Lex H Jones is an exceptional writer, whose published works – spannning crime, horror, literary fiction and children’s literature – always surprise and perplex. I was quite overwhelmed by his very fine crime novel The Other Side of the Mirror (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and I found it a great honor to have this author come to tea.
Mr Jones, do come in. Welcome to my building site. Yes, please leave any guns on the hall-stand and put on this hard hat. Things are always falling here, including me.
I wasn’t sure where you would feel most comfortable – thinking of your book, I considered the chapel, though it’s only half built… Or the dungeon might be dark enough for you. If you would be so kind as to suggest your comfort zone, I will do my best to accommodate you. (Nothing is too much trouble when I have a distinguished visitor – if you ask for a river of blood I will make the arrangements). So where would you prefer me to interview you? The choice is yours.
As long as I can have a cup of tea, I don’t really mind. I’m still British.
British! I thought you were American! Forgive me! A fellow European. Almost a neighbour. I will have one of my builders make you a brew. We can take out on the terrace … Yes – you see that pile of breeze-blocks? That will do. So where exactly in Britain are you from, Mr Jones? Windsor? The Home Counties?
From Sheffield, actually…
Good heavens! You’re the second visitor I’ve had from there. That troublesome Jason Beech is still in my dungeon. (Unless my boys have done him in by now – I must check sometime.) I gather Sheffield is a rough sort of place… Grim is it? Like The City?
From my childhood in the late 80s I remember it being very grey and grim, though now it’s not like that at all. I think it made a smart move by deciding to start becoming a business home of banking and tech, rather than constantly clinging to the past of a steel and mining industry that just isn’t here anymore.
But there must be something about the place! 100% of my British visitors come from there. (Well, that’s you and Mr Beech). But two crime writers, both brilliant, both marvellously dark. Is there soot in the air?
You mean, does it give one an inclination towards noir? I think it could, if you’re the right sort of age to remember its industrial past and still cling to that. But it’s a post-industrial city that’s actually modernized a lot over the past few decades. It’s very vibrant and artistic and green.
Green eh? Vibrant and artistic? Not the inspiration for The City then. That seemed to be a place without a blade of grass, or anything really living. Did you have any real city in your mind as you wrote it? Or does it come from somewhere dark inside your head?
I can’t say as I had a specific city in mind, but I did draw on my thoughts and feelings about cities in general from my youth. I grew up outside Sheffield, where it’s green and quiet, and being a child who was somewhat timid (I wasn’t actually diagnosed with High Functioning Anxiety until my thirties), I found big cities that we would visit to be somewhat intimidating. Everything was big and loud and dirty, people were unfriendly and always seemed to think what they were doing mattered more than what anybody else was doing. There was something very imposing about them.
As an adult, I went to work in cities, forcing me to spend a lot of time there, so much of that negative feeling went away. The bad stuff about cities didn’t change…they’re still loud and dirty compared to the countryside, and full of arseholes…..but I was no longer a timid little child who was easily put off by these things. I was an adult, able to see the nuance and vibrancy of such places, and find things I loved about them. Each City has its own character, and when you find it then you can see the sun through the grey clouds. For The City, it was a case of remembering that childhood fear of them, and just amplifying it. I wanted to make a fictional city that didn’t have a sun behind the clouds, that didn’t have any character beyond the superficial greyness. Just the worst place you can imagine yourself being stuck. That’s what The City is.
Well that certainly came through when I read it. It felt it was swallowing me up. I hate to think what is was like, living with it in your head all the time it took to write it… You seem a pretty phlegmatic writer, but you tell me you suffer from anxiety. Whatever were you feeling as you created that world?
The book actually came much easier than I expected, to be honest. I’d never written crime before, so I thought I’d struggle with the tone of this one. But it all seemed to come quite naturally. I think I drew on some of the old mental remnants of being a teenage Goth kid, and dug up all the “the world is crap, everything is crap” feelings that were still buried in there somewhere. The actual writing of it, getting lost in The City did actually leave me feeling pretty bleak at times, so as much as I enjoyed it, I was glad to see the back of it.
It’s certainly powerful stuff. There seems to be a religious subtext to it. And I’ve seen that focus on the supernatural in other things you’ve written. Your first novel about God and the Devil. Your children’s book. In this book, the glorious Pope. And I felt that Duggan was at times a Christ-like figure, albeit in a decidedly troubling way…
I do find religion fascinating and it’s a strong part of our history, so there’s a lot to dig into whether you’re a believer or not. Which is, I suspect, why it plays such a strong part in my stories.
So do you have a religious background? Did you go, dare I ask, to a catholic school?
Not in the slightest. I was raised in a family where religion just wasn’t, and still isn’t, a thing. My parents were typical Middle-Class English in that, if pushed, they’d probably say they were Christian, but they never once spoke about Jesus outside of Christmas time, never once attended church, and certainly never read the Bible. Personally I’m an outright atheist, but not the annoying kind who is militant about it.
This feels like a book that is searching for redemption. Duggan can see the soul in every prostitute and vagabond, and he longs to rescue them before its too late. But he doesn’t have much compassion for the bad guys. So it’s also a book full of vengeance, and the roughest of justice. Do you find a conflict there? Couldn’t any the bad guys ever have made good? Is it really, underneath, a matter of black and white?
I don’t believe in black and white, goodies and baddies, good vs evil. They’re childish concepts. There’s just people. And people do good stuff and bad stuff, the culmination of which defines how people see them. But whatever their sum adds up to (more good or more bad), they’re not seen the same by everyone. You’re a different character in everybody’s story. That dickhead manager you had at work whom you hated? In your story he’s a villain. To the wife and child he has at home, to whom he brings home a good wage for doing a difficult job, and shows a completely different side of himself, then he’s a beloved father figure and caregiver. Nobody is just one thing. Twitter could do with learning that lesson. Everyone is nuanced and layered.
So as for the characters in the book? They’re complex. Are they good or bad people? There’s no such thing. It depends who you ask and through which lens they’re being viewed.
I love that ambiguity in your characters! Pope: a man of God, of scrupulous integrity, driven by noble motives and yet utterly ruthless and deadly. Duggan too – such a dedicated, selfless cop! He’s almost like Jesus. So I was rather disturbed when he shot off the balls of an unarmed guy he could easily have arrested. Given all the recent attention to this matter, what are your views about police brutality?
In the real world, police brutality, or corruption in any way, is the worst kind of crime. Because they should be better than that. They HAVE to be better than that. Any officer who allows their aggression or their personal prejudices to influence their actions, has no place wearing a badge. They are not supposed to be the enforcement agents of a hostile government. They are meant to be protectors, they are meant to make people feel safe. All people, of every creed, who reside within the country they operate in. If they’re not doing that, then something is deeply wrong with the system.
It’s easy to watch TV shows or films, or read books of course, and root for the cop who plays by his own rules. Because that’s fiction, as much so as a superhero movie. But in real life, the view of such officers should be very, very different. The moment a police officer decides the law doesn’t apply to them, they’ve forgotten the point of their job. Because it should apply to them more than anyone.
Well spoken there! You have dodged my bullet! Which brings me neatly to one of the questions that I ask all my visitors. (It’s a matter of personal research – one day I might write a scholarly article). Do you box, Mr Jones? Martial arts of any kind? Guns? Swords? Do you like to fight?
Nope. I’m a physical person, I go to the gym a lot and enjoy physical challenges like hikes or assault courses and the like. But I don’t do competitive sport, and certainly not combative. I have no moral issue with it, it’s just not in my nature. I don’t care enough about winning. I do things because I enjoy them, not because I want to ‘win’, whatever the parameters of such a thing might be.
Ha! Neither a catholic nor a pugilist. You are bucking two trends that I have noticed amongst crime writers. I will make a note: this young man is a maverick.
I appreciate the “young man”, I don’t hear that much anymore at 35…
A mere strippling! (As I am myself – the Brontës have turned 200 now, and they’re quite modern… And I’ve recently been reviewing the New Testament – that seemed pretty topical). But you’re alive of course – one can’t get much younger than that. So now to my final question – a brief improving trip to the moral high ground. (I’m looking for redemption myself in fact, sooner or later some visitor will show me the way.) We’re a flawed sort of creature, we humans. If you could tweak the human DNA to insert one drive or principle to modify the human psyche – something that humans would instinctively feel obliged to follow – what would that be?
I think something which forces empathy kick in, before you do anything negative towards another individual. Imagine being forced to feel how your victim feels before you try to mug them? Imagine a bully feeling every bit of shame and terror that their chosen target in the schoolyard felt. They wouldn’t still be able to do it. Now of course, some forms of negativity are necessary, so we’d have to learn to cope with that. If you tell someone they’re an alcoholic, that’s going to make them feel bad, but it’s a necessary evil. If you tell your child that no they can’t eat chocolate all day, then they’ll be upset, but again, it’s necessary. But for the more serious stuff, like assault both verbal and physical, racially insensitive language, all that kind of thing, being forced to feel how it made the person on the other end of it feel, would drastically alter how the human race behaved.
I like your thinking Mr Jones. You parry well. I suspect that thinking might be your martial art. I thank you for paying me the honor of a visit. I wish you well on your journey home. It isn’t so very far – turn left as you leave the site (all right thinking people veer to the left), then walk towards the evening sun till you come to water, and then you’re almost there.
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More about Lex H Jones
Lex H Jones is a British author, horror fan and rock music enthusiast who lives in Sheffield, North England.
Lex’s noir crime novel The Other Side of the Mirror (reviewed in parallel with this interview) was published in 2019, with his first published novel Nick and Abe, a literary fantasy about God and the Devil spending a year on earth as mortal men, published in 2016. His latest release is The Old One and The Sea, released 1st November 2019, which is a children’s weird fiction book centred around the reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos. Lex also has a growing number of short horror stories published in collections alongside such authors as Graham Masterton, Clive Barker and Adam Neville. He is due to release his first solo collection of short ghost stories, titled Whistling Past The Graveyard and an occult detective novel titled The Final Casebook of Mortimer Grimm in 2021.
When not working on his own writing Lex also contributes to the proofing and editing process for other authors.