Alex Staines interviewed John Hart crime novelist, a native of Rowan County, North Carolina, when he visited these shores to judge the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for the best New Zealand crime novel. The interview took place just before Iron House came out.
John Hart has drawn to the head of the crime-writing pack with just four novels. He has twice won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel, and secured England’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for his third book, The Last Child.
Lawyers make good crime writers
John describes himself as a “recovering lawyer” (in his time he has also flown helicopters and been a stockbroker). Lawyers who become successful American writers crop up repeatedly. John Grisham, the famous crime author, was a lawyer. Charles Brockden Brown, who is credited with inventing the American novel in the 18th century, was a lawyer who yearned to be a writer. John suggested several possible reasons behind this: in America, the law is probably the unhappiest profession. Seventy-seven per cent of attorneys would, given the choice, do something different with their careers. “Grisham lit a small fire on a very tall mountain,” John said.
When John was a defense attorney, he was asked to defend the most unpleasant characters – the sort of lowlifes that are guilty as sin, but expect to be got off on a technicality. He was looking for a change. He had experience as a writer, having already written two novels that failed to get published. He thought, “Well, if Grisham can do it, I can too.” His first successful book, The King of Lies, features a lawyer. While it was a bestseller and attracted comparisons with Grisham (as well as Scott Turow), John knew he couldn’t out-Grisham Grisham, and he subsequently turned away from lawyer characters and worked hard to forge his own style. “The other thing about lawyers is we’re trained to believe we can get away with anything,” John said.
The South is fertile territory
His favourite setting is the American South, a fertile breeding ground for gothic ideas and characters. It’s a very religious part of America and racism is still an issue. “The South is a vanquished nation, and we’ve never forgotten it,” John said. There is a sense of identity in the South that has stood the test of time. The South is unique and different from the rest of the US. It’s a very open place. People tended to stay in the towns they were raised in because of poverty; there simply wasn’t the money to move away. There’s a strong sense of connection to place you might not find in other areas. The South is undergoing a boom right now. Charleston, South Carolina is the second most important financial centre in the States after New York. Many northerners are moving south. It’s becoming a very different place, though in the small towns not much has changed.
Writing crime thrillers, I reckon, gave John the opportunity to decide the fate of the characters, to mete out justice. “Justice is usually imperfect,” John said. “It’s never a clean and tidy affair.”
Two types of justice
Justice is a big theme in John’s excellent third novel, The Last Child. Not just worldly justice, also the hand of God. There are things that God might allow to happen so His justice is done. The crows follow Levi Freemantle because they ‘know’ he’s going to kill Ken Holloway and they’re going to harvest his soul. “I left it open as to whether Levi is an agent of divine justice or just insane,” John said. But the murder of Holloway is an answer to a prayer of Johnny Merrimon’s (the clear-eyed, selfless and courageous boy who is the “hero” of the book). Other prayers of Johnny’s, though – such as to bring his father and sister back – are not answered.
Johnny turns away from God because a priest told him he didn’t believe enough. He adopts alternative beliefs, but then rediscovers an Old Testament God at the end, a vengeful and righteous God who hears his prayers. The Last Child provides an insight into African Americans and the Church in the American South. African Americans worshipped in open-air churches called “hush arbors” or “brush harbors”; they were prevented from attending mainstream churches where they might hear a message of equality.
Justice is usually imperfect. It’s never a clean and tidy affair.”
People are good?
Several times in this novel, the sentence “darkness is a cancer of the human heart” appears. John is exploring the theme of whether evil is innate or caused by life circumstance. He said he probably sides with Detective Hunt, the investigator at the centre of the action, who believes that people are basically good. But John agrees that this attitude tires Hunt out. There is a responsibility in believing that good prevails; everything cannot be left to God to dispense justice. And the “good people” in Hart’s novels are not blameless; they struggle with the darkness in themselves and have to make the right choices.
Back to the land
Down River is a testament to John’s childhood farm; while they lived in town, his family had a 500-acre waterfront property that had been intact since the 1600s. “When my parents divorced, the land was sold and split up and damaged beyond repair. My ambition has always been to get back to the land and raise my children on a rural property. Recently, we’ve bought the place of my dreams in Charlottesville, Virginia. The piece I bought was taken out of developers’ hands,” John said.
There is a very strong sense of family in all John’s books, and even many of the characters’ names are taken from his own family and friends. “I’ve killed both my brothers-in-law,” John joked.
Iron House, John’s fourth novel, is very different from The Last Child. At the end of the latter, there is hope for brave young Johnny. John said, “I gave him a soft landing. Then I got to wondering about a similar character whose dire circumstances continued unabated. I wanted to write a story about a bleak childhood that led to a very strong man.” It’s a pretty violent book, more so than The Last Child, which attracted the comment that “never have so many people been killed in a book in such a socially responsible manner”. The paedophile Burton Jarvis, for instance, is killed by one of his victims.
Bad things happen for selfish reasons
John learned plenty about human motivation working with all those guilty people when he was an attorney. “There are no criminal masterminds, I found,” John said. Bad things happen for short-sighted, selfish reasons. Most people who go to prison never think about the consequences of their actions. The King of Lies involves someone witnessing an evil act, not doing enough to stop it, and the ensuing guilt.
“I was starting to come up against soulless, evil people and this was one of the reasons I quit my practice. Most of the criminal defendants I worked with didn’t care who they hurt, had no sense of right and wrong or responsibility. To me, it’s got to be something internal, plus a failing in how they were raised. Perhaps it is true that some people are innately good while others are innately evil.”
As William Blake said, “Some are born to sweet delight, and some are born to endless night.”
Reproduced with the permission of NZME. Educational Media