Police Procedural – Hard Boiled – Urban Fantasy Fiction
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With us tonight is John L. French, writer of hard-boiled mystery, horror, and fantasy. Welcome, John.
John L.French: Hello, how you doing?
JMW: I’m doing swell. You used to work as a crime scene supervisor. What did that entail and how does that relate to what we think we know from TV?
John L.French: Okay, crime scene supervisor, I would go out to crime scenes with the crime scene technician, more commonly known as crime scene investigator. And I would make sure that everything that should be done was done. I’d also assist them in the processing of the scene and interact with the detectives and the patrol officers so that they would talk to me and that the CSI would be permitted to do his job uninterrupted. And as I said, I’d also assist them, generally, by drawing a crime scene diagram that let me cover the entire scene to see what needed to be done.
As far as how that applies to what we see on television, first of all, TV doesn’t show you the documentary, the documentation of a crime scene, the writing of the reports, the taking of photographs because nobody wants to spend 15, 20 minutes of television time watching somebody else take pictures. But the problem with a lot of these TV shows is less the science. What few episodes of CSI I’ve seen, their techniques, or rather their technology, is generally good. The science behind them is good. But they don’t follow proper procedures. For instance, nobody puts evidence in plastic bags.
JMW: What do you use?
John L.French: We use paper bags because evidence, particularly bloody evidence, needs air circulating. Plastic doesn’t breathe, paper does. If you put something in a plastic bag, if you put blood in a plastic bag, it will putrefy and smell up your lab. And the only reason they put it on…they do this on television is that when they hold the bag up to, you know, for people to see it, you can’t see through paper, you can see through plastic. Their chain of custody, which is the record of who’s had the evidence when, is usually sloppy with one person handing it off to somebody else. So the science behind it is good. The procedures are not something that we would follow.
Plus the fact that in more and more jurisdictions are going toward civilian crime lab people, crime scene people. I’m a civilian. All the people who work crime scenes in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, a lot of them in the state police and in other Maryland counties, they are all civilian which means they have no powers of arrest. They don’t question suspects. They do the science. They help, they assist in the identification of the people involved in the crime, and they pass their information on to the detectives whose job it is to determine what value this evidence has.
JMW: That sounds like a great background for writing mysteries and hard-boiled crime. How did you get into fantasy and science fiction?
John L.French: All right, my first story that I had published was in Hardboiled Magazine and that story was called “Past Sins.” The private eye was a former crime scene investigator before anybody else was doing crime scene investigators. And the way that started was I came up with what I thought was a great ending to a story. And I just had to write the story leading up to that. Shortly after that, well, I’d already met C.J. Henderson. I was one of his sources. He found out I was a CSI and said, “I could use a man like you.”
JMW: He would.
John L.French: Yes. And so when I started writing he encouraged me in my writing. And then, you know, he would introduce me to editors and I learned early on that when an editor of an anthology asked you, “Can you write a zombie story?” or, “Can you write a science fiction story?” the correct answer is “Yes.” And then you go on and try to figure out what you’re going to write. And he’s the one who got me involved in writing horror with some Lovecraft stuff and with some…with zombie short stories. However, because of my background, my first two zombie stories were also…were basically police stories with zombies in them.
JMW: So basically you used your background as the background of the stories in the speculative fiction.
John L.French: Yes.
JMW: Okay. Are you still working it that way or are you working it the other way?
John L.French: I’d naturally gravitate toward crime stories so when I, for instance, I’m in a new anthology by eSpec Books called “If We Had Known” and it’s stories beyond the cradle of Earth. And my story revolves around an investigator who is sent to a planet to investigate a murder of someone in the human ligation has murdered someone else in the human ligation. And he’s sent to investigate. So, you know, my first instinct is to think, “How can I fit a crime story into this?” And I think that makes my speculative fiction a little unique from other people because I have…it’s police in space.
JMW: One of your best known characters is Bianca Jones, a 5-foot-nothing police detective from Baltimore who handles the supernatural stuff that nobody else wants to deal with. What was the inspiration behind that character?
John L.French: Okay, a good…a lot of the inspiration for Bianca came from my daughter. My daughter’s about 4 foot 11, almost 5 foot, and there was, you know…when you’re that small, people don’t see you as a person. They see you as a child. So she would come…I mean, she was 16 and still getting children’s menus in restaurants.
John L.French: Yes, and so when I created the character, you know, I was asked to do a story for an anthology. It was basically H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos but with sex in it. And I looked at it as sex as monsters trying to reproduce rather than the other aspect of it. So I needed, you know, I needed a character and for some reason, Bianca sprang full born, you know. And, you know, her height has a lot to do with my daughter who, you know, who inspired the character. And there’s a lot of my daughter in the character but my…she’s not really interested in police work, thank God. You know, and she sort of…Bianca’s sort of like what I would imagine a woman reacting to trying to get…trying to succeed in a man’s world.
So she has an attitude that she’s built up as a defense mechanism. And, you know, and some of the other things my daughter inspired, there’s one story in “Here There Be Monsters.” It’s called…the story’s called “21 Doors” and it’s based on a really creepy game my daughter used to play at sleepovers.
JMW: One of the things that interested me most is that you have Bianca, the woman being the cop, whereas her husband is the one who is the researcher who runs the bookstore. And that sort of turns the mystery trope of the sleuth with the husband or the significant another male who’s on the police force or some way connected with law enforcement. Was that reversal of the trope intentional or just a happy accident?
John L.French: Initially, Joe, who, you know, was at first a colleague and then became a romantic interest and then eventually became her husband, initially, he was just a…he was somebody in the lab. And I’m not saying he was my representative in the lab but he was a somebody in the lab that Bianca could go to for, you know, for information. And I made him a little, you know, a little geeky, a little unsure of himself, not really knowing how to deal with this woman who, you know…and then it just happened that those two will be together. It’s not gonna happen right away but, you know, those two will be together and Bianca becomes aware of his infatuation. And, she doesn’t really encourage him but she doesn’t discourage him and eventually those two, you know, form a very, very strong bond.
JMW: Another thing that characterizes your work is a not-so-sneaking fondness for the not-so-supernatural aspects of pulp fiction. The last pulp magazines ended in the 1950’s yet here we are, 60 years later, people are still writing and reading pulp. To what do you attribute the endurance of this particular type of fiction?
John L.French: I think this kind of fiction goes back to a more innocent age in America where there was a very, very definite line between the good guys and the bad guys. Granted, the good guys wielded blazing 45s and, you know, shot down the bad guys, but it was always either in self-defense or because that was the only way to achieve justice. It’s what I describe as the bad guys getting what they truly deserve, and I think that resonates, you know, we want to see good win and evil defeated. And in a lot of cases, there’s a grayness between that, you know.
As far as what influenced my pulp reading, my pulp writing, I wrote a series of stories for a now out-of-print magazine called “Fading Shadows” in which the publisher and editor was a big fan of the pulps to the point where he would not allow any language or activity that didn’t occur in the pulp to occur in his magazines. I mean, the most you were allowed…the worst you were allowed to say was “hell” and “damn.” So I wrote and it was about a hard-boiled cop who was basically told, “Clean up the town any way you can.” And, you know, so basically a crazy cop with a license to kill.
JMW: That’s a scary thought.
John L.French: But that…there’s pulp basis on that. One of the first hard-boiled writers, Carroll J. Daly, had a cop called Satan Hall, who was basically…he once arrested somebody just to show he could make an arrest.
JMW: As opposed to killing them.
John L.French: Yes, and so that was my first pulp character. My second pulp character was a shadow-type character, a hooded figure who lurks in the shadows and metes out justice when the law fails. I called him the Gray Monk. And I grew…I didn’t grow up on The Shadow but my father used to listen to the radio programs and when they would rebroadcast them on like a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we would listen to them together. And he brought…once he brought me home a paperback book called “The Return of the Shadow” which, you know, basically was the, you know, the shadow’s creator, you know, doing…giving the shadow one last adventure.
And when they started reprinting “The Shadow,” I started reading them. And it’s just…it’s a literary version of comic books. It’s comic books that stemmed from the pulps and now people who like, you know…comic books have sort of gotten dark and sliding into that gray area. So the pulps are coming back because there’s a definite meting out of justice there.
JMW: What are you working on now?
John L.French: Padwolf Books has just published a new book in this Bianca series called “Monsters Among Us.” I just finished editing…I edited a book by C.J. Henderson, possibly his last book because he passed away some years ago, “Jack and Her Beanstalk”, a fairytale that a long time ago he wrote for his daughter and he shared and he was kind enough to share it with my daughter. So it’s finally published. I’m working with Padwolf on editing an anthology called “Camelot 13” which will be basically…the theme is the spirit of the Camelot. And I’m working on a new character, Simon Tombs, whose first adventure will be in the next Hellfire Lounge.
JMW: Okay, we’re coming up on the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?
John L.French: Not really, just thank you for allowing me to do this.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.