I’m delighted to take part in the Two O’Clock Boy blog tour, and to interview author Mark Hill, whose dark, brooding and tightly plotted debut is attracting all of the right sorts of attention. Introducing DI Ray Drake, anti-hero cop with something to hide, and his determined, newly promoted sidekick DS Flick Crowley, Two O’Clock Boy undoubtedly marks the beginning of a compelling series, from a exciting new voice on the crime scene. Kicking off with the violent murder of a family, we are thrust inside the mind of a young killer whose motives are rooted in angry confusion and in a sea of conflicting emotions, a mind capable of plotting more violence …
And violence – in thought and action, in the present and the past – underpins this startling thriller, which jumps between a series of murders (or assassinations) in the present day, and the activities that took place in a children’s home thirty years earlier. Longacre Children’s Home is a mini-empire of corruption and abuse, masterfully controlled by manager Gordon Tallis, until the arrival of teenager Connor Laird, whose terrifying disregard for the ‘rules’ shakes things to the core, setting off a cataclysmic series of events whose reverberations are experienced decades later. As Drake and Flick battle with personal demons and troubled home lives, they are thrust into an increasingly troubling case, with an elusive perpetrator whose lust for revenge sends the body count soaring. With a host of unreliable witnesses, beset by faulty or false memories, a murderer whose game of cat and mouse is designed to unpick the darkest of secrets and spare no one, and a pair of cops with their own agendas, Two O’Clock Boy is a twisty and twisted thriller, with multitudinous strands – motives, violence and victims – permeating a plot that goes flying in all directions, before being woven together at its seamless conclusion.
This is a masterful debut, the writing taut, the characterisation memorable and finely drawn, the story chilling and thought-provoking, the prose spare, terse and brutally elegant. The ‘whys’ are painstakingly laid out, forcing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and to battle with the moral ambiguity that underpins the actions of characters both good and bad. Two O’Clock Boy is a triumph! I cannot wait to see what Mark Hill will come up with next.
TWO CHILDHOOD FRIENDS … ONE BECAME A DETECTIVE … ONE BECAME A KILLER…
Thirty years ago, the Longacre Children’s Home stood on a London street where once-grand Victorian homes lay derelict. There its children lived in terror of Gordon Tallis, the home’s manager.
Then Connor Laird arrived: a frighteningly intense boy who quickly became Tallis’ favourite criminal helper. Soon after, destruction befell the Longacre, and the facts of that night have lain buried … until today.
Now, a mysterious figure, the Two O’Clock Boy, is killing all who grew up there, one by one. DI Ray Drake will do whatever it take to stop the murders – but he will go even further to cover up the truth.
Q&A with Mark Hill:
- First of all, what sparked the transition from crime blogger to author?
I always wanted to be an author, but it was never my intention to become a book blogger. It sort of came about by happy accident, and you can blame Orenda superstar Steph ‘Deep Down Dead’ Broadribb for that. I did the first year of a writing MA with Steph – but dropped out a year in because I couldn’t cut the mustard. Steph told me all about her blog Crime Thriller Girl, and how it was a good way to get to know the industry. So I blatantly copied her. She had already taken the name Crime Thriller Girl, sadly, so I called myself Crime Thriller Fella. It proved a great way to get to know people in the crime fiction community, but also it helped me keep abreast of trends and markets – and, of course, read lots of fabulous books. I think we all tend to read stuff we know we’ll like, but reviewing was a good way of reading books I wouldn’t usually pick up. I also got to meet lots of nice people. I was a bit of a fly-by-night as a blogger, and I discovered it was actually bloody hard work, so I take my hat off to all bloggers who stick at it year after year.
- Having written critiques of other crime writers’ work over the years, did you feel exposed putting your own book out there for review?
I did a bit. I tried to be constructive when reviewing other people’s books, but it’s certainly odd then putting your own work out there. In general, the reviews for Two O’Clock Boy have been very good, so I’m a happy bunny, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable reviewing other people’s work anymore. Maybe that’ll change in the future, but right now I’m enjoying reading solely for pleasure. I say for pleasure, but my books are filled with little post-its. I’ll make a note of this and that. If a sentence pleases me, for example, I’ll want to return to it later to try and figure out why.
- Underpinning a complex narrative and some very unsettling events is the concept of good vs evil … and the nature vs nurture debate. Was this something that you set out to address?
No, I wanted to write a thriller that would keep you awake all night! Having said that, a lot of people have commented on the way many of my characters are morally ambiguous. I wasn’t interested in writing any moustache-twirling villains, and I don’t believe anyone is born evil. I think we all have our good sides and our bad sides, but some people are so damaged by their experiences that their sense of right and wrong is hopelessly out of kilter. People do terrible things for the right reasons and the right things for terrible reasons – and that’s where all the very best drama and conflict lays for me.
- Some of the characters who were deeply damaged by the events that take place at the children’s home are unable to move forward in their lives, carrying with them the trauma they experienced; others are able to put it behind them. Do you think this is an accurate portrayal?
I think all the characters who were at the home are ultimately damaged by that experience, but some conceal it better than others. There’s a character in Two O’Clock Boy called Elliot, who I like very much, who embodies that struggle. Actually, there’s a deleted scene I was sorry to see go which featured a former resident of the home who had achieved of kind of happiness in her life – but then she’s burned alive. Sorry.
- You kept the most sinister of the abuse behind closed doors, suggesting rather than graphically portraying. Was there a reason for this?
I had no interest in writing anything graphic – I don’t think I could. Two O’Clock Boy is ultimately an entertainment. All the most sinister and traumatic things are implied – you only have to look at the state of the Longacre, the children’s home featured in the book, and the people who work there, to know exactly what’s going on. And it’s more powerful like that, I think.
- All of the characters in your book are victims in one way or another, which guides their actions and interactions. Similarly, most have secrets that they are determined to protect. Do you think that this is reflective of most people?
We all have secrets, I think. Some of them are teeny-weeny and some of them mind-blowing. I often meet people and wonder ‘what’s your secret? What’s the thing you really don’t want the world to know about you?’ Secrets – preferably the darker the better – are the lifeblood of crime fiction, and catnip for a writer.
- It is said that the best crime fiction unpicks social issues and sets out to reveal the underbelly of society, and yours is no exception. Did you set out to expose? And, if so, was it ever a struggle to balance entertainment and a page-turning read with an important message?
Well, this is nice. I never imagined Two O’Clock Boy would be praised for tackling social issues. The truth is – and for goodness sakes don’t tell anybody I told you this – I wanted to tell a good story, but I also wanted to be true to the characters, and to portray their experiences and struggles in an empathetic way – and then, of course, kill them.
- The plotting is immaculate, drawing together multitudinous threads. Did you find it difficult to keep track of it all? Do you plot in advance?
I’m useless at crosswords and I’m the gawping guy you see on the tube whose pen hovers over the Sudoku puzzle but never quite touches the page – but I do like a nice complex plot. I had a lot of fun putting it all together. I do plot fastidiously, but stuff always comes out of the blue. It was always my intention to write two different timelines and then see how I could smash them together into a single narrative. I wanted to see if I could do it, and the truth is I get bored easily, so writing in two time periods nearly 40 years apart was a way of good way of creating a diverse group of characters and situations. I think it all worked out – nobody has told me otherwise! I’m making my life even more difficult for the second Drake book: it’s going to feature two timelines, one of which unfurls backwards.
- There are stark and moving portraits of the children caught up in the abuse at the children’s home … what inspired these, and did you draw upon recollections of your own childhood and adolescence to bring authenticity?
My childhood was very happy and – dare I say it – kind of humdrum. My greatest fear was missing The Six Million Dollar Man on telly. I don’t know where any of this stuff comes from.
- One of your main characters, Drake, is, in fact, an anti-hero and revelations the come to the fore at the conclusion of the book will raise questions and undoubtedly divide your readers. Did you feel empathy for Drake while writing him, and how important was it for you to create a likeable character?
Drake’s got a lot on his plate, and he’s perhaps not thinking straight when he does some of the things he does. I like him, but then I wrote him, and certainly feel empathy for him. But whether he’s likeable is up to each and every reader who picks up the book. At the very least I hope they find him a fascinating character, and challenging, unpredictable, exasperating and – maybe – a little bit dangerous.
- What was your inspiration for Flick?
I wanted to write a character who was good at her job and nobody’s fool, but also a little bit challenged by the world. She’s kind of like me, I think – certainly more so than Drake – in that she thinks she’s in control, but she’s also a bit needy. She’s taller than me, though. I like Flick, I like her tenacity, and I look forward to seeing where she goes next.
- What are you reading now and what would you recommend?
I’m re-reading a lot of Mark Billingham at the moment – I’d almost forgotten what an astonishing writer he is. This year I’ve read some fabulous books, among them Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall, Nicolas Obregon’s Blue Light Yokohama, Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed – the follow-up, out soon, is apparently a corker – Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and a tremendous book – you may have heard of it – called The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn.
- What books and authors have had the most influence on your work?
I usually decline to answer this as I find it difficult to single out certain writers. Two O’Clock Boy is a police procedural and a psychological thriller, and also in its humble way, a historical thriller, so clearly a lot of crime authors have influenced it – a whole lifetime’s worth. But I also watch a lot of movies, and read a lot of scripts and have watched a hell of a lot of TV boxsets. Hopefully, I’ve brought something to the party, too, although I couldn’t tell you what it is.
- What’s next?
I’m writing the second book in the series, and if you thought Two O’Clock Boy was hardcore, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
About Mark Hill:
Mark Hill is a London-based full-time writer of novels and scripts. Formerly he was a journalist and a producer at BBC Radio 2 across a range of major daytime shows and projects. He has won two Sony Gold Awards.
You can find Mark on Twitter at @markhillwriter
Two O’Clock Boy
Published: 6 April 2017
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