February 23, 2012

Guest post: Novel Research by John Barlow

Today I'm really, really excited because I'm hosting John Barlow! He's recently published Hope Road, and kindly agreed to share a little about his writing experience with us. And how he shared! I dare you to read about how he approached Hope Road, and about the book itself, and not be tempted to read it! Read on, because if you like what you see, there's an upcoming surprise!

Author: John Barlow
Title: Hope Road
Series: LS9 (#1)
Publisher: John Barlow (December 13th 2011)

"You can't change your past. But what about your future?

John Ray, son of crime boss Antonio 'Tony' Ray, is the straight one of the family. With a successful business and a lifestyle to match, he wants nothing to do with his father's criminal world. But what does that world want with him?

A young prostitute is found dead in John's car, and Freddy Metcalfe, his best friend and employee, is framed for her death. Freddy denies everything but it's an open and shut case: he's going down for murder. John sets out to find the real killer.

But things get complicated. A stash of counterfeit money was also found in John's car, and the police seem more interested in that than in the dead girl. Then Lanny Bride turns up; one of the north's most ruthless criminals (and an old friend of the Ray family), Lanny is desperate to know who killed the girl. But why? Meanwhile, Freddy is too scared to talk to anyone, even his lawyer.

John's police detective girlfriend, Denise Danson, has been warned off the case by her boss. But she doesn't believe Freddy is guilty, and secretly helps John look for the murderer. The problem, though, is that uncovering the shocking truth about the girl's death will force John to confront his own criminal past and risk destroying his future, as well as losing the only woman he's ever loved." GoodReads' Blurb

Crime fiction: the fictional and the real.

by John Barlow
author of HOPE ROAD

Write about what you know! That’s what they say. And it makes a lot of sense. If a writer can draw on personal experience - a specific setting, a series of events, real people - it makes the creation of the fictive world easier and makes their story more believeable.

But we don’t always know. That’s the problem, especially with crime fiction. Most of us have never killed anyone, yet a lot of crime fiction revolves around murder. We therefore depend to a large extent on research and imagination.

It’s not just murder, either. When I began planning my mystery HOPE ROAD, I realised that I needed to know more about British police procedure. I was fortunate in that the West Yorkshire Police assigned me a detective from CID (serious crime dept), which was amazingly useful, especially since I was writing about the very same department.

HOPE ROAD also involves counterfeit money, which has long been an interest of mine. If you’re interested in this area of crime, Stephen Jory’s FUNNY MONEY is a good starting point, as is the more recent THE ART OF MAKING MONEY. Through a combination of sheer good luck and persistence, I got to meet and talk to a professional money counterfeiter last year. I ended up sitting in a Walthamstow cafe discussing the best way to pass off fake banknotes with someone who did it for a living! Great research, but that’s another story...

With the research for HOPE ROAD going well, I still felt there was a bit too much second-hand stuff in the book, and not quite enough of the human/personal angle that I wanted for a psychological mystery. What happened next was not particularly pleasant, but for a novelist it was priceless: I discovered that my uncle John had been an international arms dealer and thief. This is how it happened.

John Lord Longstaff (b. 1948, d. 1984) was from my father’s side of the family. He was a half-uncle, and live about five miles away from us, yet I knew little about him. Then, about a year ago, somebody from the family was showing me the family tree. “And that’s John, of course,” he said. “Murdered by Gaddafi.” As you can imagine, that got my attention...

Uncle John was a legal arms dealer in the 1970s and ’80s. This article in the British Gun Mart Magazine describes him as ‘...the West Yorkshire based shooting entrepreneur and international arms dealer John Longstaff [who had] done much to promote handloading in this country.’ So, he was well thought of in his profession. He was legitimate. In the world of international arms dealers, though, he was small fry. As a novelist, this is the kind of thing that I find interesting. Because whereas he dealt in weapons of death, he also sold military memorabilia, medals, peaked caps, that sort of thing. Not exactly Khashoggi. In fact, he led a very ordinary life, running a small business and living in a modest semi in a suburb of Leeds. When he died he left a young wife and two daughters, aged eight and two.

The manner of his death, however, was not ordinary. He was found dead on a flight from Amsterdam in ’84, slumped in the toilet, his throat cut. An apparent suicide, complete with suicide note. Throat? Who kills themselves by slashing their own throat? His wife didn’t believe it, and kicked up a fuss, challenging the coroner’s verdict of suicide. And that’s when the shit really started.

It seems that John had been making trips to Libya. No one knows why, but his wife claimed he’d been contacted by someone about working undercover. Gaddafi? Whatever the truth, what we do know is that the police were waiting for him at Heathrow the day he died. He was suspected of handling munitions stolen from the British army (the munitions were later found in his warehouse). An intelligence report then suggested a possible connection with para-military organisations in Northern Ireland. This was never proved, but it certainly shocked the family.

Indeed, the family’s reaction to his death is what I found most interesting. Because I’d never heard of any of this. The family never talked about him at all, as if my mutual consent the entire clan had decided to bury their darkest secret, to forget all about John and his suspicious death on a plane. I’ve drawn on this for HOPE ROAD, not the gun-running (that’s going into the next book), but the ways in which crime can be concealed within a family, the boundaries between right and wrong redrawn for convenience and respectability.

People sometimes walk a thin line between criminality and the law-abiding life. Having spoken at length to CID officers about criminals and their ways of working, I’ve developed an interested not so much in crime, but in the everyday lives of those who commit crime on a regular basis. Career criminals often have legitimate businesses and lead respectable, normal existences. Was that uncle John’s case? Did he fall into crime by accident, or through desperation? Or was that house in Pudsey merely a front, concealing something far more sinister?

I dunno. But having thought long and hard about this as a possible source for a novel, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to invert the scenario: an openly criminal family in which the black sheep is ‘straight’. I want to explore how the criminal and non-criminal minds meet, how one plays into the other, and how the two can never really be separate in a family setting. How does a person carry the knowledge that their close relatives are criminals? Does it condition their own life, and if so, in what way?

Write about what you know! Well, I know a little about crime. But I know a lot about the dynamics of a family straining to conceal the knowledge of criminal activity, and never quite knowing how far or how deep that activity went. As for uncle John, I’ll probably never get to the bottom of his secret life. Would he have liked HOPE ROAD? I’ll never know that, either.

So, you did find intriguing, didn't you? I knew it! Then, stay tuned because John has kindly offered to endorse the Leap into Books giveaway that starts next week!


  1. I guess every family has one of those uncles. :)
    I love this post, I always enjoy knowing where an author is coming from and I do appreciate when people write about what they know. This is a minor case of the opposite, but recently I'd read a book that had an Italian character, one of the main ones, in fact, and the author clearly doesn't speak Italian because the sentences he kept throwing around were all wrong wrong wrong. It was slightly infuriating.

    Anyway, I really like the synopsis and I'm in dire need of a change, so you bet I'll be around for the giveaway.

    1. Oooh... I've seen those issues too! Well, more often with Spanish. I've ran into a good number of indie authors who have chosen to add Spanish expressions to their text and, being Spanish myself, it has been a painful experience for the most part. So, yes, I love to see when an author has done their research, and where they konw there they're coming from!

  2. First of all, how can I pass up a dare? haha

    Second, isn't it sad that I see 'prostitute found dead' and my interest peaks like 70%?

    Third, WOW... that is crazy! What a horribly fascinating story about uncle John!

    1. Hahaha! I'm super glad you've fallen for the dare! And it's okay, my interest peaked when I saw "England setting" so we all have out quirks.

      I was super impressed by the uncle John story too!

  3. I knew John Longstaff pretty well. My husband and I got all our gunsmithing equipment from him when we lived in Yeadon and we reloaded our own ammunition. We had several guns that John sold us and one he gave me as a gift which he recommended I didn't add to my firearms licence ;) I don't believe he would commit suicide either, he adored his family and, if he'd wanted to bow out of life, would have made provision for them and done it in a less dramatic way. Fact is, he did NOT want to bow out, he was killed.

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