Unbound 2017: Introducing Fun Lovin' Crime Writers

Six of the UK's top crime writers will try not to kill a tune when they hit the Unbound stage as The Fun Lovin' Crime Writers, so we asked them each to soundtrack murder scenes from their own books

Article by Alan Bett | 04 Jul 2017

"It began like all good rock n' roll stories in the House of Blues in New Orleans." Doug Johnstone spins out the origins story of The Fun Lovin' Crime Writers' musical collaboration, when he and fellow novelists Mark Billingham and Stewart Neville took to the stage on the spur of the moment during an open mic cabaret night at a crime writing convention in the States last year. They will now gather in The Spiegeltent and provide the opportunity for their fans to see them step out of their literary comfort zones, offering a musical set of crime-related cult classics, including I Fought the Law, Folsom Prison Blues and a number of surprises. 

The band were asked to compile a murder playlist for The Skinny's Unbound programme, soundtracking crimes from their own books. Suitably, for minds who have put some of the most twisted murders onto the page, they have summoned some some dark and terrifying musical choices: Phil Collins, Coldplay... The Chicken Song? 

Mark Billingham (vocals and guitar): The opening scene of my novel From The Dead sees a man handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car which is promptly doused in petrol and set alight, so Ashes To Ashes or Burn Baby Burn would work very well as soundtracks. Increasingly, though, I think that music itself can be used as a highly effective weapon. I once suggested that gangland enforcers should stop wasting their time and energy using electric drills on people's kneecaps or performing clumsy dental surgery, when any Phil Collins track will elicit the information they're after a lot more quickly. 

Going further, it's possible that a particularly vicious and twisted killer could use music as part of their murderous M.O. Imagine, if you dare, the suffering of a victim whose life ebbs away while they are forced to listen to Agadoo or The Chicken Song. But there are limits of course. The agonising death throes of someone for whom the last sound they hear is Coldplay might well be too much for those who can't bear overly gratuitous cruelty in their crime fiction.

Christopher Brookmyre (guest vocals): Crime Scene Part One by the Afghan Whigs infuses my novel A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away so thoroughly that it is an intrinsic part of the book’s DNA. This song inspired me to create the villain, Simon Darcourt, and is the soundtrack to all his murders, but there is one killing in particular that is quintessential.

Simon is a deceptively charismatic individual, making the reader complicit in his atrocities by inviting them to share his opinions and tapping into their prejudices. He has been forced to sit through a number of humiliating corporate team-building seminars led by a particularly obnoxious twunt of a motivational guru.

“Obviously, he had to die,” Simon observes, and at this point the reader may be thinking he same thing.

The song starts from an ominous, creeping bass intro as Simon sets his plans in motion, building layer by layer into an explosion of sound.

Simon forces his way into his victim’s hotel room and makes him dress up in suspenders, false breasts and a comedy wig before stuffing a plastic Teletubby in his mouth. He then proceeds to strangle him with a silk scarf tied to the bedpost so that his death will look like a particularly humiliating fatal exercise in auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Their revenge fantasy delivered, the song asks the listener the question I want my readers to ask of Simon, the question that inspired me to create the character: “Do you think I’m beautiful? Or do you think I’m evil?”

Doug Johnstone (drums and backing vocals): My latest novel is called Crash Land and has a picture of a low-flying aeroplane on the cover, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out what it’s about. A young guy called Finn meets mysterious older woman Maddie at Kirkwall Airport in Orkney. She gets hassled by oil workers. People get drunk, there’s a fight, then the plane crashes killing most of the passengers and crew. Cheery, eh?

There is a surprisingly number of songs about plane crashes, mostly from indie bands. Car Seat Headrest’s Plane Crash Blues, or songs by Pavement, Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes and Modest Mouse. More generally, Crash by the Primitives springs to mind.

But I reckon the dulcet tones of John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane could soundtrack the sky-based carnage in my novel best. ‘So kiss me and smile for me,’ John whispers, as the fuselage breaks in half and the propeller slices through the cabin. ‘Tell me you’ll wait for me,’ he croons, as the rows of seats get ripped from the floor and thrown out the gaping maw in the plane’s body. ‘Already I’m so lonesome I could die.’ Hmmm, let’s not forget how Denver died in real life, after all.

Also, Leaving on a Jet Plane is a love song, and in my mind Crash Land is a fucked up love story. Val McDermid described it as ‘a powerful argument for not thinking with your dick’. Whether Denver was thinking with his dick when he wrote the song, we’ll never know.

Val McDermid (vocals): Twenty-five years ago, I published my first Kate Brannigan novel Dead Beat. Kate was a private eye based in Manchester and the six books in the series are a chronicle of the city in the 1990s as well as Kate’s cases and her private life. My personal theme tune for the series – and in some respects, its inspiration – was Dire Straits’ moody and atmospheric Private Investigations. It caught my imagination – Mark Knopfler’s stuttering guitar figures, the spoken lyric, the cynicism and romanticism of it all. It resonated deep inside me and became emblematic of what a private eye novel should be. Except that my books have jokes.

The Distant Echo introduces my Scottish cold case detective Karen Pirie. The book is set partly in 1978 and I find music is a great time machine for transporting me back to a particular year. So I was listening to The Jam and The Clash and early Joy Division while I was writing it. The title comes from a Jam track – Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – and I wanted to give the chapters titles of other tracks or little quotes from Jam songs but my publisher refused because of the costs of obtaining permissions. But in my head, I still know which chapter is A Town Called Malice.

Stuart Neville / Haylen Beck (vocals, guitar and harmonica): One of the numbers I sing in the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers’ set is AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. That makes me think about a character from my second novel, Collusion: a hitman called the Traveller. Early in the book, when crime boss Bull O’Kane asks him if he has a problem “doing women and children,” the Traveller shrugs and says, “Depends on the money.” He’s a mercenary bastard, in other words.

You could say the same for the character Bon Scott plays in Dirty Deeds... as he describes all manner of sordid acts he’s willing to perform “for a fee.” On top of that, although I had intended the Traveller to be a gentleman assassin when I first started writing the book, as soon as he appeared on the page, he turned into a barely literate, pig ignorant thug. Which is a description I don’t think Bon Scott would have objected to.

Coming back to my latest book, Here and Gone (written as Haylen Beck), its central crime is a kidnapping rather than a murder. The villain of the piece, Sheriff Ronald Whiteside, is notable for his mirror shades, which he only takes off when he really wants to scare the crap out of someone. Given the American desert setting, I am of course reminded of ZZ Top’s Cheap Sunglasses.

Luca Veste (bass): I can't write without music playing. Silence is my kryptonite. Over the years, instead of removing songs from my playlist, I am constantly adding tracks. Current total – over 600 songs. I throw them on shuffle and get to work writing crime. Songs range from Anyone Who Had a Heart by Cilla Black to Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars to Echoes by Pink Floyd. I have an eclectic taste in music.

Writing a murder scene has its own playlist. I know when those dark and disturbing scenes are coming up, so I'll break and fire up the murderlist. This is a special list of songs that are full of loud guitars, screaming vocalists, and pulsating drums. Rage Against The Machine (Killing in the Name, Bombtrack) feature heavily, as do the heavier songs from Muse (Uno, Psycho) [plus] Rammstein and Metallica. It puts me in the right mindset to spill blood onto the page, driving the anger out, fuelling the rage.

In my upcoming novel, The Bone Keeper, those types of songs aided me to find the darkness within to bring the most terrifying character I've created to date to life. Then, I'll go back to The Carpenters and Fun Lovin' Criminals to write about the aftermath. The victims and the lives they leave behind. Music will always be my first love, so I'm glad it can be of use in my actual day job!

The Fun Lovin' Crime Writers' Murder Playlist

Fun Lovin' Crime Writers, 23 Aug, 9pm, Free https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/themes/unbound