laugh, but will also make you think about why you’re laughing and what you’re laughing at.

If they don’t? Well, I suppose you had to be there… 

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

All this happened, more or less.

Comedy has sometimes between defined as ‘tragedy plus time’ and this is nowhere better illustrated than in Vonnegut’s 1969 classic. In the book for which he will be best remembered, Vonnegut processes his own experience as an American serviceman during the fire-bombing of Dresden, using mordant wit (and aliens) to examine one of the most senseless and tragic acts of war in modern times. Billy Pilgrim is ‘unstuck’ in time, and the dark humour with which his absurdist, time-travelling adventures are infused make this a captivating read. It’s certainly a wild ride, never more so than when Vonnegut introduces a second author – the failed science fiction writer Kilgore Trout – and fiction and historical reality become increasingly blurred and wonderfully bizarre. There are clowns, porn stars and alien zoos; satire, historical fiction and science fiction combining to make this an autobiographical novel like no other. Originally published during the Vietnam war, Slaughterhouse-Five (named after Schlachthof-fünf – the disused slaughterhouse in which Vonnegut was held as a prisoner of war) became an instant counter-culture hit, but remains every bit as relevant today. Arguably, it could not be any more relevant. There has never been a fictional character as simultaneously comic and tragic as Billy Pilgrim and through him, the reader is given a front row seat to a unique show that does not flinch from psychological trauma or from the terrible and often surreally funny insanities of war. Shocking, darkly funny and endlessly inventive, Slaughterhouse-Five has at various times been banned (and even burned) in many parts of the US, which is as good a reason as I can think of to read it immediately.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

If ignorance is bliss, then stupidity must be orgasmic.

Brookmyre is one of those annoying authors who can turn his hand to almost anything. He’s written psychological thrillers, police procedurals, a crime novel set in space and his forthcoming book The Cracked Mirror is a frankly mind-blowing detective novel like no other you will ever read. It’s in his award-winning debut novel though, that his genius as a satirist was first showcased. Brookmyre is a man who has funny bones (I’ve seen him bring the house down at the Comedy Store) but as a writer he’s no simple gag-merchant. His humour is scathing, scabrous and often scatalogical, but there’s always a target and, most importantly, he always punches up.

The novel introduces journalist Jack Parlabane, one of Brookmyre’s regular characters and places him at the centre of a plot involving a good deal of murder and mutilation, all of it done (to bastardise a Kenny Everett catchphrase) in the worst possible taste. Did I say it was scatological? The crime scene upon which Parlabane stumbles at the start of the book is not for the squeamish, but Brookmyre ups the ante in brilliantly absurd style by placing what Scottish readers might call a ‘jobbie’ on the dead man’s mantelpiece.  

I’m not sure how Poirot would have coped.

It’s savagely hilarious stuff, but serves above all as a biting satire, highlighting the parlous state of the NHS thanks to the nefarious activities of politicians, media hacks and most notably, big pharmaceutical companies. Yes, Brookmyre has some very serious points to make, but does so in a way that is always wickedly entertaining. Quite Ugly One Morning has all the excitement and suspense you’d expect from a thriller, but with whip-smart dialogue, a charmingly cynical protagonist and jokes that any stand-up would be proud of.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Only the guilty go to jail.

Well, the title makes it very clear that this isn’t going to be a cosy Christie-esque mystery, but it doesn’t even begin to hint at what’s in store for the reader from this morbidly comic tale of brutal murder and sibling rivalry. Korede and Ayoola are sisters living in Lagos; one of them is forced to spend time cleaning up crime scenes thanks to her sister’s irritating habit of offing all her boyfriends. Is Korede protecting her sister, or enabling her? It’s an odd arrangement, but one that works well enough until the murderous Ayoola starts to get involved with Tade – the young man that Korede is secretly in love with. 

Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Despite the…problematic situation, they remain sisters-in-arms, codependent in a city where life is never easy for young women, even if one of them happens to be a killer. Korede does not want her sister to get caught and Ayoola, while frostier than her sister, remains oddly engaging. How can you not like a serial killer who dances around her bedroom to Whitney Houston?

This is in no sense a conventional murder mystery and not simply because we never really know why the murders are taking place. Braithwaite spares the reader any grisly details, but is not afraid to throw in jokes and even a spot of slapstick comedy when it suits her purposes. It’s a book unlike any I’ve read before or since, because just as Korede knows how to get rid of bloodstains, Braithwaite knows that laughter is the perfect way to soften a dark tale about twisted family loyalty and misogyny.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I could not solve the puzzle of me.

Another debut novel which was a huge hit and won multiple book of the year awards when it was published in 2017, this story of an isolated social misfit could not be more relevant than it is today, with nearly four million people in the UK suffering from chronic loneliness. That it could take such a potentially depressing  subject and make it into the funny and ultimately heartwarming book that launched the ‘up-lit’ trend in UK publishing is testimony to Honeyman’s writing.

Eleanor Oliphant’s regimented life is seemingly a simple one. Viewed as something of a weirdo by those who know her, she works all week, she goes home, she sees nobody. She drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend and talks to her mother on the phone. Then she develops a fixation on the lead singer of a local band and things begin to change. Eleanor is an unreliable narrator, but this is not done in order to trick the reader. It is rather a reflection of the traumatic past that has shaped her life, that has left her with no connection to anyone and which is far too painful to acknowledge. 

Honeyman skilfully drip-feeds information until the truth about Eleanor’s childhood is revealed, but the reader’s journey towards that shocking revelation is one filled with warmth and wit, thanks to the central character’s distinctive and unique voice. Eleanor is hilarious, even if she doesn’t know it and there is plenty of comedy in her awkward interactions with others as she re-enters the world – the doctor, the shop assistant, the pizza delivery man. In fact, she rarely has an interaction that isn’t awkward. Her social ineptitude is hugely funny, even if we gradually come to learn that the reason for it is anything but. It’s an astonishing debut and we can only hope that Honeyman’s second novel isn’t too far away.

Bournville by Jonathan Coe

What should it be called, this special place?

Perhaps more than any other contemporary novelist, the work of Jonathan Coe highlights the captivating narratives that can be created when humour is used for serious purposes. I would go as far as to say that this has always been his mission, which means I could have picked almost any of his novels to illustrate the point. I could have picked The Rotters Club perhaps or Middle England (both of which you should definitely read), but in the end, I chose his most recent novel, Bournville. This is not just because it’s set in my home city (Birmingham, which is also Coe’s) but because it is that rarest of beasts – a genuine state of the nation novel that is profound, thoughtful but also eminently readable. All books are ‘readable’ of course, even the bad ones, but very few will give the reader such a rich, multi-layered and laugh-out-loud funny reading experience. 

Bournville (the Birmingham suburb built by Cadbury’s) begins as the Covid pandemic is about to sweep through Europe, before we travel back in time to examine key moments in the history of Mary Clarke and her extended family. It’s one that reflects the major turning points in the nation’s history: from the 1966 World Cup final to Brexit; the Queen’s coronation to the death of Princess Diana. It’s a book about what brings us together and what drives us apart. It’s a love letter to the people of this country that doesn’t shy away from telling a few painful home truths. It’s a poignant and powerful novel, more so I would argue, than it would otherwise be, without the humour that runs through it like the filling in a Cadbury’s crème egg.