A gladiator ready to become a fully-fledged thriller writer
For five years Mark Griffin was Trojan, one of the stars of the unlikeliest of TV hits, but after a stint in LA as an actor, he’s publishing his debut Edinburgh-inspired novel
When I read first my first book my life changed. I don’t remember the name of the magical tome, but I do remember there was a mountain of butterscotch toffee at the end of it. Which begged the question – do butterscotch mountains really exist and if so where would I find them?
I cried when I thought Moomintroll and his family might be wiped out by the massive comet that threatened Moominland, and I was constantly looking for a Wishing Chair when my parents went shopping in antique stores. The Magic Faraway Tree was the twisted old oak opposite our house, wasn’t it? By the time I was ten, I was convinced anyone with a tattoo was one of the ruffians from my first Hardy Boys detective book, borrowed from the school library – The Mystery of The Whale Tattoo. Would Frank and Joe round up the thieves and be back in time for some of Aunt Gertrude’s world-famous cookies? Of course they would, but by golly it was close at times.
Enamoured by the stories I was reading, I soon began to write my own and it heralded the arrival of heroes and heroines, gorgons and robots and finally morphed into coldblooded murder when I was 12, having sipped Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide. In my early teens, with encouragement from my mother, I won three successive gold medals in the Hampshire Writing Festival. Then life happened: school, squash competitions, first love, college, job, engagement parties, the opposite of engagement parties, bodybuilding contests, and a television show on ITV called Gladiators. My name was Trojan and alongside Wolf, Jet and Shadow, I chased members of the public for five years (and yes – the Lycra still fits).
Then in 1995 I was cast as
Action Man in an American TV series that filmed in Los Angeles. I had the prerequisite “eagle eyes” and “gripping” hands which enabled me to acquire my green card and eventually my citizenship. I stayed in LA for 14 years as a full-time actor and at the same time turned my literary attention to script writing and development. I wrote music video treatments for director Steve Carr and artists such as Lil Zane, Ice Cube and Korn, and cut my teeth as a reader at CAA literary agency where I read hundreds of scripts and novels for Warner Brothers, 20th Fox and Universal Studios, some of which I helped develop and eventually set up at the various major studios around town.
With an offer of work, I returned to London until my heart was captured by a Scottish lass, and how appropriate it seems writing this, that my first novel, When Darkness Calls, began its life on the streets of Edinburgh.
I was living in Bellevue Crescent, in the New Town, finding it hard to get any acting work so decided to write something for myself. I had toyed with the idea of creating a street theatre murder/mystery play for years and now seemed like the perfect opportunity. What better backdrop to scatter ravenous actors than the dark alleys of Mary King’s Close and the bustle of the Royal Mile? The premise was simple: a serial killer is on the loose and needs to be caught. Cue heroine to catch said killer and a sociopath who loves to murder in the dark, and finally cue enthusiastic members of the public who have a desire to become Sherlock Holmes.
Alas, before this endeavour could draw blood, my girlfriend and I split, so I wended my way back to London, a sad Sassanach, with a suitcase and the husk of an idea. A year later I was back in Los Angeles filming and on my last night in town had dinner with a very good friend of mine – screenwriter Micky Levy. She asked what I was writing at the moment and over dessert and coffee, I happened to pitch my street theatre idea on which she mused – “I like that”. “The street theatre?” I asked. “No. The female heroine called Holly and a serial killer. You should write that.”
So I did.
The screenplay was entitled The Neverfind, and took a year to write. I sent it off to all the Los Angeles agencies who loved it, chewed on it with a rather bovine complacency but refused to engage their canines, and so in February 2016, four years later, whilst screaming my way through another script, my mother called me and mentioned a novel writing competition sponsored by the Daily Mail and Random House publishing: they were looking for “the new Agatha Christie”. Cyanide anyone? All my years had been spent working on feature scripts and short films, and apart from The Neverfind, I had nothing in that genre. With the deadline fast approaching I attempted some cross-pollination and took eight pages of the screenplay and turned it into the required first 5,000 words of a novel. If I remember correctly I sent the double spaced manuscript on the last day of submission and thought nothing more of it.
Mid-april I got a call from Luigi Bonomi, one of the judges and now my agent. He told me I had been short-listed in the top five out of 3,500 entrants and would I like him to rep me. Yes, I said. Could I send the rest of the manuscript by the end of the week? Yes, I said. Needless to say that didn’t happen. I consider myself a whippet on QWERTY, but
I defy anyone to knock out 95,000 words in three days – infinite monkey theorem excluded. A few phone calls and several months later and Luigi said he was delighted with what I had done and sent it out to prospective publishers. We received a pre-emptive offer from Harper Collins in Germany the next day and Little Brown Book Group picked up all English speaking rights a few weeks later. I am still somewhat surprised when someone actually reads something I have written, and here I am two years later on the eve of my first published novel, still not quite coming to terms with what has happened.
So what began as a street theatre event near the Burke & Hare pub on the Royal Mile entitled Holly Bell Is Missing, became The Neverfind screenplay and then finally became the novel, When Darkness Calls – about Holly Wakefield, a forensic psychologist, asked by the Met police to help track down a serial killer. Will she capture the psychopath and be back in time for Aunt Gertrude’s cookies? Hopefully.
As of today I’m finishing two novels, three screenplays and a play, and am realising that what has always been a passion has now perhaps become an obsession. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t write, mixing barbwire letters to release the voices from within. A few lines here, a paragraph there, a thousand words to be mulled over and edited tomorrow with fresh eyes and another coffee. Nobody has ever actually asked me why I write, however, and perhaps deep down I’m still searching for that mountain of butterscotch toffee.
But the reality is, I’m probably looking for something else.
Mark Griffin, main, came up with his idea for a novel while living in Edinburgh; as Trojan in ITV show Gladiators, below, and above right with James Crossley as Hunter and presenter Ulrika Jonsson
● When Darkness Calls by Mark Griffin is published in paperback today by Piatkus, £8.99.