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.