We are thrilled to welcome Jeff Gulvin back to the Orenda Community blog, talking about the most recent addition of the John Q thriller series, The Contract. I reviewed The Long Count last year, and called it ‘one of the finest, most evocative and original thrillers I’ve read in quite some time’ (see review here), and I’m delighted to confirm that The Contract hits the ground running, delivering a past-paced, beautifully plotted, complex read featuring characters that are becoming almost iconic. Texas Ranger John Q is moral minded and as tough as they come, intransigent in his determination to uncover corruption, doggedly unpick testimonies, square up to high-level politicians and senior members of the police force, and fight the corner of those who have been victims of everything from discrimination, blackmail and racial (and other) abuse in order to find the truth. He works on instinct; he returns over and over again to the scenes of the crimes, to unwilling witnesses who share deep-seated secrets and aren’t afraid to lie. We are transported to seedy New Orleans, a (literal) hotbed of deceit, but beautifully described and rendered, and then back to the ranch, the stretches of open Texas desert that John Q calls home, along with his son James and his loyal friend Pious. Setting becomes another character, a rich and vibrant addition to the plot, which makes it sing with authenticity. Gulvin pushes John Q out of his comfort zone and jurisdiction, forcing him to rely on his wits and his ability to self-defend, as he investigates a series of murders that begin with a simple ‘overdose’ (or poisoning) of prescription drugs. The plot deepens to include elements of the Kennedy assassination (and conspiracy theories), petty crooks who have absconded from jail, the treacherous wealthy elite of New Orleans, the underground bars of the city and, in particular, a memorable young jazz singer, Gigi Matisse, whose grandmother Nana has a perplexing and sinister relationship with powerful New Orleans attorney Rosslyn F. Tobie. As he uncovers the layers of guilt and an increasingly complicated series of interlinked cases, John Q is in a race against time – and an unknown foe in the form of Franklin, who has masterminded an act of treachery that will be carried out unless John Q can pull together the strands of the mystery at the heart of it all. The Contract is a masterful thriller … confident, complex, exquisitely written and expertly researched. The culture, the time, the people, and the history are impeccably drawn, and the superb plot gathers steam, driven by a nail-biting tension, to an explosive conclusion. This is a fine work of fiction from an author who continues to deliver, and I personally cannot wait to see what John Q does next. Outstanding.
In New Orleans, Texas Ranger John Q is out of his jurisdiction, and possibly out of his depth. It seems everyone in Louisiana wants to send him home, and every time he asks questions there’s trouble: from the pharmacist to the detective running scared to the pimp who turned to him as a last resort. Before John Q knows it, he looks the only link between a series of murders. So who could be trying to set him up, and why, and who can he turn to in a city where Southern tradition and family ties rule?
Q&A with Jeff Gulvin:
- Despite sharing the same key protagonists, The Contract is a very different book from The Long Count, with the more Gothic and psychological elements of the latter exchanged for more action and a tightly woven series of subplots. What prompted this change?
I’ve always been conscious of making sure my readers never get the same book twice and that’s partly why I chose a Texas Ranger for my protagonist rather than, say, a homicide detective. There is more action in the second book, but that’s partly because I felt it was important to contextualise John Q within the history of The Rangers in way I didn’t in the first book. There was lots of talk in The Long Count about what he was capable of, but in this book, we get to witness it. I wanted to accentuate how the Texas Rangers differ from any other state police force in that they were originally a militia set up to protect settlers from the Comanche and Kiowa. It’s said of them that they’ve been shaped by the enemies they faced and this was an aspect of their history, the violence of the frontier so to speak, that wasn’t evident in the first book. The action isn’t there merely for “action’s sake”. I wanted a different feel to the narrative without contradicting the writing style that has taken a lifetime to perfect. I was very conscious that although John Q finds himself in a pretty violent conflict, that violence must not be gratuitous but realistic given his role as a Ranger. He packs two guns and knows how to use them, but there always has to be consequences to his actions otherwise none of what he does feels real. One of the by-products of that is how it impacts on his relationship with his son and that’s as important to me as the crime thriller plot.
- You’ve taken John Q out of his jurisdiction, making him more vulnerable than usual. Was this a technique employed to drive the tension?
Actually, I chose this setting because I know New Orleans extremely well. I know it better than Texas in fact, though that will change as the series develops. The inspiration for this differing landscape grew out of a real event in the late sixties when Ranger Joaquin Jackson (who passed away last year) went to New Orleans to hunt down a killer who had murdered someone in Texas. I think by definition the lack of jurisdiction does serve to drive the narrative because, as you rightly point out, it inevitably puts John Q in a much more vulnerable position. In that sense, it was deliberate, yes. I wanted to see how he would react in that kind of situation as much as any other reader.
- You paint a sombre picture of a New Orleans rife with corruption and greed, from the top to the bottom echelons of society. How much of this is an accurate portrayal of the city’s past?
Unfortunately, this isn’t just an accurate picture of New Orleans’ past, it reflects the city’s present and probably its future. It has always been thus, at least that’s been my experience based on the people I’ve hung out with over the years and the study I have undertaken which goes back to the days of Quadroon girls and the pirate Jean Lafitte. The police department has been inherently corrupt, though that was often due to poor vetting and paltry salaries. The only time when this wasn’t the case was actually during the period of my first few visits in the late 1990’s. That was because of a Chief of Police who made it his mission to root out the corruption that had been there through the fifties all the way into the eighties. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the mayor Ray Nagin was on TV lambasting the government for the lack of support and claiming he was the champion of the people. It didn’t last long. In 2014 he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after being convicted on 20 counts of bribery, fraud and money laundering.
I think my New Orleans is pretty much how it’s always been. It’s a city unlike any other in the United States, very family oriented and fiercely protective of its criminal boundaries. There are no major gangs because the crime scene is rooted in family. None of the major players (Crips & Bloods or Gangsta Disciples) have managed to break in. Most people visit and have a great time in the French Quarter then leave again. I, on the other hand, am always researching, and that means cops and FBI agents, local gangsters and black kids so hopelessly lost the FBI refer to them as “Throwaways”. It is a dangerous, violent place and you have to be careful what you’re doing. You have to consider who you’re talking to and be conscious of your location. Ray Davies of The Kinks was shot in New Orleans after his girlfriend was mugged. In January, this year, 75 people were killed or wounded by gunfire. Stray too far off the tourist trail and trouble will find you, I can guarantee it.
- John Q and his team (particularly on the ranch) seem to be almost the only characters with a moral compass, in an incredibly unsavoury world. Much of the corruption is linked to the city, to its ‘then’ modern values, while the rugged men on the ranch reflect those that are more stolid and homespun. Was this your intention?
I’m not sure I wholly agree with you. It’s true John Q and those on the ranch have their moral compass, but that does tend to be born of their environment and also John Q’s role as a law enforcement officer. One could actually argue that his moral compass isn’t quite as cut and dried as it seems with the way the book approaches its conclusion, the New Orleans section anyway.
‘You’re a cop, John Q.’
‘Not down here I ain’t.’
That said I don’t deny my intention has always been to try and espouse what are considered to be old west values. I still see that kind of approach to life in many of my small-town American friends today. It’s the part of America that America would like to be, the part it tries to show to the world yet struggles to achieve. I think there’s a place in modern fiction for the kind of hero who isn’t plagued by demons and vices. His treatment of the bad guys is empathic as far as it can be until they cross the line, then there’s no going back. I believe there’s a solid moral compass in some of the New Orleans based characters as well. Nana and Gigi are products of colour, time and environment, both trying to make their way in a city that was intrinsically racist. Those two women do what they have to in order to get on in life given the circumstances in which they find themselves. They’re on the edge for sure, but they reflect the streetwise people I’ve met during my time and though they don’t share the sort of ground John Q likes to tread, within their context they do their best. I think the same can be said of Detective De La Martin. He’s not John Q but his moral compass is intact.
- Beneath the unremitting tension, action, suspense and unease there is some excellent characterisation, and more than a hint of pathos. You provide motivations, however suspect, for all of your characters. How important is this to you?
The most important facet of any novel I write is the characterization. I’m lucky enough to have had a pretty varied existence and met myriad different people and much of that finds its way into my fiction. Long ago I was taught that if you’re going to write a novel (no matter how far-fetched) it has to have verisimilitude (the appearance of being true). If you don’t give your peripheral characters a sense of motivational reality, they won’t come across as real.
- We get a bit of a love story developing at the ranch, before Gigi returns to New Orleans … will she be back?
I’m not telling you that, Karen. That’d be giving too much away! No, I’m joking. Yes, we will see Gigi again at some point in the future. You never know it might be that Pious has to spread his wings a little more than he’s had to so far.
- The poisoning was ingenious … what inspired this?
The poisoning is true. Or at least that remains the belief of some people concerned with conspiracy theory. There are a number of characters in this book who were real and I’ve used real events (such as the poisoning you refer to) to fuse reality with the fiction. The outfit I used as the basis for the “bad guys” is also real or at least it used to be. Whether it still exists in some form nobody knows, but given the subversive, murky nature of US politics it’s certainly possible.
- There is more than a hint of Hemingway in your writing – sparse, uncluttered, yet richly descriptive and almost subliminally emotive. Was he an influence?
Yes, Hemingway has been a massive influence. I’ve read everything he ever wrote, and years ago, when I first started out, I was taught how to re-write using Hemingway’s method. It was all about being as spare as possible, less is more, and that subliminal emotiveness you mention – they used to say about Hemingway “It’s not the lines he wrote as much as the white spaces in between”. In other words – what he didn’t say. The biggest lesson I learned was his maxim “Write Fat. Re-write lean.” Nothing should ever appear in one’s work that does not need to be there. An idea, sentence, a word. All my influences are literary, something I’ve worked on over the years in order to be as accomplished a craftsman as I can. I think I’ve always had a hankering to take on the great American novel, but being a Brit that’s not easy to do.
- This is definitely a book for the armchair detective, with red herrings scattered and a host of twists. Is this the type of book that you would like to read? Are you an armchair detective?
I’m not really an armchair detective, no. It’s certainly the kind of book I like to read or the kind of film I’d like to watch. When I research my books, I try to live them as much as I can – sort of method writing – if you will. As far as the twists and red herrings go, they come naturally as the plot unfolds. So many real mysteries and crimes have dead ends and blind alleys, but usually in some small way they’re integral to the dénouement and so that’s how I try to plot. I want the reader to get to the end and say: “Ah, yes, I get that now, I see why that was there.” I never forget we’re in the entertainment business and readers are intelligent, thinking people, particularly crime readers. Many great crime novelists would be up for literary prizes if they weren’t plying their trade in the genre. PD James, James Lee Burke, Dennis LeHane to name but a few. One of my favourite films for example, is “The Usual Suspects” which is always referred to as a real writer’s film. It’s incredibly clever but no less entertaining for that. You get a lot of that on Sky Atlantic these days, rather than movies, which says something about the parlous state of the film industry. When a top actor wants to be stretched now they appear in a series on TV.
- There seems to be an appetite for ‘Americana noir’, as evidenced by the success of Rod Reynolds and Tim Baker, both of whom share your publisher, Faber. Is this reflective of a trend, do you think, or just clever marketing of your editor’s taste?
I’m not sure it’s a trend, I really don’t know. It is definitely my editor’s taste, though, we often say we were both born in the wrong country at the wrong time. Rod and Tim write great books, and like me they’re entrenched in Americana. But Angus Cargill (my editor) discovered Willy Vlaughtin before any US publisher and Willy is a modern-day Raymond Carver albeit writing great novels not short stories.
- What are you reading now?
I’m not actually reading anything I’m sorry to say. I’m very busy writing the fourth John Q and I’ve just finished helping my great friend Charley Boorman, put together his autobiography Long Way Back. The fact is I’m pretty beat at the end of the day. If I need a shot in the arm though, I always turn to Cormac McCarthy. A few lines of The Crossing or Blood Meridian is all I need. The bottom line is I’m 55 this month and have this notion that time is slipping through the hourglass. I want to leave a decent John Q legacy when I bite the dust, so I spend every waking moment either writing or plotting, or thinking about the two.
- What’s next?
The third John Q novel is finished. Red Devil Drive, it’s different again, showing another side to this Texas Ranger I’ve created. More in keeping with The Long Count than The Contract, John Q is back in Texas where he belongs. That said he owns a house in Idaho, which is my favourite state in the union and I fully intend to set at least one book in the series up there. Right now, I’m midway through the fourth book which is set in Texas. Unless Angus or my agent Robert Kirby fights me on it, it’ll be called Mile-Post 402.
About Jeff Gulvin:
Born in the UK, J M 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 @
Faber & Faber
Published: 6 April 2017
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