The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Benedict J. Jones

Benedict J. Jones has carved a reputation as one of the most compelling British crime writers to emerge in recent years. Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss his new Charlie Bars thriller, The Devil’s Brew.

Firstly, for readers unfamiliar with your Charlie Bars series, can you tell us a little bit about his back story, and how he ends up in Northumberland at the outset of this book?

Charlie “Bars” Constantinou is an ex-con with three-strikes to his name. At the end of a stretch that saw him spend his thirtieth birthday inside he decided to give the straight life a go. His love of painting, that he picked up inside, didn’t get him too far and after looking into attacks on a pair of drug dealers for their boss (“Real Estate”) he found himself working in his uncle’s kebab shop for minimum wage. From there he got himself working as the leg-man for private investigator Mazza Toshak in a kidnapping case, which featured in the novella “Skewered”.

After that the two of them formed a partnership of sorts that saw Charlie investigating a blackmail case (“Dirty Pictures”) and a lost book, bound in human skin (“The Book of Skin”).

A case involving a missing call-girl took on a darker bent and saw the two knocking heads with a deranged killer using the city as his playground (“Pennies for Charon”). “The Devil’s Brew” starts with Charlie struggling to deal with the fallout, both mental and physical, of the cases he has thus far been involved in. “Pennies for Charon” saw him pushing the limits of what he was capable of and that has to have an effect on him.

After a string of stories set in London, were you nervous about extracting Charlie from his natural habitat for The Devil’s Brew?

Very. I’d always thought of London as one of the main characters in its own right in the earlier stories and have always wondered how well Charlie could work away from his usual backdrop. That said I was also intrigued by the idea of throwing him into an environment that was somewhat alien to a city-boy like him and seeing how he would deal with the challenges. That said I have written outside London before – not least with my Westerns, but this was really about splitting Charlie from his city.

Do you see Charlie Bars as your signature character, or does he have a use-by date? Some crime writers are keen to tell a character’s story within a trilogy, others like to chart the character’s evolution over time…

He’s definitely a signature character of sorts and is also the one who has stuck with me the most. If he stopped “talking” to me then the stories would dry up but he shows no signs of stopping yet.

Right from the off I wanted Charlie to be a character who evolves. The things that he experiences have to colour how he moves forward. I don’t think that I would be staying true to the character if I didn’t do that. The things he sees affect him and through that they change his character – I’d like to think he is already different from the ex-con we first saw in the short story “Real Estate”.

I don’t really have a set plan for his story arc in terms of anything definite but there are a few places I want to take him. I’d like to think we will just keep going and see where the story takes us.

Speaking of series characters, who are your favourites to read?

I’ve been a big fan of the Bernie Gunther books (Phillip Kerr) since the initial Berlin Noir trilogy, the Charlie Parker (John Connolly) books, and the Jack Taylor (Ken Bruen) series. I also really enjoyed the “Shardlake” series by CJ Sansom for a complete step back in time. There’s probably a few others that I have forgotten, and I do wish Gary McMahon would give us a few more Thomas Usher books.

The Devil’s Brew is a defiantly British story – who are your favourite British writers – crime or otherwise? How have they influenced your own writing?

One of the big influences on the development of Charlie Bars were the “Cal Innes” cycle from Ray Banks. They’re a quartet of four really gritty UK private eye novels, partially set in Manchester, and as well as those Ray’s other work is well worth checking out. Ken Bruen’s “R&B” series were likewise very formative being set around south east London and helped in making me believe that it would make for a decent backdrop.

A lot of my influences also come from the horror genre, people like; Adam Nevill, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry. They all have a dark quality to their work that I like to try and inject into my own.

I’m a big fan of Graham Greene and the ambiguous morality that he shows through his characters. I’m currently rereading a lot of his stuff at the moment. I think he shows that the main character doesn’t have to be a “hero”, in fact no one does, and that can be quite important when attempting to ground your work in realism.

In addition I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David Peace; his Red Riding Quartet was hugely influential to me in regarding the “secret history” that can lurk beneath the surface. If people haven’t read those I would urge them to dig them out.

In terms of contemporary fiction, the British private eye character still feels underexplored compared to its American equivalent. Do you have any homegrown influences or recommendations? 

There’s a few people doing it well but it does seem like the UK market, outside the small presses, is more dominated by the police procedural and the like. I do think that is perhaps because the PI as an archetype is more of an American concept – even Sherlock Holmes is a consulting detective rather than a private one.

As I mentioned before Ray Banks was quite formative. Victor Headley and his Yardie books made me see that you could do nasty low-key British crime fiction that didn’t need to be a parody of times past. I like the humour in Paul Brazill’s stuff and the bleakness in Gareth Spark’s work. There’s a tonne of really good small press stuff out there at the moment.

Outside of crime fiction, I know that you have dipped into other genres, such as westerns and horror. The Devil’s Brew seemed to channel this: Charlie fulfils the role of the brooding, troubled outsider figure often seen in westerns, and the Thirlwell Family’s dark arts drive the story into unashamed horror territory. Was this deliberate? Is genre fluidity a benefit when writing crime fiction?

Oh, yes. I love blending genres and crossing over into others. I’ve often thought the most effective way of subverting genre tropes and the like is if the reader doesn’t know what they’re reading. But in today’s world where books are pigeon holed into genres that can be difficult. If you are reading a “horror” book you are expecting the supernatural and the like and I really feel that can lessen the impact.

For me there has always been the idea of lifting things from one genre and placing them in others. Although I don’t think that I am in anyway unique in this. Especially with regards to using Western motifs in Crime fiction (and vice-versa). It’s something you see quite a lot – I’m a big fan of trying to identify non-Western Westerns, a good example of that is the film Copland which really pushes that idea of using tropes from one genre within another,

How much research went into the ritualistic aspect of the Thirlwell Family’s behaviour?

I wanted to try and get their psychological make-up right. They’re a pretty damaged bunch of people, and with a family history like theirs there doesn’t seem to be much hope that that will ever change.

The costumes they wear were influenced by a few different things; mummer plays, the Morris, and a large dose of my own imaginings. In terms of their “remembering” I think that was more coloured by general ideas about past lives but also the reincarnation/genetic memory stories by people like R E Howard and Henry S Whitehead which people don’t seem to write as much today as they once did.

Quite a bit of research was need in regards to the dog fighting which features in parts of the book as that was a world I knew little about – some reading and a couple of documentaries put me straight in that regard. I can’t say that it was easy reading, or watching, but I’m not one to turn away – this stuff happens in the real world and if I was going to put it in then I wanted it to be right.

Violence is clearly a way of life for Charlie, and there are a lot of gratuitous scenes in The Devil’s Brew. How did your amp yourself up to write those sustained rampage scenes at the end of the book, and maintain the aggressive tempo?

Violence does seem to follow Charlie, doesn’t it, and no matter how much he rails against it he is awfully good at it when he has to be. That in itself opens up some interesting questions about Charlie and his use of violence, and also just how reliable he really is when telling us his thoughts.

In part being able to unleash violence was what the book was about; The Devil’s Brew inside of us that we can tap into as and when we need it. I suppose I try to channel that when writing. “Straw Dogs” was a big influence on certain scenes in “The Devil’s Brew” and ever since my first watch of that one thing really stuck with me – if you ever drive a thinking man to violence you had better be prepared to be on the receiving end of a man who has thought and considered what he is going to do. In a way I think that sums up a writer and what he should be doing if he is going to try and show violence, especially realistic ultraviolence, on the page.

One of the most difficult parts I find is after the frenetic action to try and show the kind of damage caused. I really try to shy away from people being, say, clubbed unconscious and just having a lump on their head for a couple of days. I’d like to think that I try and show the effects that violence of this kind can have on people and the lasting damage that it causes.

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Can we expect any more Charlie Bars stories in the near-future?

As ever I seem to have a lot on the go at the moment. I’m trying to finish off a couple of longer horror projects as well as quite a few shorts that are in various degrees of completion.

In regards to Charlie I am redrafting a follow up to “The Devil’s Brew” as well as beating a few more short stories into shape so hopefully it won’t be too long before he returns.

 

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Book Review: The Devil’s Brew by Benedict J. Jones

THE DEVIL’S BREW

Author: Benedict J. Jones

Publisher: Crime Wave Press

Release Date: November 2016

The Devil’s Brew, Benedict J. Jones’ follow-up to Pennies for Charon, sees ex-con-turned-private investigator Charlie ‘Bars’ Constantinou retreat to the Northumbrian countryside in an effort to put some space between him and London – where so much bad blood has already been spilled. Befitting a man with his chequered past, Charlie finds himself plunged headlong into the affairs of a local family, whose horses are being mutilated by unknown assailants. Little does he realise, the culprits are the Thirlwells, a rural clan to whom savagery is a way of life. With personal redemption on his mind, Charlie wades into the dispute, and ends up embroiled in a vicious game of wits with a deadly set of opponents…

The Devil’s Brew is a well-judged, self-assured follow-up, which simultaneously consolidates Charlie Bars’ credentials and demonstrates that the character can function away from his usual South London stomping ground.  The British private eye novel is a notoriously awkward beast, and while The Devil’s Brew doesn’t follow a typical PI narrative, it drops Charlie into an unpleasantly gripping situation without missing a beat. To Jones’ credit, Charlie Bars already feels like character who can be readily redeployed in leftfield scenarios, not one that will be hamstrung by well-worn genre tropes.

Get Carter, Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man have all been – accurately – cited as influences on The Devil’s Brew, while other, more recent, cinematic touchstones that come to mind include the likes of Dead Man’s Shoes (rustic vengeance) and Eden Lake (feral youth). The violent, extended climax is nerve shreddingly accomplished, and the book left me sweaty-palmed as the central conflict spiralled out of control. Tense, atmospheric and aggressively compelling, The Devil’s Brew is a top-drawer slab of contemporary Brit-crime.

Reviewed by Tom Leins

Under The Influence – Tony Hancock – by Paul D Brazill

They say that all small boys are influenced by their big brother’s music collection, and while that may well be true of me, I was also influenced by my family’s taste.  Luckily I grew up in a time when television and radio weren’t as youth focused as they are now and I could enjoy the same shows as my parents and siblings. Will Hay, Ealing Comedies and, of course, Tony Hancock. During the miners’ strikes in the ‘70s there were power cuts. Which meant no telly. Reading comics by candle light and listening to an old transistor radio. Radio 2, usually, since my parents were of that age group. The Navy Lark, Round The Horne and, of course, Hancock.

Tony Hancock – the easiest comedian for charades – and I share the same birthday, May 12th. Whether or not we share the same death day remains to be seen, of course, and let’s just hope we can put that little fact-finding mission on hold for a while, eh?

One of the UK’s major television and radio stars throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, British actor and comedian Tony Hancock killed himself on 25 June 1968. He overdosed on booze and pills and left a suicide note that said:

‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’

Indeed, Hancock’s eponymous character on radio, on television, and in film, regularly tried his hand at countless activities and endeavours that invariably failed.

One episode – The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course.

In the most famous episode of his radio- and later television- show The Blood Donor,  ‘the lad himself’  proudly donates a pint of his particularly rare blood only to end the episode by cutting himself so badly on a breadknife that he needs a transfusion of his own blood. The radio broadcast was a resounding success but recording of the television version of The Blood Donor proved to be problematic as Hancock had recently been involved in a car accident and suffered from concussion so that he had to read his lines from autocue.

After the American failure of his film debut The Rebel, Hancock broke with his long time writing team of Galton and Simpson, who were responsible for most of the great writing in Hancock’s shows, as well as ditching his long-term agent, the splendidly named Beryl Vertue. This pretty much led to his career decline.

Disappointment was always breathing at the back of Hancock’s neck, it seemed.

Hancock, and other character actors, are regularly in my mind when I’m creating characters. Quigley, the hit man in my yarn The Bucket List, was partly inspired by the image of Tony Hancock stalking the streets with a gun.

Hancock could be said to be the perfect noir comedian, in fact. I’ve said before that crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, and Tony Hancock’s comedy is pure noir. A natural loser. When I started writing I wanted to write small odd stories about small odd people.

And so was ‘the lad himself’, unfortunately.

Like his fictional incarnation, he was prone to introspection, a concoction of egotism and self-doubt which he bared when he was interviewed in the BBCs Face To Face programme in the early 1960s.

Spike Milligan said of Hancock that he was a ‘Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.’

As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’

Bio: Paul D. Brazill‘s books include Too Many Crooks, Guns Of Brixton, A Case Of Noir, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. His writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including three editions of The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. His blog is here.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write a short piece about one of your formative influences? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

Book Review: Too Many Crooks by Paul D. Brazill

TOO MANY CROOKS

Author: Paul D. Brazill

Publisher: Near To The Knuckle

Release Date: January 2017

When high-class fence Leslie Hawkins meets Peter Rhatigan in a sleazy London pub, he offers her the chance to get her hands on the Totenkopfring – a legendary piece of World War Two Nazi memorabilia – which she believes she can flog on to a degenerate collector for a tidy profit. Their meeting ends in chaos, however, following a bloody altercation with a member of a biker gang – an event that sets the tone for the chaotic violence that follows.

Meanwhile over in Poland, Dr Anna Nowak finds an amnesiac Englishman half-dead in the snow, and her commitment to helping him unravel his past leads them into surprising – and similarly dangerous – territory. Eventually, the various plot strands congeal like spilled blood, and old scores are settled once and for all.

Paul D. Brazill’s Anglo-Polish caper occupies the murky middle-ground between thriller and farce. If you can imagine a Guy Ritchie film re-cast with Carry On actors, you will come close to understanding this book’s offbeat charm! Chock-full of memorable characters, and engaging set-pieces, Too Many Crooks unfolds at a frantic pace. Regular readers of Brazill’s work will lap up the wise-cracking, booze-swilling, bone-snapping story, but this novella also boasts an accessible mainstream quality that should help him tap into a wider audience.

Pay your pound, slurp the Brit-grit broth and rub up against the Slippery Pole! Great fun!

Reviewed by Tom Leins