Please welcome John Morgan Wilson, the creative author of the stunningly provocative Ben Justice series.
Synopsis and Review of Blind Eye
Blind Eye by John Morgan Wilson
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312309198
In his fifth Benjamin Justice novel, Wilson blows the top off of the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church. When Justice, the disgraced ex-reporter who is also HIV positive, gets a book deal to write his autobiography, he decides the place to start is with the man who polluted his entire life, Father Blakely. When Justice was a young boy Blakely had molested him and now Justice needs to come to terms with it in order to write his book. Along the way, he discovers a conspiracy of gigantic proportions, with countless victims, and a church in crisis. When it all leads to murder, Justice finds himself falling down a fissure of hell in which he may never survive.
This latest from Wilson packs a mighty emotional punch. Not always easy to read, but filled with courageous sincerity, you’ll likely find yourself feeling disconcerted, angry, and saddened by this story that’s all too real. This is a story that needs to be told, repeatedly, until the reality of it hits our consciousness with the impact it deserves. Wilson has done a superb job in bringing out the true madness behind this most heinous of crimes, and the depths that people go through to hide it. Ben Justice himself is a superhero, infuriating in his self-destructive tendencies, but thoroughly realized and courageously beautiful. This is a forceful and thought-provoking read of great depth and feeling, and as such comes highly recommended.
1. You chose quite the controversial topic for your latest novel, how did you come about choosing it?
Pedophilia was an issue in my last Benjamin Justice mystery, The Limits of
Justice, and I felt I was finished with that subject, and intended to move on.
My plan had been to put my complicated, troubled sleuth on Prozac for the fifth
book and give him, and readers, a break from his edgy, tumultuous life. Then I
came up with a twist on the priest sex abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic
Church and couldn’t get it out of my head. The premise is this: What if an
ambitious Cardinal who had been protecting a priest for years suddenly
discovered that the priest was not only a serial child molester but also a
serial child murderer? Given the legal and financial liabilities and the
potential for scandal, and the shameful history of the Church in protecting
abusive priests, would the Cardinal run to the police and turn him in? Or would
the diocese find a more clandestine way to stop him while covering up his
horrific crimes? I became haunted by that premise, in part because several
close friends of mine were abused by priests as children, and still bear the
emotional scars, and in part because I come from a family background myself with
a violent and sexually abusive stepfather. This was a story I was burning to
write, so I went with my gut instinct. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews
called Blind Eye the “finest yet” in the Benjamin Justice series, referring to
it as a “white-hot expose, fueled by anger, bewilderment and pain.” That’s how
it felt as I wrote it.
2. You obviously did some research, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
I suppose it was the staggering number of criminal offenses by priests against
children over the years—thousands that we know of in the U.S. alone, and many
more, I’m sure, that we’ll never be aware of. That, and the scope of the
cover-up by so many Church officials, who deliberately kept the crimes quiet,
obstructed justice, thwarted investigations, and continued to employ these
priests knowing they were active pedophiles, often resulting in more boys and
girls being molested or raped. In some cases, bishops encouraged abusive
priests to flee the country to avoid investigation or prosecution, to protect
the image of the Church. Because the statute of limitations has run out, most
of the offending priests and officials will never face trial or punishment.
It’s an immense scandal that should have come to light decades ago. Too many
of us, from Church officials to parents to the media, turned a blind eye, and
thousands of children suffered because of it. Hence, my title, Blind Eye,
which comes to have a grim double meaning in the course of the book.
3. Let's talk about Ben for a moment. You've given him quite the tragic past, why?
When I sat down to write my first novel in the series, Simple Justice, which
won an Edgar for best first novel in 1997, I didn’t plan on so many
complications in the life of my lead character. But a lot of problems and
pain from my own life worked itself into the character and the story and
that’s how it played out. Once I established such a troubled character, with
each new book he faced a new crisis that evolved from his own dark past. He’s
a deeply flawed, troubled, reckless guy who also has tremendous investigative
skills and a powerful sense of justice, and is forever seeking redemption for
the way he’s screwed up his life, and the guilt he carries from letting so
many people down. Simple Justice started out to be what I hoped was a good,
dark, entertaining L.A. noir murder mystery. What it’s really about, I
realized long after it was published, is grief, and surviving grief. Simple
Justice, by the way, is out of print. But a prominent producer has just
acquired the film rights and I hope to have the novel back in print in 2005.
My agent, Alice Martell, recently re-acquired the rights to the first four
4. Tell us a bit more about his HIV status. What does that mean for future Justice novels?
As I mentioned earlier, Justice faces a new life crisis in each new novel. He
ages and evolves naturally from book to book, as he might in real life. In
the third book, Justice at Risk, which won a Lambda Literary Award, he was
getting particularly reckless in his investigation of a murder. He paid a
terrible price, getting raped and infected with the virus, which dovetailed
into the issue of “barebacking,” or unsafe sex, which was a central issue in
the novel. Like most people with HIV, the future for Benjamin Justice is much
better than it would have been a decade ago, though he’s dependent to a great
extent on his medications, his emotional state and how well he takes care of
himself. Most men and women with HIV these days are living healthy, active,
stable lives, but with uncertainty always hanging over them. HIV and its
serious complications are part of his life, along with other challenges, and
are a part of each storyline, though no longer dominant.
5. He's wonderfully human, and a bit self-destructive, as most humans are. And he has so much to overcome. Why this path for him as opposed to the sane and balanced one?
We’re all a product of our pasts, good and bad, and we all deal differently
with the challenges we’ve been handed. Being who he is, Justice makes a lot
of bad choices. He can be arrogant, self-destructive, foolish, as well as
courageous and heroic. Fortunately, he has people around him who care about
him and try to steer him back on a safer, saner path—his loyal friend and
intrepid crime reporter, Alexandra Templeton, for example, a smart, gorgeous
black woman inspired by someone I worked with in my newspaper days. And his
elderly landlords, Maurice and Fred, a couple who have been together nearly 50
years, who provide the novels with a solid, stable center. They’re the family
Justice needs so desperately, which is another theme that runs through my
novels—the need for a family or support system that is truly caring and
nurturing, even if you have to create it on your own terms, challenging
6. Now let's talk about your writing itself. When did you realize that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I started thinking about being a writer at 18 or 19, when I first read
Hemingway’s short stories. Then other writers whose work so engaged and
impressed me—Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, Joan
Didion, so many others, both fiction and nonfiction. But I didn’t believe I
had the talent and intellect for it. They were all so great, and I was this
dreamy young guy without much talent or real intelligence. I suffered from a
total lack of confidence in that department. However, I wrestled in high
school and college, and fell into journalism by chance, covering sports for my
local newspaper at 19. Ever since, I’ve worked pretty steadily as a
freelance or staff reporter or editor, with forays into screenwriting and
fact-based TV writing along the way. I’d loved mysteries as a kid, devoured
them, but abandoned them in college because I found them to be too formulaic
much of the time, too derivitive and predictable. In 1994, on the advice of a
friend, I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and was enthralled not
just with the quality of the writing, but the way Mosley also dealt with
social history, racism, anger, so many vital issues, while telling an engaging
mystery. I started reading mysteries again and discovered how much they had
changed, how the genre had opened up to women, gay men, lesbians, people of
color, everyone. It made me think that perhaps I could become a mystery
writer myself, and I started mulling a lead character and a possible story. In
1995, when I was between TV jobs, I sat down and wrote Simple Justice in seven
weeks, working loosely from an outline. It was the first time I’d written
fiction in the first person, after trying and failing in the third person. I
immediately discovered this very dark and expressive voice I didn’t know I
had, and the novel practically wrote itself. All kinds of pent-up stuff
poured out of me and into the character and story. After my agent sold Simple
Justice to Doubleday and I signed to write three more novels in the series, I
realized I needed to learn a lot more about mystery writing, so I made a
quick, intensive study of the genre and the craft. I work much harder on my
plotting now, which doesn’t come as easily to me as character and dialogue.
By the way, in addition to the darker Benjamin Justice novels, I also write
the lighter, more romantic and nostalgic Philip Damon mystery series with
legendary bandleader Peter Duchin. Our first Damon mystery, Blue Moon, is
already out and the next, Good Morning, Heartache, is due out in December.
Both are set in the early 1960s in the world of high society dance orchestra
music, set against a culture on the brink of seizmic change, with our
bandleader-sleuth trying to survive. Fun to write, kind of a vacation
from the tougher, grittier Benjamin Justice novels.
7. What do you think is the most important thing good fiction should achieve?
Speaking purely subjectively, I stay with an author and a book because of its
original and compelling voice. For me, the voice needs to be powerful and
honest, if only in a quiet, confident way. That, and a well-told story with
fully dimensional characters that involve me emotionally, fine wordcraft that
impresses me without calling attention to itself, and subject matter that has
some meaning to me. As my friend, author Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins),
puts it, a novel that’s “about something.” Each of us, as readers, look for
something different in a novel, but those are the qualities that I find most
8. Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
First and foremost, The Hardy Boys! I was about 10 when I discovered that
series and I couldn’t wait for the next book to come out. A bunch of us who
hung together loved those books. (My sister was reading Nancy Drew.) But we
couldn’t afford them—as I recall, each new hardcover was 99 cents—so we pooled
our money to buy them and then traded them around. I went on to read a lot of
mysteries as a kid—Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, the Perry Mason
whodunits, you name it - but I consciously fell in love with books and writing
as a teenager. Hemingway really engaged me - the short stories much more than
the novels—especially for the craftsmanship, saying a lot with a few words.
Kerouac excited me—On the Road and Dharma Bums were my favorites—because he
showed me a different, freer way of expressing oneself, of breaking rules and
barriers, at a time when I was trying to find my own way, my own identity, and
feeling stunted and suffocated by conformity. I read everything I could get
my hands on, from Raymond Chandler, to G.K. Chesterton (the Father Brown
stories), to Joyce Carol Oates, who mesmerized me the way she got so deeply
inside the heads of her troubled characters, probably because I was a troubled
character myself. I’ve read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
several times. I think it’s a gem and, most important, so subversive and
different. Graham Greene, of course. In more recent years, I’ve discovered
Thomas Harris, Ruth Rendell, Dennis Lehane, and a number of other mystery and
suspense writers who write character-driven novels on the darker side. And I
have to mention certain gay and lesbian writers who have been so important in
my life—James Baldwin, for Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown, for Rubyfruit
Jungle, and, of course, Joseph Hansen for the groundbreaking Dave Brandstetter
mystery series, which opened up doors for a lot of gay mystery writers when it
appeared in the 1970s.
9. What's your schedule like?
I generally work every day, whether it’s researching, outlining a new novel,
or just thinking—about characters, settings, relationships in books, plot
elements and the like. There’s always something more to do, including
promotion, which is so important. When I’m actually writing a novel, I try to
write a chapter a day, straight through, seven days a week, until it’s done.
I kind of go into a trance, living in Benjamin Justice’s world, inside his
skin, inside his head, which isn’t always pleasant but can sometimes be
cathartic. I write very fast, then polish later. I use a trick many writers
do, which is to write the first line of the next chapter at the end of the
day, so I don’t have to face the blank page when I sit down to write tomorrow.
This also serves to keep the flow going, a natural transition from the last
chapter into the next, to maintain the logic, the momentum, the right mood,
even if that mood changes radically with a chapter. I’m fortunate to be
working with a brilliant editor at St. Martin’s Press, Keith Kahla, who offers
wonderful insight and guidance. Connecting with Keith has been a real
10. What do you consider the greatest book ever written?
Wow. I’m afraid I can’t answer that one. Even though I’ve won a few awards
as a writer, I’ve never liked the idea of competition among creative people or
their work, saying that one is somehow better than all the others. That said,
I’ll never give back my Edgar!
11. And finally, what's next for Ben Justice?
With Blind Eye out and on the shelves, I’m now writing Moth and Flame, the
sixth novel in the Benjamin Justice series, which will be out in the fall of
2004. In this one, I’m finally getting Justice into therapy and on Prozac, so
he can find some peace of mind. He deserves it, and readers will probably
enjoy a break as well. I know I will.
John Morgan Wilson is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Benjamin Justice mystery series, which has also won two Lambda Literary Awards. The fifth and latest Justice novel, Blind Eye, has just been published to positive reviews, including a starred review from Booklist, which wrote: “At its best, Wilson’s work recalls the best of Graham Greene’s mysteries. He writes meditations on repentance and forgiveness as well as whodunits, giving discerning readers reason to rejoice. His contemplation of the anguished soul and its redemption makes him Greene’s heir apparent and the savior of the mystery as morality play.” John also writes the lighter, nostalgic Philip Damon mystery series with legendary bandleader Peter Duchin, with Blue Moon out and Good Morning, Heartache set for December publication. John lives in West Hollywood, California and teaches fiction writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Visit him at www.johnmorganwilson.com.