Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Story Behind the Story:
“Hope Road,” by John Barlow

(Editor’s note: This 30th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series welcomes to The Rap Sheet prize-winning British wordsmith John Barlow. Among other things, he’s the author of Hope Road, a recently released electronic novel and the first installment in his LS9 crime series, “about criminals, their families, and their victims.” Below, Barlow recalls how discoveries about a relative, plus several coincidences, persuaded him to pen his first serious crime novel.)

I’ve always written about crime. There are three unpublished manuscripts under my bed, all full of dead bodies. Yet despite being a jobbing writer by trade, I’d never published any crime fiction. By the time I hit my 40s, I’d published literary fiction, long and short, a travel book, food journalism, and as a ghost writer I’d done children’s fiction, humorous fiction, and a financial thriller (of which more below). It seemed as if crime was about the only genre I hadn’t written professionally.

Then three things happened at once:

1. I discovered that my uncle John was an international arms dealer.
2. I got to meet a money counterfeiter.
3. The West Yorkshire Police lent me a detective.

Suddenly, it seemed that I really should write a crime novel. So I did. This is how it happened …

Uncle John Sells Guns
There are one or two dodgy characters in my family. My great-great-great grandfather once stole a mutant “winged” cat from some gypsies and exhibited it at local fairs, and he was later sent to Wakefield Gaol for the ridiculous crime of stealing a golden weather cock. That same man was also notorious for having beaten a horse to death with a table leg.

I know stories like these because Frank Barlow, my uncle, has spent the last 50 years researching our family history (which includes French Huguenots and the illegitimate son of a scullery maid, in case you’re asking). About a year ago Frank was showing me the family tree. His finger hovered for a second over the name John Lord (b. 1948, d. 1984). “And that’s John, of course,” he said. “Murdered by Gaddafi.”


It’s funny how the most significant stories in a family’s past are often deemed unmentionable, as if by mutual consent the entire clan refuses to talk about some dark secret that they all share. No one had ever mentioned John Lord to me. And now it turns out that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had him killed.

John Lord was actually a half-uncle on my father’s side, and his family were all a bit strange. His granddad invented SPIK in the 1940s (long before political correctness), a powder that cleaned carpets. He also had a hat shop in Leeds with a small pigsty behind it. My dad’s aunt Jean used to work in the shop as a teenager, and one day she discovered 20 crates of army-issue rifles in an outbuilding next to the pigs. Yes, that side of the family certainly have form.

Now fast-forward two generations. My uncle John was an arms dealer based in Leeds, England. He was licensed to carry guns, and back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, before airports were like Fort Knox, he used to take firearms on business trips with him, carrying them in a specially designed attaché case which he had to hand over to the captain when he boarded a flight.

In the world of arms dealers, though, he was small fry. As a novelist, this is where I find it interesting: because he was an international arms dealer, yet he also dealt in military memorabilia. So, he’d sell you a commemorative teaspoon from the Battle of Waterloo, or a crate of land mines. When he died he left a young wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 2, in a small suburban house. It seems extraordinary to me that someone who peddles the instruments of death can construct such a “normal” life around himself. It’s almost more shocking than if he’d been a mobster.

John had made various trips to Libya. Why does an arms dealer go to Tripoli in the early ’80s? Your guess is an good as mine. His wife would later claim that he’d been in contact with someone about working undercover, though she didn’t know who. Whatever the truth, on the last leg of one such trip home he was found dead in the plane’s toilet, his throat slit. An apparent suicide, which his wife didn’t believe. She vowed to get to the truth, taking the case to the coroner and speaking to the press, the whole media thing.

It was then discovered that he’d been dealing in munitions stolen from the British Army. Not a great legacy to leave behind, then, spy or not. By this time the family had stopped talking about John Lord. No one so much as rang his father on the day of the funeral.

The case then surfaced in an intelligence report, in connection with possible paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland. The final nail in the coffin: John might have been supplying the IRA with arms filched from the British Army. As they say, you don’t choose your family ...

(Left) Author John Barlow

What really fascinates me, and forms the basis of Hope Road, is the fact that real-life criminality is often drawn not in black and white, but in shades of gray. People sometimes walk a thin line between criminality and the law-abiding life. Indeed, criminals often have legitimate businesses, lead respectable lives, and sometimes find themselves involved in crime almost by accident. This is certainly the case with the next person ...

The Alchemist
I’m currently ghost-writing a financial thriller called Headless, which is part of a broader exploration of international finance by the Swedish conceptual artists Goldin+Senneby. I met up with those artists in Paris last year to discuss this project. By chance, I’d been reading Stephen Jory’s autobiography, Funny Money. I’ve been interested in counterfeiting for years, and Jory was the UK’s most successful counterfeiter. He started his career making fake perfumes, and moved on to banknotes after getting involved in printing perfume boxes (the most important thing to get right, apparently, is the fake box).

“Jory?” one of my Swedish collaborators said. “Ah, yes, I met him not long before he died. I was in London researching a project about money …”

This was Stephen Jory, the British counterfeiter of the 1980s and ’90s. At one point his bogus notes were thought to represent two-thirds of all British fakes in circulation. It was an amazing connection to have. And although it was too late to meet him, I did manage to get the name of someone who, in turn, put me in touch with someone else … a guy who was still printing phony currency.

We met in a coffee shop in Walthamstow (East London) and he explained how it works. You want to know the secret? Apart from the printing process itself, which he wouldn’t talk about at all, the key thing is not to produce too much. Keep your workforce down to a minimum, prefer lower returns over higher risk … OK, it’s not rocket science.

But two things struck me about this guy. First, although he was understandably vague about how he passed his fake notes off, he admitted that he was absolutely obsessive about getting the details right every time, making it very difficult for the notes to be traced back to him. Second, he got into the counterfeiting racket by accident, through working in a printing shop, and he had (and still has) no involvement in any other kind of crime. In fact, he had some bullshit theory about how he was helping the government by increasing the money supply and effectively stimulating the economy! I had approached my meeting with him full of nerves (I almost vomited as I sat and waited in the café), but ended up liking his honesty and practical approach. He also referred to alchemy several times, as if he fancied himself as some sort of latter-day magician, turning worthless paper into hard cash.

By this time I was working on the plot of a novel that involved a counterfeit-money operation. However, when I offered to explain the plot he wasn’t at all receptive (I have a great method of passing off the funny money!). Keep it to yourself, he said, as if I shouldn’t spill the beans. But I do, in the novel.

An Inspector Calls
As the plot for this book about counterfeit money took shape, I realized that I simply didn’t know enough about police procedures to get the basics right. At this point the work was going to be a general, mainstream novel. But I still needed to get the police details right. So I wrote to the West Yorkshire Police to ask if I could put an advertisement in their in-house magazine, looking for a detective who might be interested in helping me out. Instead of running the ad, they assigned me a detective inspector from CID (serious crimes) to whom I was given special access.

Shortly after meeting him, it became clear that the plot for my novel, Hope Road, interested him more than I’d expected. He was impressed by my plan for passing off fake banknotes, and together we went through every plot point until they were all smooth and convincing. I’ve since discovered that cops love talking about crimes, especially ones they’ve been involved in. And as we discussed my proposed novel, I soon realized that so did I. As Truman Capote said, there’s only one way to tell any story. Hope Road was a crime novel, pure and simple. It had just taken me some time to work it out.

So that’s the story behind the story of my latest book, which is now the first of a nine-book series of crime mysteries. I have drawn on my own family’s murky past to create the central family in the novel, and I’ve had invaluable insight into the counterfeiting business. Finally, I was given an inside line on the very police department that I’m writing about. It would have been stupid not to turn to crime fiction.

Finally, Why an E-book?
Well, there will be a paperback available on Amazon soon. But Hope Road is an e-book to start with. Before this, I’d published books in the United States with HarperCollins and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Both are massive houses and both were wonderful to work with. But even as I was writing Hope Road, the book industry was changing dramatically. E-books, especially self-published ones, and especially genres such as crime (think John Locke, Joe Konrath, Kerry Wilkinson … even Lawrence Block), were making real waves in the industry. 2012 was set to be a huge year for electronic books, and I wanted to be a part of the revolution. So I made the decision, and I jumped. My agent was unsure. But I wasn’t; I actually wanted to self-publish (imagine a published author saying that 10 years ago!).

Will it pay off? I dunno. It’s a leap in the dark. Let’s see.

1 comment:

Steve Kinnell said...

Great post! and wow, what luck for a novelist.