Friday, 6 July 2012

Guest Post - Why I Became a Crime Writer by John Barlow

Why I became a crime writer.

At the beginning of my writing career I was labelled a ‘literary’ writer. That was fine, and I tried to live up to it. About three years ago I had an idea for a cycle of stories based on the Grimm’s fairy tales, but modern, grown-up versions. Literary ones. I wrote several of these stories. In one of them a snowy-white Hollywood starlet gets poisoned on LSD at an orgy of seven midgets. I did it as an American noir, and I showed it to my agent. Do it as a full-length novel! she said.

The novel, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO?, was shown to half a dozen big publishers in New York. But there were no takers for my porno-noir about a drugged-up fifteen year-old virgin and her well-hung midget lover. Strange. The crime publisher Mulholland very nearly bought it, then shied away. The novel was quickly forgotten, and I moved on.

However, last year I brought the novel out as an ebook, using the pseudonym Joe Florez. I did it as a way of testing the emerging ebook market, and I quite enjoyed the process. At about the same time I made an unusual discovery: my uncle John had been an arms dealer. He was also suspected of stealing munitions from the British army, and when he boarded a flight home from Amsterdam in 1984, British police were waiting for him at Heathrow. It was too late; he was found dead on the plane, his throat cut.

There are all sorts of theories as to what Uncle John had been doing. Apparently he’d made a lot of trips to Libya, and there was also rumours that he was supplying para-military groups in Ireland. His widow claimed publically that he’d been in contact with an organisation (which she wouldn’t name) that wanted him to work for them under cover. She vowed to fight for the truth, but nothing ever came of it. John was quickly forgotten.

What struck me as curious, when I saw the press cuttings and learned something about the case, was that I’d never heard about it before. He was actually a half-uncle on my father’s side, but nobody had ever mentioned the nature of his death or the job he’d been doing. After getting used to the idea that he might have been involved in some pretty awful things, what amazed me is how family life went on regardless, presumably as it had done while he was flying off to Tripoli back when Gaddafi was at the height of his terrorist-supporting powers. Uncle John had two young daughters and lived in a pleasant suburb of Leeds. He had a normal life.

Hope RoadI decided to write a crime novel about this contradiction. HOPE ROAD is not about Uncle John himself, although it is set in Leeds. It’s about a criminal family, and specifically about a ‘non-criminal’ son in that family. I was interested to explore what it might be like to grow up with a career criminal for a father, yet to reject that background and ‘go straight’. That’s what my family must have been doing all those years, tactfully rejecting one of their own, not only the manner of his death, but also what he did.

As I developed my main character, John Ray, I began to think about structure. I wanted him to be an amateur sleuth, using his family’s connections to solve a crime. But I also wanted to bring out the tensions inherent in this situation, and to do this I decided to give him a girlfriend: a police detective. As the novel grew, it drew more and more on the dynamics of this relationship. The detective is called Denise Danson, and I reckon she might get her own plot in a future novel.

Finally, as I was writing the book, two more things happened. Firstly, HOPE ROAD involves a subplot revolving around fake money, and quite by chance I got the opportunity to meet a real money counterfeiter. I learned a lot of details about the ‘funny money’ trade from him, especially about what it’s like to ‘pass off’ counterfeit banknotes in large numbers. Initially it was nerve-wracking to meet a professional criminal. But then I thought back to my own family! Secondly, the West Yorkshire Police were kind enough to offer me access to Leeds CID. I was assigned a detective, and I consulted with him on matters of police procedure and other plot details. Since I was writing about the very same Special Crimes department in Leeds, I considered this a sign: I’d made the right decision to turn to crime.

You can buy HOPE ROAD from, or from various other vendors (see John’s website).


Mark Boss said...

I'm sorry about your uncle's fate, but that is an amazing family story. Joseph Wambaugh said he doesn't write about how cops work on crimes, but how crimes work on cops.

In an odd way, it may be the same for some criminals. For the ones with a family, and perhaps a conscience, I can see how their crimes would work on them.

Thanks for sharing with us.

John Barlow said...

Thanks Mark. I think Wambaugh was right. I never know my uncle, and I guess the fact that we never found out exactly what he'd been involved with has meant that we don't know how much guilt to feel...