BESTSELLING crime writer Mark Billingham would happily set a murder thriller in the Borders.

Though the background of his famed Tom Thorne series of crime novels is usually north London, the Solihull-born author says a good plot can take place anywhere.

"I would set a novel in any location suggested by the story," he says. "Most of the books are set in north London but the Borders is such a beautiful part of the world – and it's a part of the world I think Tom Thorne would be very uncomfortable in, he's such a city boy. So that would be fun."

The award-winning author was due to return to the Borders Book Festival this year, but will instead appear in the July 26 online offering, in conversation with fellow crime writer Chris Brookmyre.

Billingham will be talking about his 17th Tom Thorne novel, Cry Baby, a prequel to the series set in 1996, at the beginning of the emotionally scarred detective's career.

As a regular guest at the Borders Book Festival and a big fan of the event, Billingham is pragmatic about the "fantastic" festival's change in format forced by the coronavirus lockdown.

"Obviously it can never be quite the same," he tells the Border Telegraph. "One of the big attractions of doing festivals like these is actually meeting readers, and doing a live event in front of a live audience is really not the same as just talking to yourself on a screen.

"Those are the things that I really miss – I come from a massive performance background.

"Getting out in front of an audience and talking about books and doing events is the bit of the job I really love.

"But we have to do what we can."

It might seem odd that an author so keen on "performance" and with a background in comedy (he also appeared in Spitting Image, performed stand-up and co-wrote comedy scripts for TV) would have moved into the dark, seedy and perhaps introverted world of crime writing. So, why did he?

"Because it's what I like to read!" he says. "All the time I was doing stand-up, all the time I was writing bits for telly, I was just devouring crime fiction so it was just a question of biting the bullet and trying to write a crime novel.

"It was always going to be the thing that I'd write; the best thing you can ever do as a writer is try to write the kind of book you'd like to read."

And his success in this genre proves he made the right decision.

He has twice won the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award, won the Sherlock Award for Best Detective Novel Created by a UK Author, and has been nominated for the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year, among others.

Now, having interspersed the Tom Thorne series with standalone crime novels, he has decided to look back at Detective Inspector Thorne's past in the Cry Baby prequel.

"Because it's my 20th book, I wanted to do something a bit different, something special, that I hadn't done before," Billingham says.

"As soon as I started thinking about it, I was just like, why haven't I done this before? It's a great idea!

"I can write about a copper who's younger, who is still married, both his parents are still alive... a very different person.

"I could see how he became that character that I created for the first book. He's less cynical, he's less scarred...

"But also it means I can write about a time that, from a technological point of view, is a much more simple one; so, he's a copper who's not dealing with CCTV and mobile phones and the internet and all that stuff.

"The most advanced thing he's got is a pager."

Mr Billingham confesses that returning to 1996 left him feeling nostalgic.

"It allows you to have a little bit of fun, with hindsight. Thorne at one point in Cry Baby is selling the house he and his wife live in, and he's talking about the ludicrous amounts of money they can get for this house in north London. And now, that seems ridiculous – that they could get £150,000 for a three-bedroom house in north London, when now you couldn't get a one-bedroom flat for that.

"And talking about these new-fangled mobile phones and how they'd never catch on...

"I can remember saying to someone, 'The day I get an answering machine, take me out and shoot me. Ridiculous things!' Never imagining mobile phones would be as ubiquitous as they are now.

"So yes, I was able to be nostalgic and a little bit mischievous."

If newcomers to the Tom Thorne series are worried about reading them in the wrong order, Billingham says Cry Baby is "a perfect entry point" for those who haven't read any of the Thorne books.

"Most people who discover a series of books don't start with the first one. That isn't how I discovered Ian Rankin or Michael Connelly.

"I'd pick a book up, think 'I like this', go to the front and say, 'Oh there's loads of them!', then go back to the beginning to read them in order.

"Obviously, reading a series in order you get a little bit more out of it because you see the characters develop and change but with this one I think you could read Cry Baby and then [first book] Sleepyhead or Sleepyhead and then Cry Baby. It would be a different experience but both would be, I hope, enjoyable.

"Every book has to work as a standalone – that's one of the challenges of the series."

Another challenge could be coping with the impact on him personally of writing about the depravities of crime, but Billingham insists his own dark imaginings are not as degenerate as real life.

"I treat it as an acting exercise," he says of writing crime. "I see writing a novel as a performance, so you have to make every character convincing, step into everybody's shoes.

"Sometimes when you're being an incredibly depraved or really violent character, they're not fun characters to live with, to have in your head, but any time I think I've come up with something too dark and twisted, you just have to turn the television on.

"We live in an age when nothing that I've ever come across in a book, I've not seen 10 times worse happening for real."

And Billingham says his books are "far less violent" as the series has gone on.

"I think they're darker now in a lot of ways," he says, "but there's a lot less violence on the page because you learn that less is more and it's all about letting the readers paint the pictures.

"The readers' imagination can come up with images far more graphic and disturbing than anything I can describe.

"It's more about writing what the violence feels like, rather than what it looks like.

"And as you [the author] get older and you have kids, it changes the kind of things you want to read and the things you want to write and how you write them."

If, as Billingham mellows with age, and his crime novels steer clear of the downright gruesome, what could we expect of a murder plot based in Melrose? Something along the lines of Midsomer Murders?

"You always imagine cosy crime happening in these slightly more rural and idyllic locations," says Billingham, "though I gave up on Midsomer Murders when someone was killed by a giant cheese.

"But in some of these idyllic, bucolic locations there's all sorts of nasty stuff going on under the surface... That's the fun stuff to write.

"When everything looks so perfect and wonderful but there are very dark undercurrents."

Mark Billingham in conversation with Chris Brookmyre can be viewed free through this link.