A portrait of popular crime fiction writer John Dean
by publisher, Erik Empson
After an elbow bump with John outside, I am welcomed into his house by his wife, Frances, and their daughter, Laura, who is back during university reading week, and immediately made to feel at home. Their eldest child, Michael, does not get the time away from his job as an archaeological surveyor in the Midlands to make it up to south west Scotland as much as his parents would like. But despite being relatively isolated – the couple live in a cottage nestled in a slight but open valley not far from the coast – there is a busy feel to the comfortable lounge where I am seated and plied with coffee and cake. Busy, not least due to the semi-tamed wildlife…
As I am gradually introduced to the assortment of dogs and cats – a rescue hen makes its appearance at some point – and I’m threatened with fish and ducks outside, I can’t help but begin to cycle through the literary comparisons I’m apt to make. Dolittle? Aesop? Durrell? I temporarily settle on Francis of Assisi, and park the thought as a potential goer, for if one thing is immediately clear about John it is his charitable character. And not just as regards abandoned beasts. He immediately launches into enthusiastically singing the praises of the other authors we publish. It’s as if he gets succour from the talents of others. It is effusive and genuine but I have to interrupt. Steady on now, John, I think, this is your time to shine.
The son of a librarian and a poet, born in Derby, at an early age John moved north – a trajectory that, after leaving Darlington, seems to now have halted in the Galloway area. No stranger to writing, he has been in the company of books for much of his life, although it was newspapers which brought home the bacon. He worked as a crime reporter for The Hull Daily Mail, and on the newsdesk of the Northern Echo – Frances worked as a news journalist for The Darlington Advertiser at the same time – and fostered a fascination for the dark side of society there.
John’s crime fiction takes the form of two series that run much in parallel. His DCI John Blizzard books which are set in a fictional northern port town – based on Hull it transpires – and his DCI Jack Harris series, set in the north Pennines. The decision to fictionalise the geography was conscious; although based quite exactly on real places in his mind’s eye, he explains how he likes the freedom to move the elements around. He draws on his walks in the nearby countryside for scenes in his books, and his memory of places like Hull. Laura tells me how on driving with her in that city, where she did her Bachelor’s degree, he would point out places where he’d topped various people off with a certain morbid glee.
More than the geography, both his series of books contain elements that are clearly part of John’s everyday world. Ex-army soldier DCI Jack Harris is a dog-lover and wildlife enthusiast, much like John’s father-in-law who only recently passed. DCI John Blizzard has spent a life fighting crime, much as John has spent a life writing about it, visiting and interviewing prisoners and victims alike, and his passion for steam railways is clearly linked to Darlington’s past. But what neither of these fictional detectives share with John, I believe, is their character. Both are severe, and John is the exact opposite. Warm. Encouraging. Supportive. Generous. Neither are family men, but here is John sitting with his, and other animals. That’s a nod to Durrell, by the way, they are in fact very human.
That is not to say the interpersonal warmth doesn’t come across in his books. It does, but in subtler ways than in the characters themselves. It appears in the banter, say between Blizzard and the force’s ever immaculately dressed forensics DI, who is dubbed Versace by the stalwart cop, or his mentorship of his trusty sergeant who it seems is the only person who can get away with ribbing him. It appears in the plots; the human toll of drugs, avarice and jealousy. It appears in the delivery, which flows as easily as John’s conversation.
I start to go cold on the Francis of Assisi analogy. Living for others doesn’t need to be wrapped in a cloak of eternal suffering or fear of damnation. And selflessness is not necessarily a sacrifice, but rather a metaphysical orientation. Lukewarm about Saint Francis, I start to think of a secular hero. Schopenhauer and his anti-individualism. I know it won’t hold for long because John is not a pessimist by any stretch of the imagination – his stoicism would see it as inept – but there are interesting parallels, and reversals which hold those truths in the negative.
Early in our encounter John has asked what I want to know about him. He patters off a whistle stop tour of his life. I sense quickly it doesn’t interest him, and he doesn’t think it will interest others. But there is more to it. I suspect a ruse in his candour: openness as guard. Are there beasts in the belfry too? He is used to giving, not receiving, hence he is exercising a right to silence whilst speaking. A provocation doesn’t work; thinking of his father’s job, has he ever stolen a book from a library? A look of horror. During the recoil he visibly searches for any moment he might find to blame himself for having ever given me the suggestion he would do anything of the sort.
As his wife and daughter drift in and out of the conversation, supplying tit-bits of clues, I begin to suspect they might be in on it. Or maybe he is an enigma to them too. The consensus does seem to be that he has his head in the clouds. Will I leave without getting the size of the man? He works quietly in his garage-cum-study. Ever get cross on being disturbed? No. Does he care for what he has for his tea? Not in the slightest.
So in this quietism, perhaps, John has tranquilised his individualism and forged an ascetism which can give itself over to others, thus being receptive to beauty and reproaching inner strife. John can both open readers up to small utopian worlds they don’t want to leave, ones where the good guys win in the end, and open himself up to his family and literary consorts, to be a good friend to them.
A facet of those who are so naturally giving, is that their own lives are often assumed to be problem free. If you don’t moan about your problems, you probably don’t have any. And damned right then that these perfect people should be generous to the more deserving. It will be a shock then to most people, those he mentors in the writers groups he has founded and steered, and many others, as it was to me, that John has lived for some years with Parkinson’s disease. He has masked it for a long time, but a bout of long Covid has exacerbated the symptoms and he can conceal the shuddering truth no longer.
But this is not the truth of the man. If anyone has the mindfulness to wrestle with this affliction, it is John. What Schopenhauer teaches us is that we want to live forever and fear dying because our individual selves are the thing most apparent to us and thus deemed most important. But our selves are anything but singular, merely instances of life itself which is all around us – far bigger and more profound. Inner work ought not elevate the individual but destroy it, and achieving this will-less state is one way of overcoming suffering.
But it is as if nature, or a jealous God, if one likes, has taken revenge on this triumph in the mind by punishing the body. That the taming of the aimless will of our instinctual, selfish human drives, has been cruelly rewarded by afflicting them on the mind’s transport. For Schopenhauer our body is unique in that it exists both as representation and as experience – an outside and an inside – and this allows us to glimpse the invisible cause that is the basis of everything. We can see our own hand, but also experience it from within. We can both view it move, objective, and will it to move, subjective. But what would the philosopher say of a hand that moves on its own accord? Little, I fear.
On departing, my latent concern that my van is going to be stuck in the deep gravel newly laid on the drive is realised. John bounces into action, ignoring my severe protests. But the biting wind that has suddenly shot through the valley and spun the weaker, already fallen autumn leaves into the air, won’t dampen this burst of energy. Having maintained composure throughout our meeting, suddenly there is the man who was a moment ago supporting himself with a walking stick ready to singlehandedly manhandle a two-tonne lump of steel back onto the asphalt, or failing that summon some hidden jungle spirits to do it for him. There is his wife, appearing in improbably urban wellies, to add a shoulder. The studious Laura has disappeared, possibly contemplating calling the AA or, more likely, reaching for one of the family’s two sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica and the entry on mechanical engineering. The crisis is averted – mostly by German traction control, but grit too – and the moment of fracture and crisis passes as quickly as it arose. John retreats with a frail wave, and I pray he won’t later pay for the exertion. Yet in that instant, I think I glimpsed the man himself.
John and Frances made a decision at some point in their lives to leave the addictive excitement of the newsroom, and work as freelance journalists from home. This so they could be there for their children, and help nurture them into the successful individuals they have become. In the 1980s the nuclear family became a watchword for something wrong. But the term was never meant for one with this atomic energy at its core. To extend the analogy, at work here is not fission but fusion – not the rending in two of an unstable beast, but the conjunction of gentler, compatible types to create an enormous energy for good.
During our meeting, John was more keen to talk of Laura’s writing achievements – a force to be reckoned with on the fan-fiction writing scene, apparently – than his own prowess. Her reply to his query as to why not commercialise these efforts was swift: “Because it’s not all about capitalism, Dad.” Point scored. Own goal. Home goal. A job done well.
Since we began publishing John Dean in mid 2017 he’s sold over 100,000 books and as many, if not more, have been read cover-to-cover in the Kindle subscription library service Kindle Unlimited, in which all of our books are available. Head over to his author page here for links to buy all of his titles in paperback or as ebooks from Amazon.