Nearly sixty years after he landed on our planet (or seven, depending on your perspective), Ishmael Jones’ career as a paranormal P.I. is still going strong. In the following email interview, writer Simon R. Green discusses what inspired and influenced Ismael’s latest case, Haunted By The Past (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), as well as how his new publisher Baen will be rereleasing the previous 10 Ishmael Jones novels.
For people who haven’t read any of the Ishmael Jones novels, who is Ishmael, what does he do for a living, and what kind of world does he live in?
In 1963, a star fell from the heavens and landed in an English field. Or to put it another way, an alien starship came howling in from the outer dark with its superstructure on fire and crashed in an English field. All of the crew but one were killed in the impact. The sole survivor was remade, right down to his DNA, by the ship’s transformation machines, so he could pass as human. But the machines were damaged by the crash, and they wiped all memory of who and what he was before he was human. That’s Ishmael Jones. He’s been living among us ever since, learning how to be human. He is the monster who hunts other monsters, and together with his partner in crimes, the love of his life Penny Belcourt, he solves mysteries and the occasional murder. They get called in for all the unusual cases, which appear to have sci-fi or fantasy elements. Which may or may not turn out to be real.
As a guy who spends a lot of money on comic books, I always think of John Constantine and Cal McDonald whenever someone describes a character as being a paranormal private detective, even though Constantine doesn’t have a P.I. license. What makes Ishmael different from Constantine, McDonald, and, for that matter, other paranormal investigators in literature, movies, etc.?
Ishmael grew up among us, but he isn’t one of us. He is still very much the outsider, which means he sees motives and clues the rest of us would miss. And, sometimes; the weird stuff comes looking for him. Because while he might not remember anything of his previous life, there are others who do.
And then for people who have read the other Ishmael Jones stories, what is Haunted By The Past about, and when does it take place in relation to the previous book in the series, 2021’s Buried Memories?
Haunted By The Past is the latest in the series. Ishmael works for the Organization, though their nature remains a mystery to him. They hide him from an increasingly surveillance-heavy and inquisitive world, and in return he takes on the cases no one else can solve. So when one of the Organization’s agents visits a hotel, and disappears without trace somewhere between the reception desk and his room, Ishmael and Penny are sent to find out what happened. It’s only when they arrive at the hotel they discover it has a reputation for being one of the most haunted houses in England. Are the ghosts real? Are they involved in the agent’s disappearance? Or is someone using the old stories to disguise their true motives? There is something there… It crawls.
When in the process of writing the other Ishmael Jones books did you get the idea for Haunted By The Past, and what inspired this book’s plot?
This is the eleventh book in the series. Along the way, Ishmael has encountered vampires, werewolves, dead men walking, and a very weird encounter at Loch Ness. He lives in a world of aliens and monsters, spies and murderers, so when I’m putting a book together I start with: What haven’t I done before, and what would be fun? Watching the new version of Murder On The Orient Express made me think of a murder on an everyday train, where the killer has to be caught before the train reaches the next station; Night Train To Murder. For the latest book, I wanted to write the ultimate haunted hotel mystery, crossed with an Agatha Christie style murder.
Haunted By The Past, and the other Ishmael Jones books, sound like they’re noir urban fantasy detective stories but also sci-fi stories. Is that how you’d describe them?
All the Ishmael Jones books contain fantasy, science fiction, and horror elements. Sometimes they’re real, sometimes they’re not. Ishmael’s background means they’re all science fiction, but there’s often more to it than that. And since they’re murder mysteries, they often contain noir elements. Basically, I’ve always been ready to throw in anything that seemed like fun. Why settle for less?
As you said, Haunted By The Past is the 11th Ishmael Jones novel. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Haunted but not on any of the other Ishmael Jones books?
I’m a huge fan of traditional ghost stories; everything from M.R. James to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story to Jack Cady, the best U.S. ghost story writer ever. I wrote a series called the Ghost Finders, featuring traditional ghost stories in modern settings. This new book is about how the past shapes us, no matter how hard we try to put it behind us. Ghosts are memories, that have never properly been put to rest.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of them have a particularly big influence on Haunted By The Past?
I loved the old BBS Ghost Stories For Christmas, based on the M.R. James stories, and films like The Haunting and Legend Of Hell House. The classic haunted houses can be seen as mountains that have to be climbed because they’re there. I wanted to show what makes a haunted house; and what happens to the people who have to live there.
As I mentioned earlier, Haunted By The Past is the 11th book in the Ishmael Jones series. But I’m curious if Ishmael Jones is a series of stand-alone stories, or if Haunted is, say, the last book of an 11 book series, or the 11th installment of a dodecology?
Each Ishmael Jones story stands alone, with one particular mystery to be solved. But there is also an ongoing story arc that runs through all of them. Ishmael’s attempts to understand his own mystery, and the truth about his past. And, whether his relationship with Penny can survives the strains that puts on it.
Now, along with Haunted By The Past, Baen also recently reissued the first book in the Ishmael Jones series, 2015’s The Dark Side Of The Road. What is that book about, and when does it take place in relation to Haunted and the other books?
The Dark Side Of The Road is a classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery, set in an isolated mansion house. Except that hardly anyone is who and what they seem to be. This is where Ishmael first meets Penny, and they work together to understand a mystery that will haunt their lives forever.
And is there anything different about this new version of The Dark Side Of The Road? Like, did you rewrite parts of it, fix some continuity errors…?
No, the first book is just as I originally wrote it. I’m still really pleased with how it turned out.
So then for someone who hasn’t read any of the Ishmael Jones novels, should we start with The Dark Side Of The Road? Or can someone jump straight into Haunted By The Past if they want?
You can read each book separately, but starting with The Dark Side Of The Road will help you understand Ishmael and Penny’s relationship.
And will Baen be reissuing the rest of the Ishmael Jones novels?
Dark Side Of The Road will be followed by Dead Man Walking [on February 7, 2023], and Death Shall Come. Baen is very keen to publish the whole series. But I don’t know if the release dates [for the rest of the series] have been confirmed yet. A lot of books end up being postponed, because of the current paper shortages and printing problems.
Earlier I asked if Haunted By The Past had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Haunted By The Past — and, by extension, the entire Ishmael Jones series — could work as a movie or series of movies, a TV show, or a game?
I write novels. They’re my bread and butter. Films and TV are jam. Many of my books have been optioned, but so far nothing’s been made. At one point the Nightside books were going to be a TV series, with John Carpenter attached to direct the pilot; and it still never happened. I have written one film; Judas Ghost. A good old-fashioned scary ghost story. There’s a trailer for it on YouTube.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Haunted By The Past and the Ishmael Jones series?
Haunted By The Past, like all the Ishmael Jones books, were written to be fun reads.
Lastly, if someone enjoys Haunted By The Past, they’ll probably go back and read The Dark Side Of The Road if they haven’t read it already. But if they’re looking for something to read while waiting for the reissue of Dead Man Walking, which of your other books would you suggest they check out?
I’d say The Nightside books. They were some of the earliest private eye urban gothic novels, along with Jim Butcher’s Dresden books. The Nightside, where it’s always night, always three o’clock in the morning. The hour of the wolf, when most babies are born and most old people give up the ghost. Where gods and monsters, tarnished heroes and lost women, all finally find their way home.