It is an absolute honour to host a Q&A with Jeff Gulvin, author of one of the finest, most evocative, original thrillers I’ve read in quite some time. Once again, Faber has nailed it. Sitting alongside fabulously memorable USA-set fiction from Rod Reynolds, Tim Baker, Cal Moriarty and Chris Pavone, The Long Count drops us into the American wild west in the 1960s, and there are tensions. The Vietnam War is in full throttle, and people are starting to object. Texas Ranger John Q, a veteran of the Korean War, is a single dad to James, who is also cared for by John Q’s loyal friend Pious. A series of crimes make their way across John’s radar, the most perplexing of which is an apparent suicide by another vet. When the dead man’s son Isaac returns from Vietnam, he is adamant that his father would never have taken his own life, and he’s also worried about the disappearance of his twin, Ishmael, who vanished after a tragic fire at the Trinity Asylum, where he’d been held for several years in an attempt to cure his apparent madness. In a taut, fabulously written series of journeys and investigations, John Q traverses the country (depicted in exquisite detail), ever more confused by the murderer’s trail, but cleverly identifying the links between the various crimes that have been committed.
To give away more would spoil a stunning thriller, but imagine a burnt-out mental asylum, an increasingly strange father-son relationship, and a body count that rises as the pages turn. Not only does this touch on serious topics (racism, Vietnam, mental illness), but it weaves them into a plot so gripping that we are forced not just to acknowledge them but to embrace and identify with John Q’s quest to set things right in his own inimitable way. There are twists, and some big turns, but most of all this is a book about family, about relationships, about the suffering of war, and the people who have, across history, been left behind. Simply brilliant. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In The Long Count, the first book of JM Gulvin’s masterful new crime series, we meet Ranger John Quarrie as he is called to the scene of an apparent suicide by a fellow war veteran. Although the local police want the case shut down, John Q is convinced that events aren’t quite so straightforward.
When his hunch is backed up by the man’s son, Isaac – just back from Vietnam, and convinced his father was murdered – they start to look into a series of other violent incidents in the area, including a recent fire at the local Trinity Asylum and the disappearance of Isaac’s twin brother, Ishmael. In a desperate race against time, John Q has to try and unravel the dark secrets at the heart of this family and get to the truth before the count is up…
Q&A with Jeff Gulvin:
This is your fourteenth novel and, by all accounts, a bit of a departure for you. What inspired The Long Count?
It is a departure for me, yes: I’ve written hard boiled London based crime novels, as well as big picture thrillers and a number of much gentler books where the lead character has been a woman. Five in fact, although three were published solely by De Boekerij in Holland. That said, I’ve been on a mission to find my true literary voice (as my agent Robert Kirby puts it) and my previous books were all part of the process that led me to THE LONG COUNT and John Q. I’ve had an affinity with the western United States all my life and many of the characteristics displayed in other characters have found their embodiment in this Texas Ranger.
John Quarrie began life as a real man named Ed Cantrell who was the Director of Public Safety in a town called Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1977. He settled what was a lawless coal boom town and, in so doing, ended up fighting for his life in a courtroom. His honesty, integrity and toughness are traits I’ve always admired and they represent all that’s good about the pioneering spirit that is still found in parts of America.
The idea was born when I first came across Cantrell and gradually morphed him into the kind of old style lawman I wanted to create. The first story grew with the development of the character. I wrote various versions, trying to establish the right plot and it all came together in the spring of 2014. It was a five-year process where I was struggling to re-establish myself as a fiction writer, beginning back in 2009 after I’d finished a couple of non-fiction books for Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. I am going to write Quarrie novels till I die and I have the last book in the series in my head. In fact, I know the very last line of that last book. I don’t want to elaborate because that would be to give the “long” game away, but suffice to say I plan to write many more Quarrie novels before I pen that final line.
Many of the influences you cite are amongst the elite of American literature (including Hemingway, McCarthy and Faulkner), and this book, in particular, has a ‘Great American novel’ feel to it. Did you draw on their scope, dynamic and breadth more than usual?
That’s a good question. All my life I’ve been influenced by the greats of American literature. It began with “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I learned the art of “re-write” by studying the prose of Ernest Hemingway. To that end I don’t believe the influence was any more overt than usual with this book, I just think my whole experience came together. It set me on a path I’d been trying to find during 20 years of being published and 30 of actually writing. I wrote 8 unpublished novels between the ages of 18 and 33 then finally, a book written largely out of frustration, was accepted. Throughout that time, I read people I thought I could learn from and I still do. American authors such as those you mention, but also Jeffrey Lent, Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin and Ron Hansen.
The biggest influence by far is Cormac McCarthy, not just the later books that everyone knows about, but all the way back to his first novel THE ORCHARD KEEPER. There’s something about what they call the “pastoral” works that appeals to me, particularly those involving the poorer quarters of American society. THE FREE by Willy Vlaughtin is a case in point. I’m fascinated by the socio-economic and ethnic divisions, the way the African American community has been treated, but equally Mexicans and the largely forgotten Native Americans. Few people are aware that the poorest county in the US is not some suburb of Detroit or Chicago, but Shannon County in South Dakota That is the home of the Oglala Lakota, once the proudest nation to roam the American plains, their great leader was Red Cloud, the only man to win a war (not battle) against the US Army on US soil when he had the Bozeman Trail dismantled in 1868.
I felt a touch of James Lee Burke in there, too. Was he an influence?
It’s interesting you mention James Lee Burke; I’m compared with him a lot but I’ve only read his literary novels, those he published long before he created Dave Robichaux. I’m referring to The Lost Get Back Boogie and To the Bright and Shining Sun. Those books are works of art and it’s there any influence that might be apparent would have been born. The truth is I don’t read crime novels, largely for fear of inadvertently stealing something without knowing I’ve done so only to discover it to my cost later. When I plot a John Q novel I consider it to be a story about my character, his friends and family that just happens to have a crime in it because he’s a Texas Ranger. When I decided to set the books in Texas I did so because the Rangers didn’t start out as a police force but an unregulated militia formed to protect settlers against the raiding Comanche. That allows me to investigate areas that other cops don’t venture near and it creates a fluid freedom of movement.
There is a beautiful, heart-warming relationship between father (John Q) and young son (James) in this book, which provides tender moments that release the tension and round out John Q’s character. Was this your intention?
Great Question. I’ve begun to answer it a little above, but yes it was very much my intention. I have two daughters, both grown up now, but when they were very young they lived with me in a cottage in Norfolk. It was pretty ramshackle and only had two bedrooms. I slept on a mattress in the conservatory so they could have a room of their own. Due to personal circumstances, I was both mother and father to them and in many ways, I still am. My second wife Kim helped massively when my youngest was a teenager, but in those early years it was just me and them. I think that’s where John Q’s relationship with James comes from. It’s very important and will form an intrinsic part of every novel in the series. My intention is to have James grow up as the books progress and that father/son relationship will remain pivotal. It’s evident in the second book THE CONTRACT which is out in April, and especially in RED DEVIL DRIVE which will be the third in the series.
The books are thrillers and will remain so, but the movie director John Boorman said that the way I create the backdrop to each is such that there is a “vivid veracity” that’s tangible. This is part landscape and part the reality of a man, his work and his family.
There is an equally poignant relationship between an army vet and his son/s, which develops through a series of letters and subsequent discoveries. At its heart, therefore, the theme of family – of support and loyalty – pervades the book. Can you comment on this?
That’s a very perceptive observation: family, loyalty and support are the cornerstones of that pioneering American spirit that has always fascinated me. There’s a simplicity to it, almost a sense of naivety and I love that kind of honesty. There is a hopefulness about it, a lack of cynicism and it’s rubbed off on me to the point it features in my work and I think that gives the books the kind of veracity John Boorman talks about. He understands that more than most people of course, because he directed two of the most iconic American movies of all time in POINT BLANK and DELIVERANCE.
I’ve experienced that level of support and loyalty from the friends I’ve made over the years I’ve been visiting the States. I got married to Kim in Idaho in 2001 after flying up from New Orleans. A friend officiated and I had to bail my best man out of jail in order to get him to the ceremony. The reception was in my local blue collar bar, Saturday night and the bar was open. I’d been spending summers in the town for years, it remains my home away from home, and I used to have a cabin at a place called East Magic. All the guests were my blue-collar buddies whose company and anecdotes kept me scribbling notes for years. One old guy, a logger known as “Crow”, had driven all the way from Seattle just so he could be there.
Any particular inspiration for Pious? His friendship with John Q and James is beautifully wrought.
To me Pious is every bit as important as John Q. He is based on a real man named Leon Aaron Gilbert, a black soldier who fought in the Korean War and was sentenced to death for cowardice. Pious’ story is his story, a man who brought what was left of an all-black platoon down off a hill where they were being decimated by Chinese machine gun fire. As soon as he got them to safety he was ordered back up the same hill by his white superior officer. When he refused on the grounds it was suicide, he was court-martialled. I read how in 1950 when his unit shipped out they had to use the porters’ entrance to the railroad station while their white counterparts went in the main entrance. They rode in the back of the train and the bowels of the ship that sailed from San Francisco. When they stopped in Hawaii they weren’t allowed to drink in the same bars as white soldiers, but the great thing was that many of the white soldiers backed them and wouldn’t drink in those bars either. They knew these men had exactly the same ability as they did. They’d had exactly the same training and soldiering isn’t determined by the colour of your skin. It was there I was able to establish the relationship between John Q and Pious when in regular life at the time, such a friendship would be unlikely. I was honoured to be able to do it, until then Leon Gilbert had been confined to the pages of Wikipedia and I was determined to remember him in the personage of Pious, much as I’d done with Ed Cantrell and John Quarrie.
Set in the 1960s, technology (both in terms of communication and, of course, forensics) was far behind what it is today, and this imbues an unwavering tension, as everything is delayed (by our own terms). Was this a gift for a writer, or something of a frustration?
For me it was gift, the 1960s setting allows me to slow the pace down so it fits with the vastness of the landscape. It takes time to get things done, it takes time to get places, nothing is immediate and that becomes part of the fabric of the novels and helps to establish the sense of time, place and atmosphere that so many reviewers have commented on. It was also a time of great change in America and I use that as a political context in each of the novels I’m writing. I’m not a fan of technology, these days everything is so instant we’ve lost the ability to stand and stare and sometimes we just need to stop and smell the coffee. There’s an old native American saying that’s always appealed to me. “The man who sits on the ground contemplating his oneness with the universe is infusing his life with the true spirit of being. When native man left off this activity his humanization was retarded in growth.”
Your descriptions of the geography of this ‘wild west’ make for evocative reading, and there is a certain poetic beauty to them. In some ways, rather like in Scandinavian fiction, the landscape and becomes a character in its own right. The extremes, the vastness … do you think this added something to your plot, to your story?
Yes, it did. The landscape or cityscape as it is in THE CONTRACT is very much a character in the novel. The whole point of reading is to disappear into another world so it’s very important that world lives and breathes as much as the people themselves do. You need to feel the heat of the sun or the rain on your face; you need to smell what’s on the wind and be aware of the dust under your feet.
You’ve obviously spent a lot of time in the USA, and you write with huge affection and almost intimacy. At risk of politicising this, I wonder how you feel about the changes in the country, the fact that this territory has become extreme supporters of gun control and heavy supporters of Donald Trump. Is this just another embodiment of a modern-age ‘wild west’?
That’s a very astute observation. I think what’s happening now is a throwback to the old days, yes: knowing the people of the Heartland as I do. But it’s a distortion of the reality. I can see how Trump is trying to appeal to the working people’s sense of pride and patriotism with the kind of rhetoric he’s been using. It’s been done by countless politicians before, but perhaps not quite so overtly or divisively. The irony is Trump is nothing like them, but he is independent, semi self-made and that’s the American dream. Most of the people I know are Trump supporters but that’s largely born out of frustration with the established order. It’s a misrepresentation of the truth though, which is unfortunate. When I created John Q, I was conscious of what America wanted to stand for. He’s honest, tough and has integrity: a man of the people, even the abbreviation of his name reflects it. It’s still part of the psyche I experience when I’m over there and in these days of spin and economy of truth, I really want to espouse it.
I completely understand why Americans are so protective of the 2nd Amendment: the right to bear arms was a product of the time and was written so a people’s militia could be mobilised to ensure there was a check on the excesses of government. Now though, the gun laws are crazy. The fact that in Texas you can walk down the street with an AR15 assault rifle over your shoulder is not what the 2nd Amendment was for. Everything has been blown out of proportion and to be a police officer is incredibly difficult. You’re a target like an RUC officer once was in Northern Ireland, or any Federale in Mexico or Colombia. What Trump is trying to do is distort that spirit I mentioned above by creating blame and confrontation. It’s an abuse, a misuse of all that established America in the first place. America is a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of all the nations of the world and he’s turned that into a negative, rather than the positive it started out as.
One of the threads that runs through the novel is mental illness, seen mainly in those who have returned from Vietnam. Is this something that is important to you?
Vietnam was the first war where syndromes like PTSD were actually recognised. It’s always been there; the human mind can only take so much and that was evidenced by shell shock in WWI, which was greatly misunderstood. So, yes, it was an area I wanted to explore and it allowed me to develop the plot in a way that maintained the sense of veracity I hoped to establish.
This is a complicated plot, with a number of twists and turns. Did you have the ending in your head, the plot development? Or was it more of an organic process?
Normally, I plot the book in its entirety before I begin, though it does expand and contract along the way. In this case, it developed over time with the various drafts I mentioned above and so was much more organic than usual. I spend a lot of time thinking about each plot point, how it would move the narrative along in order to maintain the pace and necessary tension a novel in this genre has to display. I have copious notes on all the books I write and plan the section I’m working on before I begin every day.
While never gratuitous, there is violence in the book, and often in unexpected places. Was it integral to the story? Designed to shock or provoke despair?
There is a level of violence in the book, it’s part and parcel of being about a Texas Ranger. It’s said that the Rangers were shaped by the enemies they’ve faced, which sounds more akin to a military outfit than one embedded in law enforcement. That fits with how they were established, of course, and Texas is a violent and dangerous place, as is Louisiana, which is where I set THE CONTRACT. There’s an epithet in Texas “One riot, one Ranger” it embodies what they’re expected to deal with. They usually operate alone and their day to day existence is dangerous. As far as the description of violence goes, I will never be gratuitous, and the fact that in THE LONG COUNT it crops up in places you might not expect to find it, is indicative of the “villain’s” state of mind. It is the very unpredictability of mental illness that is the most unnerving, so in this context – though it wasn’t deliberately there to shock – I suppose it’s going to.
Did you set out to write a series?
Absolutely. I believe that in John Q I’ve created the kind of character no one else is writing. I’ve given him a background that establishes him as both real and probable and I intend to write about him until I can’t write anymore. I know I’m ploughing a lonely furrow and it will take time to create the level of interest I need, but I’ve been on this mission since 2009. It took a long time to get a publisher to buy into it and it will take time to get the readership. It doesn’t matter. I’m single-minded and this will be a long and satisfying series, both for me, but especially (I hope) for the reader.
As mentioned above I’ve just completed the third book in the series, RED DEVIL DRIVE and I’ve created a one page taster for the fourth LEAN DOG – LONG CHASE. That’s in the inception stage right now, fermenting nicely but not yet ready for pen and paper.
What are you reading now?
I’ve not had time to read anything lately, but I’m about to begin THE DARK INSIDE by my great friend Rod Reynolds.
About JM Gulvin:
Born in the UK, JM Gulvin divides his time between Wales and the western United States. He is the author of many previous novels, as well as Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s bestselling travel book Long Way Down. The Long Count is his first John Q mystery and he is currently at work on the follow-ups. He is married and has two daughters.
You can find Jeff on Twitter at @
The Long Count
Faber & Faber
Published: 6 October 2016 in paperback