Crime writers have always used fiction to tell the truth and Frank Westworth, author of the Killing Sisters novels and JJ Stoner short stories, is no exception. His gritty, no-holds-barred neo-noir books feature hard as nails hitmen, ice cold killers, intimate encounters on sleazy backstreets, manipulated men and bewildering women. Surely it’s all made up? Maybe it’s not…
Although your novels are about a trio of female assassins – the Killing Sisters – most of the narrative is viewed from the perspective of your male investigator, JJ Stoner. Briefly, how would you describe him?
Musician. Motorcyclist. Murderer. No particular priority there. As with most people, it’s impossible to judge him based around just a few words. It’s a slightly unusual combination of attributes, but they’re all performance based, in a sense.
Stoner is a soldier. He’s retired – possibly not by choice – from the army, but in himself he’s always been a soldier. He was subsequently employed as a freelance contractor by an arm of the government which is 100% deniable. Mostly, he’s employed to find people who have dropped off the map. Mostly. Sometimes when he finds them, he kills them. Not always. Of course not. That would be silly, and he’s not very silly.
He’s very much a solo operator who works well with a team – provided he’s the leader of the team. His views about the civilian spook world are defined very much by an understanding that whether wearing a uniform or not, a soldier is always a soldier. As in, someone trained to kill other people. That ability and training does not go away when you change your clothes.
Stoner is often compared to Jack Reacher. Are they actually that similar?
No. Reacher – a brilliant creation – is a superman, Stoner’s not even faintly super. Reacher’s worldly goods are restricted to a toothbrush and the clothes he wears, Stoner owns several properties, several vehicles, a lot of musical instruments and all the other things non-supermen accumulate to protect themselves from the essential pointlessness and unpleasantness of their lives.
Reacher was a military investigator; Stoner was a straight up infantry soldier, trained to do unto others with maximum efficiency and without hesitation. Stoner had to learn to be an investigator in the freelance world; you can read all about it in the short stories which are prequels to the books. He starts off as a non-military killer – an infantryman out of uniform – learns how to be more than that in the fourth of the stories, Four Cornered.
It should also be said that Stoner gets a lot more and much better sex than Jack Reacher…
Which brings us neatly to some of the women in these stories, the sisters. What can you tell us about them?
Three sisters, a small family business; contract killing. We’re not sure how they got started, but they’re effective enough, and have their own methods of doing what they do. Family is important to them; they’re very self-contained and private, which makes them more effective than a team which shares only part-time loyalties. It’s only once that comfort bubble gets stretched and strained that their problems arise. And killing people – if you’re not a soldier – makes anyone a little odd, so we’re told, and the sisters are odd, variably and inconsistently. Each of the sisters gets a book, and they are quite different. They’re not all naturally blonde, for a start.
The sisters’ world impacts into Stoner’s when he’s instructed to investigate a series of brutal murders, which appear to make no sense. Initially he’s concerned only with finding out who’s responsible. The reasons why only turn up at the end of the book – and even then there’s no guarantee that his conclusion is accurate. Everyone makes mistakes.
Stoner is a man who likes the company of women. He’s very non-judgemental, too. His steady squeeze is a hooker. This endlessly confuses his few friends. But he does have friends. The guy he works for, a government man referred to as the Hard Man, is a professional friend, as is Shard, and old army buddy. But his personal world is based around a jazz club, which he in fact owns – a long short story in itself, and where he keeps an apartment and hosts a curious string of musical and retired military types, who come and go, as such folk inevitably do.
This sounds like an extended ensemble, not your average lone-gun thriller…
There’s a whole – entirely fictional of course – world here. Although the three ‘sisters’ novels are based around the three women, the short stories (there should be around a dozen in all, eventually) are about the entire world JJ Stoner moves through. It covers a long period, maybe twenty years, from when he was retired from the army until…
Just like most people, book characters needn’t just get back in their boxes in between books waiting to be written about. And although most noir novels appear to want to focus on the mundane ordinariness of their characters’ lives, I get bored with that. I can’t believe a contract killer returns to his family every evening to watch Strictly on TV, crack open a tinny and consider his kids’ performances at school. Like all professionals, she, or he, will move in the company of others like him, or her. Interesting people keep interesting company, and they all have a tale to tell.
You sound like you know these people pretty well.
You’d hope so, no? I’ve been writing their world for six or seven years now, on and off. I chop and change as I go along, and have been honestly surprised by how ‘real’ the characters have become for me. It’s probably a form of mental illness. It’s like watching an internal movie; I never really know what’s going to happen next until the characters reveal all.
So how much of JJ and the sisters and the supporting characters are based in reality? How much of your storylines and scenarios are true to life?
They’re all based around real people. Both my brother and sister were military; one broke people for the military and the other put soldiers back together again… for the military. Several other friends have military or security services backgrounds – sometimes they’ll even talk about it! Lots of the detail comes from a whole lot of listening, then asking questions, then listening some more.
Actual events supply opportunities for a little interpretation, too. The government scientist in Four Cornered will be familiar to anyone who remember the Iraq war and the ‘dodgy dossier’, for example. Likewise, in Third Person, the inspiration is the time around the Good Friday agreement. First Contract’s opening scene is based on a real event. It’s often easier to discuss reality disguised as fiction.
In the second novel, The Corruption of Chastity, the ship Stoner is aboard gets diverted because of regional conflicts – that’s happened to me, twice, once the diversion described in the book, from Ashdod to Haifa because rockets were being fired from Gaza too near to the port at Ashdod for a commercial ship to dock. Again, it’s all about listening, and watching – and being interested.
Ask yourself why and how much people believe what they are fed by the media, anyway? We were in Cairo a couple of years back. The night before, the BBC World Service were talking about the days of rioting in Tahria Square. The next morning we were maybe three blocks away. Our guide suggested that if we wanted to see what it was actually like … we could walk over there with him. It was entirely calm and normal – as normal as Cairo could ever be!
In the same way, we were travelling in the Crimea years about six or seven years ago, when it was obvious that something was going to kick off; not through Russian aggression towards the west, but the reverse. As always, chatting with the people who live there provides a dazzling contrast to the western media reportage … and endless scope for thriller novels of course.
Okay. So we can accept that the mercenary stuff has its basis in reality. But how about the sexual sides of things? Stoner and his cohorts get a lot of action, and some of it will be quite outlandish to most folks. Is this where fantasy really takes over from reality?
Anyone who worked as a gigging musician in the 1970s/80s knows the realities of life for performers. I gigged a lot back then, for a long time, and in a lot of wildly different venues. And of course although I am a natural abstainer from all things tacky, he writes, smiling, those around me were often less pure. Hormonal young men, especially when chemically boosted, are very often interested mainly in fighting or … the other thing. No, not football. That’s a very poor substitute.
And just in case you were feeling safe, there’s a lot more to come. Charm’s book, the third and last of the sisters, is well under way, and it’s as – ah – characterful as the others.
Frank Westworth, thank you very much!