Fiction set in USA and EUROPE: the life of Maria Callas
Thriller set in South East US – plus interview with author, J M Gulvin
5th May 2016
The Long Count – thriller set in South East US (plus a really informative interview with author, J M Gulvin).
The Long Count is an excellent psychological thriller set in the South East United States (Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas). It will appeal to all those who enjoyed the first season of True Detective, the cult TV series.
Isaac returns homes from fighting with the US Military in Vietnam to find that his twin brother Ishmael has survived a fire that destroyed the mental hospital in which he was being treated – and is going on a murderous spree across several States. Isaac, together with Texas Ranger John Q, is determined to track him down and limit the damage. The fast moving action takes them across State lines as they pursue Ishmael. The twins father is murdered and Ishmael is the prime suspect. Isaac searches out his long estranged mother and seeks to protect her…
The book takes us back to an age when attitudes to mental illness were not as they are today, and where racism was still deeply embedded in the American South (if, indeed, that has changed…). It is an interesting book that explores mental illness and the impact it has on family and those involved. It is also a very frightening book… John Q is an excellent and empathetic detective, and The Long Count is the first in a series that will be featuring him.
The denouement is both well worked, and extremely surprising. One you just don’t (or, rather, I didn’t) see coming. Reading back I guess there are clues, but not that you’d really focus on. I would pretty much challenge anyone to spot what is going to happen. And that makes for a great thriller.
The Long Count is certainly a book I would recommend. It will make you think.
Tony for the TripFiction Team
Now over to our interview with J M Gulvin:TF: With John Q you have created an iconic and believable investigator with, hopefully, many more crimes to solve ahead of him. Is he in any way based on real person, or does he come entirely from your imagination?
JMG: Thank you for such kind comments about John Q. The question is one I am asked a lot and the answer is, yes, in part at least, he is based on a real person.
Back in 2003 I was watching TV in Idaho, and came across a documentary about a police officer from Rock Springs, Wyoming called Ed Cantrell. In 1979 he was tried for the murder of another police officer Michael Rosa whom Cantrell shot dead while he was sitting in the back of a police car. Cantrell was an old school western lawman just like Quarrie. Master of the quick draw, he actually shot Rosa while Rosa’s gun was still holstered. He was acquitted because Rosa was going for his holstered weapon and Cantrell was just faster drawing his. Under US law the intent to kill had to be there, the gun didn’t actually need to be in Rosa’s hand, he just had to be going for it. The defence attorney was a very famous lawyer called Gerry Spence (Silkwood) and he spoke at length with me about this case.
That was the beginning of John Q. I wrote a novel called THE DEFENDANT largely a fictionalization of that event, but could not sell it. I changed Cantrell’s name to John Quarrie and when the book didn’t work, I decided to go back to the beginning and build my character from the ground up.
I decided to make him a Texas Ranger, largely because they are iconic as you say, and there was no other cop around in fiction, like him. Equally, I wanted an old school western lawman like Cantrell, and the 1960’s was the time when the Texas Rangers were evolving from the old days into what is now as modern a state police force as anywhere. Back then “prevention was still better than cure” and they did things their own way, echoing their origins when Texas broke away from Mexico and defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
I didn’t want a modern technology wielding cop; I wanted a man on the cusp (so to speak) so I could still employ the old west values. I grew up watching westerns and this white hat/black hat thing, has been part of my life for as long as I can recall. I was tired of cops with issues. I know a lot of cops in the US, both at state level and federal and none of them have issues. I thought it was time we had a real man, tough and honest and capable but without the demons that have, in my opinion at least, become something of cliché.
I figured John Q’s personality out in my head on a road trip from New Orleans to Santa Fe. I decided he’d be a widower with a young son. I decided where he’d live and who his friends were and the kind of man he was. He suited Texas. What you see is what you get, personified in Audie Murphy, the most decorated US serviceman in history and the tragic Chris Pyle, their most effective sniper.
I didn’t know Texas that well, but I did know New Orleans, have a lot of friends there so I set out after visiting with them. I crossed the Sabine River as the original Texas settlers had and drove across the state from southeast to northwest, all the way to Santa Fe where Cormac McCarthy lives. As I journeyed I tried to juxtapose the landscape I was passing through, the people I was talking to in diners and bars, motels, with what I thought the place would have been like in the time I wanted to set my new crime series which was the latter half of the 1960’s.
This time frame was important because when I was in Navasota, Texas, I learned of a man called Frank Hamer, who had settled the place when it was an out of control oil boom town with murders every day in the early 1900’s, Hamer was only 24 at the time and had to deal with shootings and stabbings, violent crime of all kinds. Single-handedly he managed to get the town to where it was safe for regular people to walk the streets at night and to this day he is remembered for it. Hamer went on to become one of the most famous Texas Rangers of all time, responsible for taking out Bonnie & Clyde, and I decided to make him godfather to my fictional (Cantrell based) John Q.
Before I embarked on writing Quarrie as a Texas Ranger, I deliberately wrote a novel for young adults called THE DIVIDING which featured him as a 14 year-old visiting his grandma one summer in Georgia. That dealt with how he first met Pious Noon (who will feature in all the Quarrie books) and gave me his entire background. My US agent described it as a diary, and I think it’s the reason he comes across as realistically as he does.
TF: The Long Count is set in the South Eastern United States (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas). Is this an area that you know well, or how did you research the locations? I read in a profile that you split your time between Wales and the Western United States – but the locations in the book seem a little far East…
JMG: You’re right THE LONG COUNT does take place more east than west, as in fact, does the second book in the series THE CONTRACT. It’s not till the third book that we see JQ working the Texas panhandle. The beauty of a Texas Ranger is they’re not like other cops and Texas is not like other states. It’s a fiction genre in itself, the only state in the union that can secede if the people vote that it should.
I know a lot of America very well, particularly that which is described in the book, though dividing my time between Wales and the west is not quite as glamorous as it actually sounds. I have a cabin by an old reservoir in Idaho (which is northwest) and this particular place is occupied by the flotsam and jetsam of America: the kind of people I love the best. I use it as a base to fly down to Texas, rent a car and drive. Then I come away so the modern Texas can seep back into that of my imagination and, hopefully, create the atmosphere I’m endeavouring to infuse the books with.
When I’m in Texas all I do is drive the back roads, the old ranch to market roads, trying my best to avoid the major cities because these days they bear no resemblance to how they are (or will be) in the John Q books. I’ve sourced myriad old photos of how things used to be, documents, time lines of events etc, for as many places in Texas as I can find. I spend many hours watching old documentaries as well as old movies. That way I can authenticate how a place looked, what the people were wearing etc. Everything about Texas has changed in the last fifty years except that actual landscape, hence long hours at the wheel of a car.
TF: The plot of The Long Count hinges on a particular mental disorder (which I shall not name for fear of ‘spoiling’). What drew you to mental illness as a key theme for the book?
JMG: Mental illness wasn’t a theme I had explored in a novel before I wrote THE LONG COUNT, but I think I’m pretty good with people, have always treated them the same no matter who they are, how much money they have or what background they come from.
When I was in my twenties I volunteered to run a club for mentally ill people called “The Well Wishers”, in Hampshire, where I used to live. They were some of the most satisfying times I’ve ever had. There was a dignity about them one would not normally associate with such people. They were struggling with issues largely misunderstood by the mainstream population, and carried the labels they were tagged with because of that, with an incredible sense of peace and humour. I used to organise sports days and take them on trips in a mini bus. I had them all round for tea at my house once. They loved that the best because they were rarely invited anywhere. Obviously, what I’m dealing with in THE LONG COUNT is much more serious, but I think that time of my life definitely influenced the subject matter.
TF: As well as crime thrillers, you also ghosted Long Way Down – the account of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motor bike ride from John O’Groats to the Southern tip of Africa. What encouraged you to do this – and is motor bike riding a passion of yours?
JMG: The truth about LONG WAY DOWN is I needed the work. At the time I was at a crossroads as regards where I wanted to go, having already written a variety of different books vis a vis fiction. The opportunity came up, I was a motorcycle rider (albeit not a very good one) and when my agent put me forward, I auditioned with a 13-page piece. Charley read it and liked it. Then I had to wait till Ewan was in the country and he loved it. They gave me the job and working with them was brilliant. I got to ride with them in Ethiopia and camp for a couple of nights, just the three of us. I had the most surreal experience with Ewan in a place called Adigrat and subsequently wrote another three books for Charley. That gave me the money and time to work on John Q, so I’ll always be very grateful.
TF: You have, in the past, written a couple of novels under the pen name of Adam Armstrong. What, do you think, makes a novelist assume a pen name?
JMG: Adam Armstrong was my great grandfather, a shepherd in Liddesdale, Scotland in the early 1900’s, he went out one winter’s night looking for a single lost sheep, found it in a blizzard, came home, went to bed and never woke up again. I chose to use his name to honour his memory and because the two books I wrote in the UK under that name were so different to those that had gone before. I actually wrote another three, which were published in Holland only, because both CRY OF THE PANTHER and SONG OF THE SOUND were bestsellers for De Boekerij.
I wouldn’t use a pen name for any other reason than to differentiate between styles, although some authors do of course, Lee Child, John Le Carré etc. I was a rebel at school, and my teachers never thought I’d amount to anything so it’s important to me they know what I went on to do. Now I’m with Faber & Faber, they’ll finally, grudgingly, be impressed. That’s if they’re still alive.
I don’t use Adam Armstrong anymore; my back catalogue is out under my own name. I’m using JM Gulvin for this new series rather than Jeff Gulvin, again because it is something of a departure with my lead character being old school west and the books being set in the sixties.
TF: How do you organise your writing day? Do you have fixed times at which you are at your most productive?
JMG: I am totally organized when it comes to my writing day. I treat it as a job, Monday-Friday, 9:30 to 6:30 or 7:00. Inspiration comes largely from perspiration and I’m never not thinking about my work. I’ve just come back from ten days on a sun lounger in Tenerife and all I did was write note after note for my third John Q novel. I always have a specific plan, though that’s not always in the form of a synopsis. Each day when I finish I make sure I know where I’m going to begin the next day, so the fear factor is diminished. There is a very real fear factor that’s experienced, I think, by most writers. Can I do it? Am I too old? Am I too young? Is this any good? How do I know if it is or not? What will my agent or editor think?
First drafts are always traumatic, that’s when what’s in your head has to spill onto the page and very often “spill” is exactly what it does. Long ago I was taught to “Write Fat – Re-write Lean” an Ernest Hemingway maxim.
My favourite part of the process is when the bulk of the work is finally down on paper and one can start to get stuck in. I do draft after draft after draft and never tire of working on a current manuscript. I always think of the clay sculptor, he or she starts out with a chicken wire skeleton. They cover that with clay, then turn to the tools of the trade to create something wonderful.
I love writing, it’s always a challenge but never a chore. I’m at my most relaxed, comfortable and confident when I’m tapping the keys on my laptop. I relish going to work every day and I’m fortunate to have a wife who totally gets it.
TF: What, if you can tell us, are you now working on – and will locale be important?
JMG: I’m working on John Q III right now; in fact I’ve broken off to answer these questions. It’s called RED DEVIL DRIVE and set in January 1968 and, this time, it almost exclusively takes place in Texas. Specifically, Wilbarger County where Roy Orbison was born in 1936. It’s a story in the mould of THE LONG COUNT, but nothing to do with mental illness.
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