Gripping Crime Novel in Murky Depths of the Thames: Dive by Jon Barton

Mar 10, 2023 | Reviews

I like to be surprised. My assumption is that crime fiction is formulaic and a little bit cheesy. Clearly I had some bad experiences as a young reader! However, in Jon Barton’s Dive, I found myself surprised continually throughout the book at both the turns of the plot and the actions of the characters, and not a hint of cheese. In fact, it was refreshing to find myself feeling more educated, as the book literally dives into the murky depths of the hidden riverways under the City of London.

Dive centres around the narrative of David, a disgraced officer who is shunted down to ‘wet’ duty, dredging the river for unpleasant things. He also has an ex-wife and a difficult teenage daughter to deal with. Refreshingly, we also see the story through the eyes of Naomi, a highly skilled officer who is new to the job. The two form an unlikely partnership in uncovering a particularly nasty case involving drowned girls and drugs.

What made this book really come alive for me was the characters. They were well-rounded and nuanced, and didn’t easily fall into the stereotypical ‘cop’ characters that often populate this kind of fiction. Perhaps because of Jon’s work as a screenwriter, the visual details and scene setup were excellent, really enticing me into the story. A tense and interesting thriller, I genuinely enjoyed the twists and turns in this well-executed novel.

I wanted to know how you research such a detail-heavy genre, and how Barton’s screenwriting influenced his book writing. Read on to find out more.

You’ll never see the Thames in quite the same way…

I think the most interesting idea about your crime novel is that it’s all centred on the Thames. Why did you decide to use a river as such an important part of the story?

I had a side hustle some years ago pulling pints in a pub called the Captain Kidd, next to the Marine Police in Wapping. Divers would sometimes come in to unwind after a shift and share war stories with black humour, and it struck me that divers are often the non-speaking characters in the background of crime fiction, but have one of the diciest jobs in the Met.

The Thames is a huge part of that. It’s one of the UK’s biggest crime scenes in that bodies surfacing is a daily occurrence, but it’s also used to traffic drugs and launder money, traffic people illegally and broker organs. The Thames is not an innocent in London’s criminal enterprise. It’s also a great dissolvent of motive in that evidence will quickly wash away with the tide, and that adds an element of jeopardy for the characters.

Focusing all of the action in and around the Thames also felt like unexplored territory in crime fiction. It was incredibly exciting to have a story to tell that (to the best of my knowledge) has never been viewed through the lens of a police diver. The river holds secrets and has a habit of exposing them. If you’re lucky you’ll find treasure on the foreshore; if you’re not, you could see a body being dredged from the mud. I just felt it was the perfect setting for a thriller exploring a part of London that’s rarely glimpsed, this undertow of criminality concealed beneath the surface.

Whenever I read crime fiction I’m always impressed by the amount of research that must have gone into it. How did you go about finding specific details about the operating of the Metropolitan Police to make your book feel so realistic?

I did speak to many commercial divers, and some of the old guard from the marine police consulted me informally. Serving police officers in the marine police were not always at liberty to dispense information as so much of their job is reactionary – they were often asked to look for evidence pertinent to cases in progress.

Barton’s local experience gave him the idea for the unique perspective of his novel

Reading and a process of elimination followed, and as the story came together, there were missing pieces of the narrative that later research filled in. I also have taken a liberty, in that the dive team in this novel are a work of fiction, and so is the specific unit they work for in the marine police. They are a relegated, forgotten bunch, and the (fictional) attitudes of serving police officers around them reflects that. It was necessary for the story to function, but it also meant I could part from the reality of the real marine police when needed.

Another element I enjoyed was the way tension is built throughout, both through the use of a dual narrative and through plotting. How did you go about planning and writing the story to make sure it maintained tension throughout?

‘Dive’ was a screenplay before it became a novel, and had to rely on the tropes of the crime thriller in a very specific context. When I didn’t manage to sell the script the characters haunted my steps for a few years, until I decided I wasn’t finished with that world and wanted to return to it.

Adapting the same story for the page was a unique challenge, but it also meant I had a robust roadmap for the story. It also helps that ‘Dive’ and the subsequent books in the series are not police procedurals. They are thrillers, and there’s definitely a difference in how the story operates. Tension and suspense drives the narrative, so it’s much more reliant on the rhythms of set pieces and repeated jeopardy. The plotting involved tends to orbit those larger-than-life moments, and a dual narrative means I can pack what readers ultimately care about – characters and their own struggles and the relationships between them.

What was your route to publishing your book?

I submitted to agents during the first pandemic lockdown. Kate Nash Lit were running a scheme called Bookcamp, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. I spent a further six months developing the book before it went to editors in Spring 2021. It was a painful ten weeks, and a lot of rejection. It went to acquisitions with two other publishers, before it was picked up by an indie publisher. I’d spent four years working on Dive on-and-off at that point, so it was hard not to take the rejection personally. When you know you’ve written the best book you’re capable of, and people still don’t like it – that can take some getting used to.

What advice have you been given or your own, that you would like to share with other writers?

I always want to encourage people to write what haunts them and the stories that keep them awake at night. It takes a long time to write a novel and even longer to edit it if you’re working with an agent and a publisher. You’re going to read it dozens of times before it ends up on a bookshelf. It’s vitally important to love what you’re writing.

Early on, I was told by a mentor to ‘get out of my own way’, which is another way of saying, don’t procrastinate and don’t fixate on things you can’t control. If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. We don’t talk about resilience loudly enough in the publishing industry, but to me, there’s no other way to get the words down on the page than practicing resilience when the writing starts to get tricky.

Jon Barton is a stage and screenwriter with credits at London venues including Almeida and Old Vic, and broadcast credits on Holby City. In 2022, his play Group Animals reached the final 40 in the Verity Bargate Award. It was longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, and reached the top 26% of submissions for BBC Drama Room, which saw nearly 4,718 applications. His work was twice shortlisted for Papatango.

Jon is a BAFTA member and a Screencraft Quarterfinalist. He co-writes with Isaac Tomiczek as Barton/Tomiczek.

Jon studied for an MA in Dramaturgy and Script Development at University of Exeter and is an alumni of Curtis Brown Creative. He teaches screenwriting for young people at Iconic Steps, The Princes Trust, and Lambeth Adult Learning. He also teaches for City Lit and City Academy. Dive is his first novel.

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