John Lincoln, aka Cardiff-born author John Williams, tells us about his new thriller, Fade to Grey. Williams’ first book Into The Badlands (1991) is a series of interviews with American crime writers, biographies of Michael X, Eartha Kitt and Miss Shirley Bassey followed, as well as an excoriating account of Lynette White’s murder and the subsequent miscarriage of justice, Bloody Valentine (1994). His first novel, Faithless, was published in 1997, followed by the critically acclaimed Cardiff Trilogy. Fade to Grey is the first in a new series set in and around Cardiff and Bristol. Fading film star and activist Amelia Laverne wants Gethin Grey and Last Resort Legals to look into the case of Izma M, serving a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Is this a miscarriage of justice? Gethin and his team investigate in Fade to Grey.
Paul Burke: Crime fiction is only one of your interests; you’re a musician, book reviewer, biographer, investigative true crime writer and festival organiser. Can you tell us a little bit about John Lincoln Williams?
John Lincoln: I guess I’m a product of the punk generation. I grew up obsessed with music and literature – in that order – and I’ve attempted to live my life involved in one or the other. To that end I did a punk fanzine when I was 17, then formed a DIY punk band, worked as an anarchist printer in Cardiff, then in record shops and bookshops in Camden Town, made a couple more records then started writing for the NME and The Face before starting to write books. Over the years I’ve moved back and forth between London and Cardiff. When I started Fade to Grey, I was living in Cardiff, now I’m living in London. And alongside the books, I still do a bit of book reviewing, I co-run a books and music festival in West Wales, still do some musical collaborations, and I would like to think I’m always looking for the next interesting thing to come along.
PB: Picking up on one of your interests; you co-curate the Laugharne Weekend (5-7th April, 2019), a music and literature festival in West Wales (seaside home of Dylan Thomas). Can you tell us about the festival and what’s in store for this year?
JL: Just 10 years ago my friend Richard Thomas, who organised the great Vox’n’Roll literary events in London, suggested we start a festival in Laugharne, a strange and brilliant small town in West Wales, the model for Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. We wanted to have a festival that wasn’t just books or just music, but a mixture of both and more besides. We wanted it to be somewhere small and intimate where artists and audience would be forced to mingle, where it would be a whole weekend experience, rather than just a series of big-name acts in a marquee. It’s gone much better than we ever expected. This year’s acts range from Tracey Thorn to the great young performance poet Hollie McNish, from Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals to the fabulously eccentric Can vocalist Damo Suzuki.
PB: Fade to Grey is a return to crime writing after a few years on other projects. Is it like riding a bicycle or does it feel like a new experience?
JL: Actually I’ve never really written an out and out crime novel before, one with a murder and a puzzle and a solution. My Cardiff Trilogy all had crime elements but managed to fall in the critically favoured but disastrously uncommercial middle-ground between crime and “literature”. Years ago, when I wrote Into the Badlands, while still in my 20s, I talked to writers like James Lee Burke, James Crumley and Elmore Leonard and most of them had turned to writing crime in their 40s and 50s. So I always figured I’d wait till I got to that kind of age and then knuckle down to it. So, yes, it’s both something very familiar and something quite new. I’ve waited a long time to get started.
PB: Music is clearly important to you and it plays a part in your novels. In Fade to Grey (surely a nod to Visage and Steve Strange), Bex, the office manager, is a tribute singer by night and Gethin has a distinctive playlist (Nic Jones for instance). Is it fair to say that the ‘soundtrack’ is fundamental to the tone of the novel?
JL: I think so. It’s something I learned from reading Elmore Leonard, how much the kind of music that crops up in the story – not necessarily the author’s own favourite music – can contribute to the mood of the novel. But, yes, Gethin does like a lot of the same music as me, and I have enjoyed the chance to work in plugs for musicians I love – and the great English folk singer Nic Jones is a perfect example.
PB: You have a reputation, if not cult status, as a Welsh writer as John Williams but you chose to publish Fade to Grey as John Lincoln, what’s the motivation for the pen name?
JL: Mostly I decided that this was something of a new start. I just fancied marking that by having a new name – even if it’s only my middle name. Also, just try googling John Williams – it’s hopeless!
PB: Fade to Grey makes the most of its setting, Cardiff and Bristol feel very real, there’s also an element of social realism and key themes in the novel are miscarriages of justice and police corruption. Do you see crime writing as a tool for social commentary?
JL: Yes I absolutely do. What I loved about the American crime fiction of the 70s and 80s, is it it combined great storytelling with real insight into the ways people live in the US. The great thing about crime is it cuts across society – in many ways it’s the hidden history of our times.
PB: The novel has complex characters with complex problems, a layered plot, realistic dialogue, a healthy cynicism and a vivid setting. Is Fade to Grey Brit-noir?
JL: I would like to think Fade to Grey has all those qualities. But I’m not sure that those qualities are specifically noir. For me, noir has an element of fatalism – a sense that the world is ultimately screwed – and I’d like to think that there are some notes of optimism in there! But it’s probably fair to say that it’s a novel with a strong sense of the dark side.
PB: Fade to Grey is modern and pacy, it has a nice cosmopolitan feel to it. Does reviewing new books help you keep your finger on the pulse?
JL: Cheers! I suppose it must do, to some extent. Though I’m not sure that I read any more crime than the average crime reader. In fact, I often suspect that I read rather less!
PB: In the past your character have been described as misfits and grifters, as if you are writing about people who are a part of a distinct ‘underbelly’. The characters in Fade to Grey are ordinary people: Yes, they are on the edge, in trouble, addicted, flawed etc. (some are unlucky and they make bad choices). Essentially though, they are ordinary people in extreme circumstances, everyman screw-ups/heroes. Is that how you see them?
JL: Yes, absolutely! Most of the so-called criminals I’ve met are precisely like that – regular people who made bad decisions, or simply been unlucky. I’ve spent the past 30 years as a freelance writer. I can’t help but have sympathy with misfits and grifters – these are my people, I’m one of them.
PB: As the novel opens Gethin has a complicated private life and he’s avoiding that by burying himself in his equally complicated work life when a potentially lucrative job comes in. He’s in danger of sinking both his private and professional life. Is that how you see him?
JL: Yes, but in many ways surely that’s true of all of us. There may be some people who find it easy to succeed in both personal and professional lives, but I don’t think I’ve met very many of them!
PB: That said, Gethin and Last Resorts Legals team are likable; an eclectic, off-beat mix, they are fun to be with as characters. Were they as much fun to create as to read?
JL: Thanks again and, yes, absolutely. I spent a lot of time in getting the setup right for this series. I’ve never written a series before so, knowing from the beginning that I was going to want to return to these characters, it was absolute essential to create people I could enjoy coming back to. Hopefully these characters who are immediately fun to meet, but are also people you and I want to find out more about.
PB: Fade to Grey is a nice mix of light and dark. There’s a humorous undertone and a couple of laugh out loud moments, leaning toward farce (life can be farce). I’m thinking of Bex’s incarnation as Kate Bush and the shoeless chase. How do you think comedy plays in Fade to Grey and in crime fiction in general?
JL: I think it’s tricky to get right, if you overdo the comedy elements you can lose all sense of realism. But real life is always shot through with humour, and for my money a lot of contemporary crime fiction rather misses out on this. It can become relentlessly grim. I would hate to think that the version of life in my books is less funny than real life.
PB: This is the opener for a new series and, I assume, the overarching theme will continue to be miscarriage of justice. It’s an issue that should concern us all but please explain why it’s important to you?
JL: I think it’s quite a basic fear – the idea that one could be locked away for a crime you didn’t commit. It goes back to childhood, being blamed for things that weren’t your fault. However, for me, it really came into focus after I started trying to write a novel based on a real-life murder case in Cardiff. But when I started to research the case I realised that the three guys who were inside for the murder obviously couldn’t have done it. So instead of writing a novel, I wrote a non-fiction book about this miscarriage of justice. And because of that, I met other people who were imprisoned for crimes they hadn’t committed. And that’s a terrible thing to encounter – not least because it means the real criminals are still out there.
PB: Your 1994 your book, Bloody Valentine, was an account of the murder of Lynette White and the wrongful conviction of three men for her killing; revealing corruption, racism, incompetence and cover up. I know Fade to Grey is an entertainment but did this give impetus to Fade to Grey?
JL: Yes, it did. Right writing and researching Bloody Valentine opened my eyes to so much – about crime, corruption, lawyers and cops – the everyday lives of pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and gangsters. It’s a much more noir book than any of my fiction, funnily enough.
PB: What do you think of the new Welsh Noir TV: Hinterland, Keeping Faith, Hidden?
JL: To be honest I’m fairly allergic to modern British TV crime – be it English, Scots or Welsh – so I haven’t seen any of them. My loss, no doubt.
PB: What can we expect from Gethin and the team in the next Last Resort Legals outing? Do you envisage a long-running series?
JL: In the second book Gethin and the team are investigating a brutal, probable sex murder in the South Wales valleys. I hope the series will run for a while – but right now I’m just focusing on getting that difficult second instalment right!
PB: What are you reading at the moment? Anything you’d care to recommend to readers?
JL: As ever, I’m reading a lot of current crime fiction, with my reviewing hat on. Lately I’ve really enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Last Man, Don Winslow’s The Border and Tana French‘s The Wych Elm. Other than that I thought William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was every bit as good as people say.
Fade to Grey by John Lincoln
No Exit Press 9780857302892 pbk Feb 2019