Mon oncle: crime fiction and real-life research by John Barlow

John Barlow

Write about what you know! That’s what they say. And it makes a lot of sense. If a writer can draw on personal experience – a specific setting, a series of events, real people – it makes the creation of the fictive world easier and lends verisimilitude to the story.

My first book was ‘EATING MAMMALS’, about a man who ate furniture for a living. Personal experience? No; I’d never so much as chewed a lampshade when I wrote it. However, I did the next best thing: research. The story is based on the 1930s sideshow profession of gourmandizing, men who would eat staggering amounts of food as a fairground attraction. Another source for research was Michel Lotito, otherwise known as Monsieur Mangetout. Throughout a long and notorious career he ate 18 bicycles, two beds, a pair of skis and a Cessna 150 light aircraft; the latter took him two years, and he achieved it, as with all his extraordinary feats of ingestion, by grinding every part of the plane down into tiny fragments and swallowing them with copious amounts of liquid…

I digress. Write about what you know! In the absence of the necessary knowledge, you need to research a topic to get yourself up to speed on the nuts and bolts. With crime writing this is particularly important. Most crime fiction involves murder. Yet most of us have never killed anyone (there is at least one well-known exception among current British novelists: answers on a postcard). Writing crime, then, necessarily depends on research and imagination.

When I began planning my mystery HOPE ROAD, I realised that I needed to know more about British police procedure. I was fortunate in that the West Yorkshire Police assigned me a detective from CID. The conversations I had with him were absolutely crucial, and it was particularly useful to speak to someone from the very department I was writing about (Leeds CID). I also got to a know a DCI from the Lincolnshire Force through a friend in the probation service, and he gave my plot a thorough going-over; after he scrutinized the police-related elements in the story (shaking his head and tutting) I had to make a lot of changes to the plot.

As research goes, this was pretty good. HOPE ROAD also involves counterfeit money, which has long been an interest of mine. If you’re interested in this area of crime, Stephen Jory’s FUNNY MONEY is a good starting point. Through a combination of sheer good luck and persistence, I got to meet and talk to a professional money counterfeiter last year. I ended up sitting in a Walthamstow cafe discussing the best way to pass off fake banknotes with someone who did it for a living! Great research, but that’s another story…

With the research for HOPE ROAD going well, I still felt there was a bit too much second-hand stuff in the book, and not quite enough of the human/personal angle that I wanted for a psychological mystery. What happened next was not particularly pleasant, but for a novelist it was priceless: I discovered that my uncle John had been an international arms dealer and thief. This is how it happened.

The Lord-Longstaffs, on my father’s side of the family, were well-known for their eccentricity and an unorthodox approach to business. Just after the war, for example, my dad’s aunt Jean discovered twenty crates of army issue rifles in an outbuilding at the back of a  hat shop owned by the family. I’d delved into the Longstaff history before, basing my novella ‘The Possession of Thomas-Bessie’ on the life of my great-great grandfather, John Longstaff, and his theft of a winged cat (don’t ask).

John Lord Longstaff (b. 1948, d. 1984) was from the same line, but I knew little about him. Then, about a year ago, my uncle Frank was showing me the family tree.” And that’s John, of course,” he said. “Murdered by Gaddafi.” As you can imagine, that got my attention.

Uncle John was a legal arms dealer in the 1970s and ’80s. This article in Gun Mart Magazine describes him as ‘…the West Yorkshire based shooting entrepreneur and international arms dealer John Longstaff [who had] done much to promote handloading in this country.’ So, he was well thought of in his profession. He was legitimate. In the world of international arms dealers, though, he was small fry. As a novelist, this is the kind of thing that I find interesting. Because whereas he dealt in weapons of death, he also sold military memorabilia, medals, peaked caps, that sort of thing. Not exactly Khashoggi. In fact, he led a very ordinary life, running a small business and living in a modest semi in Pudsey. When he died he left a young wife and two daughters, aged eight and two.

The manner of his death, however, was not ordinary. He was found dead on a flight from Amsterdam in ’84, slumped in the toilet, his throat cut. An apparent suicide, complete with suicide note. Throat? Who kills themselves by slashing their own throat? His wife didn’t believe it, and kicked up a fuss, challenging the coroner’s verdict of suicide. And that’s when the shit really started.

It seems that John had been making trips to Libya. No one knows why, but his wife claimed he’d been contacted by someone about working undercover. Gaddafi? Whatever the truth, what we do know is that the police were waiting for him at Heathrow the day he died. He was suspected of handling munitions stolen from the British army (the munitions were later found in his warehouse). An intelligence report then suggested a possible connection with para-military organisations in Northern Ireland. This was never proved, but it certainly shocked the family.

Indeed, the family’s reaction to his death is what I found most interesting. Because I’d never heard of any of this. The family never talked about him at all, as if my mutual consent the entire clan had decided to bury their darkest secret, to forget all about John and his suspicious death on a plane. I’ve drawn on this for HOPE ROAD, not the gun-running (that’s going into the next book), but the ways in which crime can be concealed within a family, the boundaries between right and wrong redrawn for convenience and respectability.

People sometimes walk a thin line between criminality and the law-abiding life. Having spoken at length to CID officers about criminals and their ways of working, I’ve developed an interested not so much in crime, but in the everyday lives of those who commit crime on a regular basis. Career criminals often have legitimate businesses and lead respectable, normal existences. Was that uncle John’s case? Did he fall into crime by accident, or through desperation? Or was that house in Pudsey merely a front, concealing something far more sinister?

I dunno. But having thought long and hard about this as a possible source for a novel, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to invert the scenario: an openly criminal family in which the black sheep is ‘straight’. I want to explore how the criminal and non-criminal minds meet, how one plays into the other, and how the two can never really be separate in a family setting. How does a person carry the knowledge that their close relatives are criminals? Does it condition their own life, and if so, in what way?

Write about what you know! Well, I know a little about crime. But I know a lot about the dynamics of a family straining to conceal the knowledge of criminal activity, and never quite knowing how far or how deep that activity went. As for uncle John, I’ll probably never get to the bottom of his secret life. Would he have liked HOPE ROAD? I’ll never know that, either.

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4 thoughts on “Mon oncle: crime fiction and real-life research by John Barlow

  1. wendy

    Shocked and disgusted at how little you know about how my grandparents (JOHNS PARENTS) and how they coped with his death. Just did what any parent would do grief in their own way.

  2. r martin

    The first thing I thought of when I heard that Margaret Thatcher had passed away was that now maybe someone would talk about your Uncle John and Mark Thatcher……

  3. John Barlow

    Yes, and in our case it was never proved exactly how deeply he was involved in crime. I mean, stealing munitions from the army is pretty full-on, but it doesn’t come close to supplying terrorists, if that’s what he was planning. I don’t think so, but we’ll never know. Best, JohnB

  4. K. A. Jordan

    Very interesting.

    I’m currently researching US Army CID procedures, not having much success – but it’s early yet.

    VERY interesting about your Uncle. Family secrets are so interesting because of the colusion to keep them.