Bringing crime fiction to Leeds with John Barlow

As we approach publication for the explosive and gripping new novel Right to Kill, we talk to author John Barlow about why he decided to set his crime novel against the gritty backdrop of Leeds, West Yorkshire.

I love West Yorkshire. Not in a flat cap and whippet kind of way. I love how it manages to be modern but not too modern, as if it’s never quite ready to forget its past, and too modest to be flash and braggartly about its present, unlike some areas in the North (yes, Manchester, I’m talking about you). The West Riding’s old mill towns are a constant reminder of a glorious, prosperous history, with the sense of old industry having vanished but the industriousness somehow still there. And nestled in between these towns are far older, rural villages, creating an odd, ever-changing landscape.

I grew up in Gomersal, a pre-industrial village on the outskirts of Cleckheaton, itself an industrial (now post-industrial) town. There was a wool mill behind our house, but also three-hundred-year-old weavers’ cottages dotted about, plus a few pubs that hadn’t changed much in a couple of centuries. West Yorkshire’s patchwork of rural and rundown urban is perfect for crime writing. On a very practical level, you can get characters into a variety of different settings quickly and efficiently (thanks M62!) There are equally quick-fire contrasts between pockets of middle-class affluence and economic deprivation, and the physical mapping out of socially realistic plots is made a lot easier by the proximity of so many different kinds of locations.

You can easily forget how distinctive Yorkshire is until you go back. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the South of England, and I still feel uncomfortable there. But I come up on the train, step into Leeds station at midnight, and it feels like home. Even the drunks are nicer. A different country? Almost. There’s something oddly welcoming about the people. Not out-going, but intrinsically friendly. You notice it especially in the way people speak, a certain clipped warmth, an understated humour, the willingness to talk to strangers. For me, walking into a pub in Leeds or Shipley or Cleckheaton is the one of the singular pleasures of life.

I currently live in Spain, and writing about Yorkshire is a way of keeping connected to the place. The settings in RIGHT TO KILL are all real: the local library where I spent many hours as a kid; my old comprehensive school; the locations for both murders (I always knew I’d kill someone there one day); my ‘local’ curry house in Birstall; the pubs where I learnt how to get served under-age in the 80s; the pie shop in Cleckheaton… I didn’t have to invent anything. The novel is a distillation of everything I know and love about where I grew up. Even the main character’s name is real: Joe Romano is a friend of mine, a carpenter from Worksop.

The book also tries to reflect something of the less appealing aspects of today’s Yorkshire. There are drugs, of course. They’ve expanded into pretty much all the old mill towns and villages, becoming a permanent feature of life. But there’s also a new kind of disquiet, an undercurrent of casual xenophobia or insularity (I’m not absolutely sure which). It seems to have become gradually more overt during and after Brexit, despite the whole region having been avowedly multi-cultural for decades. There’s something different going on, something that wasn’t so palpable when I was younger. People seem to be looking for answers, and perhaps they thought they’d found them in Brexit (there was a very large pro-Brexit vote in many areas). But the disquiet persists. There’s a tension, a certain nervousness. This is sad to see, but it’s also great terrain for crime writers.

Finally, there’s Leeds. The jewel in the crown, a big, confident, vibrant city which nobody could possibly fail to love. Plus it’s home to the hugely imposing Elland Road Police HQ and, right opposite, Leeds United’s stadium, current shrine to its saint-like manager Marcelo Bielsa. And yes, they both feature in the novel.

Right to Kill is out in just one week! Available to pre-order here.

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