An Interview by Alex Padnadel
The Fabulous Baker Boy by Alex Paknadel
John Baker has been described by the London Times as “one of Britain’s most talented contemporary crime writers”, citing as his inspiration authors as diverse as Dashiell Hammett and Andre Gide, and his stripped-out, gently philosophical noir has established him a reputation which extends beyond the usual crime circles. Born in 1942 on a council estate in Hull (also his alma mater), Baker is a renaissance man, who has been a shipbroker, a truck driver, a milkman and a social worker at various points during his life.
Baker’s most popular creation is his York-based Sam Turner series. Living as Baker does in that venerable city, he posits a brooding and decrepit York, riddled with violence and urban angst that impacts on the mind like a caffeine kick. He yokes together the leitmotifs of classic crime fiction with the abattoir realities of modern life to produce a heady concoction that lingers long on the tongue with its evocative prose and rolling dialogue.
He has published eight books to date: Poet in the Gutter, Death Minus Zero, King of the Streets, Walking with Ghosts, The Chinese Girl, Shooting in the Dark, The Meanest Flood and now White Skin Man. While the Sam Turner mysteries are firmly couched in the Private Eye tradition, these rich tales are infused with a profound social conscience. Bob-Dylan-fan Sam’s gangrenous York is populated by itinerants and homeless young people, some of whom manage to crack the shell of his stony demeanour. ‘Geordie’ is a classic example: a formerly homeless kid befriended by Turner, he fills the niche previously occupied by the street children who were the eyes and ears of Sherlock Holmes – albeit with a keener sense of social injustice.
It is this fragile warmth in the darkness that distinguishes Baker’s work from that of his contemporaries. Baker repeatedly shows us – whether it be in the Turner or the more overtly political Stone Lewis books – that there is room within the crime genre for humanity as opposed to visceral descriptions of victims in situ. Baker is a humanist, and as such his characters are first and foremost motivated by human concerns, rather than a desire for order or some draconian conception of retribution. In an increasingly cynical world where the actions of criminals are often subordinate to their personalities and level of media exposure, John Baker is a lookout in the crow’s nest of civilisation, cutting a channel for his readers between crimes of malice and crimes of necessity; a distinction that is sometimes obscured with a layer of gloss by social commentators and politicians alike.
1) The York of your fiction is shot through with a reverence for noir and American Private Eye fiction. Do you enjoy subverting traditional notions of location and place?
Yeah, I do, and while there is a love of some American fiction, I don’t know if I’d go for the whole “noir” bag. I think there are some interesting British and European crime writers, and I feel that there’s a wave of cultural imperialism coming over from the States that we might want to put a stop to, and start to look at developing what we’ve got of our own. Having said that, I write about a private eye, so you can’t get away from Hammett and Chandler. Not that I’d want to get away, especially from Hammett. He’s the one, I think. If you asked the question “who is the single most influential writer in the crime genre?”, it would be Hammett.
2) Do you see London or any other major world city as in some way “easier” to write about, or do you think writing about such enormous conurbation cultures carries with it its own attendant headaches?
For years and years, all we’ve had is capital cities, and I don’t know why. I suppose they advertise themselves better. All the songs are about Paris, or Rome, or Los Angeles, and in America their cities are so big anyway that you get to places like California and you’re really talking huge conurbations. In the last ten years we’ve had; Harvey’s Nottingham, Morse’s Oxford, Rankin’s Edinburgh and we simply don’t need to do big cities any more. I don’t know who realised it first, but we can write about real people now, wherever they are. Of course it’s still urban. I mean it’s not like Agatha Christie and her imitators, but in terms of serious or even half-serious literature, we’re talking about urban culture.
3) To what extent are the conflicts you depict in your writing palatable expressions of eternal ones? Are the stories you write meant to be taken as read, or are you putting forward a grand statement about how you believe crime and punishment are treated in Britain or the west?
They’re supposed to be taken at face value. I write to a theme. I’m more interested in literature than I am in politics, although I’m interested in politics as well. If I’m writing to a theme, like with ‘Shooting In The Dark’, then I’m interested in the theme of blindness; in seeing blindness as a metaphor for the way we live, or the ways that we fail to live. I think every character in the novel has problems seeing, and the blind woman is the one who sees most clearly. Once I’ve got the theme and the metaphor, I can begin to write. I never know where I’m going, I just hope I can sustain that interest for a year or the eighteen months it takes me to write.
4) You’ve had a career straddling the whole spectrum of employment from milkman to social worker to academic. Do you believe this protean quality in yourself allows you to inhabit so many characters?
I don’t know what it is. Everybody asks me about characters. In a social situation, I’m the quiet guy, but I think what I’ve developed is a good ear so that I can write fairly good dialogue, and that’s what convinces people. My characters live or die by the dialogue and I think people pick up on that.
5) Do you think crime fiction is sometimes used as an aegis by other writers so they can avoid confronting real social issues? Do you believe that at its pinnacle crime writing can be the modern expression of the Victorian Social Problem novel a la Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy?
Yes, I think some people use it to hide behind. I don’t want a place to hide. I want to use the crime novel as a vehicle to be able to say whatever I want. I’m not sure whether it is big enough, but I hope it is. I’m certainly trying at the moment to use it in that way, but I’m not a hundred per cent convinced . . . yet.
6) Which contemporary authors do you enjoy reading?
I don’t read a lot of crime. I’ve just read Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’ and I enjoyed it, and I like Carol Shields; she’s a Canadian writer who died a few months ago. If you’re looking for crime, I like Sarah Dunnant, KC Constantine and John Harvey, but going back to what we were talking about with the wave of American authors… For example, I’m not particularly enamoured of James Lee Burke. But Elmore Leonard knocks the socks off the rest of them.
7) Has your involvement with The Murder Squad (a loose agglomeration of authors who tour the country giving lectures, readings and workshops together) proven beneficial to your career, and what do you enjoy most about being affiliated with such a diverse group of crime luminaries?
It means we don’t have to sit at home alone all the time. It gives us an excuse to get out and talk to the people who read our books. It doesn’t exactly address that enormous gap in communication between writer and reader, but it goes some way towards it. And the contact with readers is always enlightening and enjoyable. Readers are usually intelligent and witty creatures. They enjoy pinning you down. They keep you sharp.
8) Your latest offering is White Skin Man. The Meanest Flood, I’m told, represented a departure for you in terms of precision of imagery and using your location to complement events and the feelings of characters. Can we expect more of the same in this book, and if not, what can we expect?
No. It’s very different, and it’s published out of sequence. I wrote White Skin Man before The Meanest Flood, but my publishers thought it was time for another Sam Turner novel. This new book is actually a sequel to The Chinese Girl with Stone Lewis, so obviously place is very important because they’re set in Hull. Ultimately I want the crime novel to be able to accommodate whatever I want or need to do as a writer, and if my characters need to travel then the crime genre has to be big enough to allow for that.
9) Is the Stone Lewis series (about an ex-con of eleven years making good) ultimately about redemption?
I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s about yet. When I first started writing it I wanted to involve politics and social comment. I was involved in the Sam Turner series, and Sam was fairly old from the beginning, and he’s aging in real time. I wanted a central character who was young enough to be in touch with contemporary concerns. This one certainly goes into the realm of politics – it’s about racism – and Stone Lewis has allowed me to do that. Sam wouldn’t let me do that. He was too much of a literary private eye; he couldn’t relax enough to let things happen around him. When Stone comes out of prison, I see it as a birth, a rebirth. He’s a clean sheet. On the one hand I want people to believe my characters can evolve, but on the other hand I’m with Vladimir Nabokov when he says that none of his characters evolve, because they’re galley slaves. I want to have evolution and character, but they also have to be just enough of a cipher for me to say what I want to say.
10) Finally, White Skin Man uses as its central theme the escalating racial tensions in this country, and this is obviously something that causes you concern. Is this something you encounter regularly, or did you have to seek it out for the purposes of research? Do you think the melting pot has itself melted?
Racism is an evil that has plagued us for centuries. It is part of a writer’s job to write about whatever ails us. Solving the problem of racism is too important a question to leave to politicians. They tell too many lies.
White Skin Man is available from My Bookshop.