My Big Fat Criminal Family
by John Barlow, author of HOPE ROAD
I used to write crime when I was younger. I managed three full novels, none published. They’re in a pile under the bed (where they’ll remain). When I was 32 I got my first story published, but it was ‘literary’ rather than crime. One thing led to another, and ‘literary’ was where I stayed.
But the crime thing never left me. For one thing, I developed an obsession with counterfeit money. I wasn’t interested in making it, or even seeing it. What fascinated me was the thought of how you would pass off large amounts of fake cash. Some people obsess about the perfect murder, with me it was how you turn counterfeit money into the real stuff.
Then, through an indirect contact given to me by someone I was working for, I got in touch with a real counterfeiter. When I met him I was incredibly nervous, but in fact he was very calm and didn’t seem like a criminal at all. And what really fascinated me was that he also had this obsession with how you pass off the fakes, although of course in his case the obsession was a practical, professional one. (Being a successful counterfeiter, if you’re interested, means not producing too much. Keep suspicion low, don’t alert the financial system, don’t get greedy.) But you still need to pass off relatively large amounts without risk, and that’s the difficult bit.
This is where crime writing comes into the story, because I had a plan for passing off fake money. It was a good plan, and I wanted to write a novel about it. Meeting this counterfeiter confirmed to me that I had been right to focus on passing off as the critical operation. So, armed with my new-found knowledge of a shady and little known business, I began to write HOPE ROAD, which features (along with a murder and some very fine wine) a plot to pass off counterfeit money.
To begin with, the novel was gong to be more ‘literary’ rather ‘crime’. But at about the same time I made a pretty unsettling discovery: my uncle had been an arms dealer. He was found dead on a plane in 1984, his throat cut, and it then transpired that he’d been involved in the theft of arms from the British army. Other stories floated around: that he was working as a spy, that he was supplying terrorists with arms, that his many trips to Libya were arms related…
I never knew any of this, and what struck me, on learning about it, was how successfully the family had ignored his crimes, just wiped them from the common memory. It was as if by mutual consent everyone simply refused to talk about him. And that’s what convinced me to write HOPE ROAD. I wanted to write about a criminal family, but one in which not everyone is a criminal. Crime is not always black and white, and just because one member of a family is bad does not mean they all are. Also, people are sometimes forced to walk a thin line between criminality and the law-abiding life. I saw that with the counterfeiter too: he had got into the racket by accident, and had no other contact with the criminal world.
Anyway, I wanted to explore the dynamics of a family where crime is dominant but where one person fights to escape its influence. The result is HOPE ROAD, a murder mystery with counterfeit money running through it. Psychological crime, you might call it. It’s not about my family, but the central idea is surprisingly close to home.
John Barlow was born in Yorkshire, UK, but now lives in Spain. His fiction and non-fiction has been published by HarperCollins, Farrar, Starus & Giroux, and 4th Estate. HOPE ROAD is his first crime mystery, and is the opening book in a series of nine novels about the Rays, a criminal family from Leeds.
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