In this wide-ranging and fascinating interview I talk to this bestselling author about the elements of her crime fiction that explore issues like why we are disturbed by human bodies once the person who inhabited that body is no longer there. Joanna loves research and travel, and has written fiction that spans the globe, including a recent dark fantasy novel, Risen Gods, set against the backdrop of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Today we primarily discuss her London Detective trilogy, featuring Detective Sergeant Jamie Brooke and reluctant psychic Blake Daniel. I think you’ll really enjoy hearing Joanna share what inspires her fiction, and where her curiosity and fascination with history might lead her next.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with J.F. Penn
Alexandra: Hello mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor and this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m here today with J.F. Penn. Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: Hi, Alexandra. Thanks for having me on this show.
Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s so great to have you here. So for the uninitiated, I’ll just tell them a little bit about you.
J. F. Penn is the New York Times and USA today bestselling author of thrillers with a supernatural edge. Oxford educated, British-born J.F. Penn has traveled the world in her study of religion and psychology. She brings these obsessions, as well as a love for thrillers and an interest in the supernatural, to her writing. Her fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, global locations, a kickass, protagonist, and a hint of the supernatural. The London Psychic series, which is what we’re going to talk about today, features British detective Jamie Brooke alongside psychic researcher Blake Daniel as they solve dark crimes around London.
We’re going to talk mostly about the London Psychic series today. I’m a big fan of police procedurals, and so these were the books of yours that I wanted to read the most. I finished “Desecration” a week or so ago.
Tell us a little bit about Jamie Brooke. You know, it was kind of heartbreaking to read Jamie’s story, and I was curious about what drew you to her.
I moved to London when I started writing this, I’ve moved from Australia. I was back to London after I think it was 11 years. And I wanted to do something in London, so that was kind of the first thing. I wanted to write a crime novel.
Then, and it’s a bit of a little longer story, but I’ll do it anyway. Back in London, I’m excited about getting to know the city again. And I went to the Royal College of Surgeons, along to a medical specimen museum. And you’ll know from the book, the opening few scenes are set here as a dead body is found in the Royal College of Surgeons surrounded by all the medical specimens. And when I visited that museum, I felt very disturbed by the whole atmosphere, and I decided that this visceral feeling was what I wanted to capture in a crime novel.
I really started with a setting, which is how I often write. What would be the weirdest thing here? It would be a dead body, although it was surrounded by body parts, it would be someone who’s actually been murdered. And then the interesting idea of all those — who are the body parts in the jars anyway? Where did they even come from, and kind of thinking along those lines.
Once I have the setting, I was like, “Okay, so I need a policeman or a policewoman,” and that was when I started thinking about Jamie. I write strong female characters. It was probably always going to be a woman, and I didn’t even know how it happened that she had she had a child. I think because I was thinking about bodies and the idea of the physical self versus the real self, and it’s not a spoiler at all to say that Jamie’s daughter has a very severe illness and is in basically terminal care, because of her genetic issue. So then you think okay, what does a career woman who is now a single mom to a really sort of dying daughter? That sets the scene for all kinds of stuff.
I don’t really know where she came from, except that she rides a motorbike, and I don’t but I would love to. You know she’s kind of a kickass female character is what I always write. So yeah, that’s where she came from. And I don’t have a daughter, dying or not. I don’t really know where that came from, but I think it’s very important for the book, that the daughter is there and there’s a lot of the plot that has to do with the daughter.
Alexandra: How do you think Jamie is different than Morgan Sierra? Because Morgan Sierra is quite kickass too, and one thing I noticed about Jamie is that because of what she’s going through in the book, her walls are really up, and as the book progresses, they go up even further. And she says, in the book, in fact that when people are trying to express sympathy to her at one point that she can’t even let that in.
What are the differences or similarities between Morgan and Jamie?
Joanna: Well, I think partly, I don’t know about other people, but I write as a sort of alter ego, to the main characters, to try and figure out what I think about the world, and things, topics like the meaning of the physical body. I could only tackle that through writing a story about it, and actually thinking.
For me, Morgan Sierra was always more like James Bond, you know, less emotional resonance really. She has a twin sister and niece who she cares about, and a mentor and friends that she cares about, but she has sex in my books. You don’t see it. She has sexual encounters, as in Morgan Sierra is much more separate, I guess, and a sort of action figure.
Whereas Jamie has a real job, she’s more real life, I guess. She’s a single mom. She smokes. She’s got acquaintances, but it’s really hard to find time to have friends when you’ve got a daughter in care and a job as a Detective Sergeant and everything.
There is a very magic element to her relationship with Blake Daniel, but they both are very scarred people, so that’s a longer story over there the three books. I think Jamie is, as you said, much more vulnerable, although yeah, she grows over the books. But I do really do bad things to Jamie. She has really a tough time. It’s a tough role to play.
Alexandra: You mentioned Blake. Let’s talk about him a little bit too. I was really intrigued by that character. And in the author’s note at the end of the book, you talk about the idea that sparked Blake’s talent; he’s a reluctant clairvoyant, and he can touch objects and feel or see a bit of their history.
Tell us a bit about him and what sparked that character.
Joanna: Again I really wanted to write straight crime novel, because everything I’ve written before has a supernatural element. And what was so crazy, you know, I knew I needed a sidekick character, someone for Jamie to spark off. And I just couldn’t get this psychic idea out of my head. And I go to the British Museum a lot and had been visiting a lot, and I’m fascinated by the fact that all the objects in the museum, like If you were a researcher and he could somehow see the past of an object, that would make you a really cool researcher.
And also my sister-in-law is Nigerian, so my brother, who’s white, British like me, married in Nigerian, and so I’ve been thinking about mixed race characters, and wanting to bring the essence of London, which for me, is mixed race. London’s just elected a Muslim mayor, first European Muslim mayor, which is to me, the melting pot of London. So a character like Blake, who’s half-Nigerian and half-Swedish, so it’s a mixed race character, I kind of say he looks like a disheveled boy band. He’s quite hot really.
The idea of a psychic often in fiction, on TV as well as books, is a woman. And it’s mainly portrayed as a woman, and so I wanted a male character as a psychic.The problem is there isn’t really a good word for it, but as you say, clairvoyant, but he really doesn’t want to have this ability to touch things, and he’s kind of jolted into the past. But what it gives me as an author is a chance to write historical chapters without writing a historical novel. So as a plot device, it’s actually really good.
And then what I wanted to do is bring in that what can he see in the past of the object associated with the crime that could give Jamie clues, even though you could never use it in evidence, because the police can’t do that.
I guess he was born from a sort of sense of wanting to include the museum, wanting to think about these objects. And also this antique ivory figurine which is like an anatomical Venus was used to teach anatomy, back in the 16th, 17th century. You could take the little body parts out, the little miniatures. It’s quite weird, really.
It’s starts with that, but over the books, his ability to read the history of objects plays into the story. In “Day of the Vikings,” which is a novella that spans both series because Morgan Sierra goes to the museum, and meets Blake Daniel. We get the history of the Viking attacks on Britain in a modern thriller.[The London Detective books] are a trilogy, “Desecration,” “Delirium,” “Deviance”. I had thought I was going to write an ongoing crime series with Jamie. But what happened by the third book is she’s actually left the police. She’s a private investigator. The arc, her arc pretty much winds up, but Blake, I think, will go on to be his own separate thing. And readers have said, “Are you taking Blake north,” because there’s stuff about his father and his history in Scandinavia. I have this whole set of new possible series with Blake, because I find his ability quite addictive myself. It would be something I would love to have, and some people have it.
And in fact, I have had psychics email me and say, “How did you know how that felt?” And I was like, “Well, I imagined it a bit like I imagine killing people and stuff like that.” You know, it’s called imagination. But it was great to get that right, because that’s important.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. That’s fascinating. Nice to have that kind of feedback. And then you anticipated one of my questions. I was going to ask if the books would carry on. It’s fantastic to know that Blake might take the books off in sort of another direction.
I can see that his talent would be such a good fit for you, because you’re such a history buff, and you love research so much.
Joanne: Yeah. And it’s funny because I… I was actually thinking in the day, why don’t I write a historical novel? But I think, for me… Have you ever read any Barbara Erskine?
Joanna: There’s an author called Barbara Erskine, whose book “Lady of Hay” was the first one I read, and I think I read it when I was a teenager, it’s quite you know is quite old now because I’m quite old. But she has this similar time track where she has one story in the present, and one story in the past.
I don’t think I ever want to write pure historical. But as you say, I love having the modern day based on history in some way. And to me, the research process is kind of what I love most or a part of the process is finding out all this cool information and doing that research in, like the three London psychic books. Getting to know London at a different level was part of what made it so interesting.
Alexandra: I learned so much about London that I didn’t know just from reading “Desecration.” So the caves under the city, I mean, I thought you must be making this up. And then when I read the author’s note, no, you weren’t.
I know how much fun research is for you, and now that you don’t live there, do you go back? Or do you do most of it your research online now, do you find?
Joanna: Yes, so my latest book, “Destroyer of Worlds” is set in India and we were in India a while back. I’ve been writing other things. For Blake going north into Norway and maybe Iceland, I will plan a trip there. London, I finished the trilogy, so I finish the cycle of those three London books, specifically. Although in “Destroyer of Worlds,” I blow up Trafalgar Square in the first scene. The ARKANE headquarters is in London, so I will always bring London in a bit, but I feel like I’ve exorcised some kind of London addiction that I had with those three books.
The last one, “Deviance,” is about the whole history of London being built on the sex trade, which is just fascinating. How much of it is on the backs of those women who are basically buried in a graveyard that’s unconsecrated, because even though the bishop took the money from these women, they weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. So these scandals the lie beneath London are so fascinating.
Now, I’ve moved west, so I’m living in the West Country, there’s a real sense of pagan England, out west. I’m quite near Glastonbury, which is a big, kind of weirdy place. It’s quite near Wales, Stonehenge. In fact, the other day, I went to a church service. I took my cousin’s children to church for a thing, and we had this ancient ceremony where we circled the church and hugged the church. And it’s called clypping the church. And I was like, “I have never heard of this before.” This is some kind of ancient pagan ritual that has been incorporated into the Christian service.
Joanna: I know, and I was just like, “Okay, that’s going in my list of things to look at.” So I’m actually thinking, and I’ve got another character in mind completely, a man this time, who will somehow investigate pagan mysteries that I’m starting to research. That’s kind of like what I’m looking at next. So I think where I’m living now will spark this whole different series of books. It will have some kind of mystery aspect, a thriller aspect, a supernatural one. This pagan England, which you think should be dead is not dead.
Alexandra: And so speaking of research then, there are a lot of themes in “Desecration” that were quite dark and things that go on that were disturbing. Do you ever have trouble letting go of what you’ve learned or seen?
So for example, you talk about Torture Garden in “Desecration,” which is a real thing, a fetish club. And so when I was preparing for the interview, I went to the Torture Garden website. There’s a big warning on the front page, and so I actually backed away. I thought, I’m a little bit vanilla myself, and I thought… you can’t unsee stuff.
What’s it like for you? Are you ever troubled by what you learn?
Joanna: It’s a really good question. And let’s just be clear, Torture Garden is a sex fetish club. It is not actually a place where people are tortured. I just want to make it clear to people. It’s an act of lifestyle choice to be able to go. Let me also say I never went. I did that one online. And also like my tattoo stuff, and the skin trade that goes on in your “Deviance” and the sex trade, I don’t do everything that’s in my books, really important to say.
But yes, so I think the thing that sparked the whole series, this feeling of being disturbed when surrounded by specimens in a museum. That visceral feeling of being disturbed is kind of what I wanted people to feel and then question why. And that’s, I think, the whole point of the book is to say, “Why are we disturbed when there is a body part, say, someone’s leg in a jar?” Because I think most of us know that when you die, your body is not you. Whatever you believe religion-wise, faith-wise or nothing, I don’t think we believe that we are the dead body.
Joanna: The person is not left when the physical body is dead. So why therefore are we disturbed about what people do with the dead body. And I’m a donor, so I’ve basically said, “When I die, take anything you want.”
So why then do we still feel disturbed by babies in jars, for example? And it’s sad in one way, but also, the whole basis of our medical society is based on this type of research of doctors cutting into bodies and learning, so that we can have an operation on a live body.
In terms of forgetting what I’ve seen, I think I almost wanted to try and go so deep into the process that I unlearned the feeling of being disturbed. It’s like, “Okay, now I really understand why the body part is in the jar, how that helps me, how that helps everyone, but also to fathom why we’re disturbed that way.” I use the Bodies Exhibition in New York which are plastinated corpses. Corpse Art, for example, which is a site that’s really weird and kind of disturbing.
But the other thing is, I would say, just generally as a writer, for me, as soon as I’ve written it down. It’s out of my head.
Joanna: I’ve interviewed quite a few horror writers. I don’t think “Desecration” is horror. It is crime thriller. There are some aspects of it, as you say, are a bit disturbing, but many crime novels have disturbing aspects, and there’s no torture porn as such.
But when I talk to horror writers who do write a lot more graphic stuff, they’re the nicest people, they really are, and the most psychologically healthy. I actually think that when we exorcise our thoughts onto the page, they disappear. And now I actively choose to visit specimen museums, that I really love all that. Anatomy stuff and anatomical history is just so fascinating. So that’s kind of how I do it. I sleep very well at night, and I am fascinated by the macabre, I guess.
Alexandra: One final question I just wanted to talk about, because these books are police procedurals, and you do mention in the author note at the end of “Desecration,” that book is a little bit light on the whole procedural side, because Jamie actually is removed from the case partway through. But what was it like for you as an author doing research about how the police departments work? I’ve talked to other authors, an author recently, Darryl Donahue, who was a police officer, and so he’s kind of got it made when it comes to writing about that kind of work.
Joanna: Well. So I wouldn’t say that they’re police procedurals. Basically, there is really only one scene that’s kind of a crime scene, and that’s the beginning. I did research that. You can just do your on Google, like how does the police work, and how do they say… warrant card and all this, the type of language.
I also got a policewoman to beta read the books. She told me things link you don’t have enough people in your police team. There would be a lot more people. And I was like, “You know what? I don’t want…” That’s why true police procedurals have a lot more people who are police in them, whereas I wanted a lone detective who’s tackling the world on her own, therefore I almost removed her quite quickly so that she’s not even within the investigation aspect, although she them goes off and investigates on her own.
I didn’t want to necessarily create this whole sort of police force setup, because then it’s often about interrelationships between various police officers, and I wanted her to be a lone figure dealing with a lot of the stuff she had to deal with in the book. So that’s probably why by the end of book two, she is leaving the police. And that would be a spoiler, I see why, but then she is a private detective in the third book.
I started off thinking that I was going to write this standard crime police procedural. As an author, you have to be true to what your muse wants, and my muse can’t get away from the supernatural. So essentially, that aspect of Blake’s psychic ability and in book two, “Delirium,” we go much more into his mind and is he mentally ill or is there…? He starts to see demonic things in these other realms and… I really explore his aspect as well.
That’s why I moved away from the idea of a police procedural. Also because it’s not what fundamentally interests me about it. The books are crime thrillers, because essentially, at the end of the day, a crime book is about justice. It’s about some crime happening, and justice being served to the people involved. And that to me is done over the periods of the books. Justice is done, therefore it is a crime book. There was a policewoman, but it’s not really a police procedural.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. And really, that suits Jamie’s character so well, because she seems like such a kind of a lone wolf, very independent, and thoughtful about what she’s doing.
I just think it makes perfect sense that she would eventually leave the police force, really.
Joanna: Yeah, and again, it’s funny, just saying where do the characters come from, both Jamie and Morgan and this new character I’m thinking about, this male character, this lone wolf figure, I think, is just characteristic of my work. My book “Risen Gods,” which was a dark fantasy, kind of a bit different, does have two people, but each of them have their own journey until they meet.
I think that’s just to do with me. I’m not a team player. I haven’t worked in the police. I’ve worked in jobs where I’ve been part of a team, but I think I’m much happier with these lone wolf characters. I really like Jack Reacher. I like that kind of figure. So yeah, maybe that’s why I keep writing them.
Alexandra: I bet it is. Well, this has been fantastic, Joanna. Thank you so much for being with me here today. Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find your books.
Joanna: Sure. So most of my books are on E-book, print book, audio book, and on all the usual places, or you can go to JFPenn, F for Francis, dot-com, JFPenn.com, and you can get a free E-book, “Day of the Vikings,” if you go to JFPenn.com/free.
Alexandra: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with me here today.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Alexandra.
Alexandra: Okay. Bye-bye.