Brighton-born Peter James is an international best-selling crime thriller novelist published in 33 languages, screen writer and producer. He divides his time between London and Sussex. Exclusives‘ Graeme Shackleford spoke to him about his life and work.
EB: For our readers not familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Peter: I’m an author and film producer; I’ve written nineteen novels and made some 26 movies over the years – most of them fairly forgettable… The most recent I made was The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. But what I’ve always considered my ‘day job’ is writing novels, and for the last six years I’ve been writing a crime series of which the central character is Roy Grace.
EB: How did you get into writing? What got you started?
PJ: I always wrote as a child. The first thing I ever wrote was a letter to Enid Blyton, saying I just read Five On a Treasure Island and they’d spent seven days on this island, and not one of them had gone to the toilet in all that time, and I was really worried about it.
EB: Did you get a reply?
PJ: Yes! She wrote a really nice letter back saying, well actually they had gone, but she didn’t think that little boys and girls were interested, so she left out those details, but she’d bear it in mind for the future.
When I was about 11, I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I was born and raised in the city of Brighton, where he set the novel, and I was just completely blown away by this book. It showed the crime underbelly of Brighton, and it dealt with criminals in a way that I’d never encountered before in fiction. Although the characters in the book were bad – in some ways monstrously bad – they have a kind of humanity. Pinkie, the central character, is deeply religious, a Catholic, and is conflicted between being a criminal and being a Catholic. It was the first book I’d ever read where I saw villains as rounded characters, and also being set in my home city, and I vowed that one day I’d try write a crime novel set in Brighton too, and hoped that it would be ten percent as good as that one. And then I started writing stories…
When I was 14, I read my first Sherlock Holmes story, and I’ll always remember Watson saying to Holmes, “Gosh, Holmes, how did you deduce that?” And Holmes said, “My dear Watson, I knew we were looking for a man whose bathroom window was on the left hand side of his wash basin.” And Watson said, “And how did you deduce THAT, Holmes?” And Holmes said, “My dear Watson, have you never noticed that he’s always better shaved on the left hand side of his face?” I love that attention to detail. I realized then that what I wanted to do was create a detective who had powers of observation like that. It took me a long time to finally do it, but with Roy Grace, that’s the part of the character that he is.
EB: You originally began writing horror stories, and were proclaimed as England’s Stephen King. Why did you change to writing crime fiction?
PJ: Well, I never actually wanted to write horror, oddly enough. It was a kind of misnomer, because I didn’t ever actually write horror in the sense of the genre known for it. It was more a type of pigeon-holing in bookshops. What happened was, I started when I was 27. I really wanted to write a novel, and I read an article saying that there was a shortage of spy thrillers; it was an article in the Times. And I thought, “I could write a spy thriller”, so I wrote a spy thriller, and to my amazement, it got published! And to my even bigger amazement, it completely didn’t sell! I was under contract to write a second one, and I wrote that, and it did equally badly… And then I wrote a third, and that did really badly, so I keep these three books out of print now.
EB: So you bought the rights back from the publishers?
PJ: Yeah, I bought the rights back, and I got really despondent. I was talking to a friend at Penguin, and I said, “Obviously I don’t have whatever it is you need to be a successful writer.” She said, “Well why are you writing spy thrillers? “ And I said, “I read there was a shortage of them, and I thought I could make money out of doing that.” And she replied, “You will never succeed as a writer if you’re only writing because you think you’ll make money out of it. You have to write what you’re passionate about.” And around that time, the son of a great friend of mine was killed in a horrible car accident when a French man committed suicide. He drove the wrong way down the motorway at two o’clock in the morning, and killed the son. The parents started going to a medium, and I’ve always been interested in the paranormal, and they were convinced that they were in contact with their son. They invited me along to séances which, actually, were incredibly scary… And, you know, I was quite convinced that they were in contact with him. And they were convinced…
EB: Were the séances scary because of the information coming through, or because of strange things like table-rapping and ectoplasm?
PJ: More information coming through and the atmosphere. There were big, elaborate preparations to protect the circle from invasion by evil spirits, and things like that… And then… scary in terms of the information… There were a few things that kinda flew around… The parents asked me if I would write a book – they felt it was helping their bereavement, going to these séances, and would I be interested to write a non-fiction book about their experiences. I thought about it, but I couldn’t really see a book in that. But it gave me an idea to combine crime and the paranormal. People go to a medium to get comfort if they lose someone. What if a mother went to a medium after losing her son, and through the medium, discovers that the son had murdered his girlfriend? I wrote that as a novel called Possession, which came out in England in 1987, and it became an instant smash hit – it got to number one in England, and was translated into 23 languages.
At that point, Stephen King was in ascendance, and Dean Koontz, and James Herbert in England, and my publishers said to me, “Would you have any objection if we promoted you as England’s Stephen King?” I didn’t realize that it was a poisoned chalice, in a way, because within a few years of that, the whole horror genre went into decline, and also, the whole horror genre was very much… The crime genre’s always been regarded very well by the literary end of the book world, whereas horror, although it had that spell in the late eighties, by and large, it’s sort of ghetto-ized, and considered to be exploited literature. King’s probably the only real exception to that. I was slightly ghetto-ized. I’m not actually a horror writer. OK, I’ve written five novels that have a supernatural element to them. But it took me a long time, and it wasn’t until the Roy Grace series that I changed publishers twice, it wasn’t until I moved to Macmillan, and they really completely repositioned me as a crime novelist that I finally had shaken that cape off. It puts a lot of readers off – it’s got a niche readership. There are an awful lot of readers who won’t pick up a book if they think it’s got anything horrific in it, or paranormal or whatever.
EB: Where did Detective Superintendent Roy Grace come from? You said that you were inspired by Sherlock Holmes’ attention to detail… Did anyone else go into the creation of Roy Grace?
PJ: Yeah. For the last fifteen years, I’ve had a terrific relationship with the police force in my home area, in Sussex, to the point where, these days, I go out with them about once a week, and they call me up if they’re doing anything interesting. Two weeks ago they rang me and said they were going to do a dawn raid on drug dealers. Three drug dealers. And I went with them.
Fifteen years ago, I got taken into an office in Brighton, and there was a detective inspector who, at that time, was about in his mid-thirties, called David Gaylor, and I went to his room, and there were about twenty blue and green plastic crates on the floor, bulging with files. And I said, “Are you moving office?” He said, “No, these are my dead friends…” and gave me a grin. I thought, “Ok, I’m not the only weirdo!” He then explained: he said that each one of these is the case file of an unsolved murder – what we now know as ‘cold cases’. He said, “I’ve been put in charge of reopening these. I’m the last chance the victims have for justice, and I’m the last chance the families have for closure.” And I loved that image.
Dave and I became very good friends, and he started reading my books, every hundred pages as I was writing them, and he would help me with the police procedure, and he’d introduce me to other people on the police force who might be helpful for different aspects of different books. He rose up through the ranks and became detective chief superintendent. I work with him very closely today still. We’re going to New York for a week, in May, to meet with two NYPD cops who deal with the mafia – research for my next book. Roy Grace doesn’t look like him, but in terms of career, Roy’s very closely modeled on him, even to the point where Dave had a collection of ink wells in his office, and I think I had Roy Grace have a collection of ink wells, too.
EB: You mentioned doing research on the mafia for your next book… Is there going to be a mafia connection in Brighton?
PJ: There’s going to be a link, yeah. As a crime writer – I’ve always been a fan of the crime genre – I think that Brighton, for a crime writer, is almost like a character. When I think of all the crime writers whose work I read – going back to Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy in Los Angeles – and Brighton has, since 1932, been called the ‘Crime Capital of England’. On one level, it’s a beautiful seaside city, but it’s got a dark underbelly, and Graham Greene wrote about it absolutely perfectly in Brighton Rock. It’s got everything a criminal wants. That may sound frivolous, but what Brighton’s got is a major sea port on either side, good for importing drugs, great for exporting cash, stolen cars, stolen antiques. It’s got the largest number of antique shops in the UK, so it’s a great place to fence stolen goods. It’s got tremendous communication: you’ve got the sea ports, you’ve got the channel tunnel, you’ve got Gatwick Airport 25 minutes away, and London’s 50 minutes away by train. So all these escape routes… Which is what villains like. It had a title that the tourist board don’t like me giving out, which is, for the last nine years, ‘the injecting drug death capital of the UK’. Brighton has two universities. It’s got a massive young, middle-class community, and the largest gay community in the UK. The result of which is a huge recreational drug market. It’s the favoured place to live in the UK for first division criminals.
EB: I thought that Johannesburg was quite something, but it looks like Brighton’s fast catching up to us!
PJ: I think you may be more likely to be murdered in Jo’burg!
EB: Yeah, that’s it!
PJ: I was there a few years ago, and I loved it! I thought it was a great city. It felt very much like Los Angeles to me – like a condensed Los Angeles… Beverly Hills, Hollywood Hills… I thought that if I closed my eyes and opened them, I’d be in LA… Except, the people are nicer in Jo’burg, I thought.
EB: How do you research your novels? I’m sure that it must be different for each one, depending on the crime committed… How do you begin with your research?
PJ: Well, every novel starts with a theme, and I am constantly looking for big ideas. I go once a year to America, to a police conference. It’s called ‘The International Homicide Investigator’s Conference’. It’s a week long, and some of the world’s top homicide detectives present cases they’ve solved in the previous twelve months, which is a great resource for me. And I go out with the police in Sussex constantly.
I usually start with a true story that’s grabbed me. With my book, Dead Man’s Footsteps, which is about a guy who uses 9/11 to disappear – I’ve always wanted to write a novel about a guy who fakes his disappearance and starts a new life. And the starting point for that was, I went a police officer, to a detective, I knew, and I said, “If I wanted to disappear, you know, how would I do it?” He said, “Well, 25 years ago – easy. You go to a graveyard and dig up a freshly buried body, put it in your car, cover it with petrol, and set fire to it. But, today, you can’t do that anymore, because of DNA. If you want to disappear today, you must disappear in a way that a body is never found. So you’d need a big natural disaster, like a tsunami, or a big terrorist atrocity, where bodies are never recovered – like 9/11.” And I thought, “That’s the perfect starting point…” And then I went and did research for that.
For my new book, coming out in the summer, Dead Like You, I went to a conference, presented by a senior investigating officer who’d just secured the conviction in a very horrific rape case. There was a guy in the mid-80’s, in England – in the north of England – who became known as the ‘Shoe Rapist’. He raped women, but he only targeted women with classy shoes. He raped women and took their shoes. Twenty women reported it, but the police reckon there were lots more. But he stopped offending, and the police lost all track. And then in 1993, a woman was stopped for drunk driving, her DNA was taken, and they got a familial match with the rapist! It turned out to be her brother – he was a very respectable businessman. Anyway, he’s now doing life for that. That really fascinated me.
I always try, with my research, to get beneath the skin of things that happen. I went to see the Sussex police – they have a rape prevention team. I had not realized the extent that rape destroys its victims. Women are afraid of walking at night, that someone pulls them into an alley and rapes them. That almost never happens. I mean, 98% of people who are raped, are raped by somebody they know. Somebody goes too far. But the destruction is just the same. So I went and talked to rape charities, to people who are helping rape victims, and trying to build up a picture of that whole world – I didn’t want the book to be exploitative or erotic in that sense.
With my previous novel, Dead Tomorrow, it came out in December – I think it came out in South Africa fairly recently also – the starting point for that was, I met a documentary maker who had been trying to make a documentary on the world trafficking of human organs. I sat next to her at dinner, and she said to me, “Do you know how much you’re worth in human body parts?” I said, “With my liver, probably not very much.” She said that I was worth probably about a million dollars. She said that there’s a big irony, that as medical advances and technology have got better and better, the supply of donors has gone down. Principally because more people wear seatbelts in cars, so less people die of head injuries – which is what makes the perfect organ donor. So there’s a shortage of organs, and there are people…
She heard that in Columbia, the mafia are making more money from human body parts, than from drugs in some parts. You know, an eight year old girl will get picked up from the airport by the police… They’ll sell her to an organ trafficking ring, who’ll put her in an orphanage, bring her up – she’ll have a really nice life, until she gets to about fifteen years old, and someone wealthy in America or England… Alaska… France… needs a new liver for their daughter… And this kid’ll get tissue-matched, the liver will be sold for $350 000, the heart and lungs will go somewhere else for the same sort of money… Kidneys, about sixty thousand, each… Even skin, eyes, hair…
So there’s this sinister trade. I got fascinated by that, and I started delving into that, and took for my starting point a mother in Brighton, whose daughter’s going to die if she doesn’t get a new liver. And then I met, through some medics I was talking to, a couple in Brighton who are both medics themselves, who have a son who is 17 who, from the age of 9, has been suffering from chronic liver failure. He was months away from dying, and they were convinced that they were not going to get a liver in time… They went on the internet and actually found a broker who basically arranged for them to have a liver transplant in Shanghai, for about $350 000. And they started the process, they mortgaged their house… And then, at the very last minute, a liver actually came through, and they were ok. So that is how I start my research.
EB: That’s really intense… How do you get away from that? I can imagine that a lot of the research that you do must be very disturbing… I don’t know what your average day is like, but you’re dealing with a dark world on what I’m sure is a regular basis. How do you keep your sanity through all that?
PJ: That’s a very interesting question… I guess a lot of police keep their sanity by developing black humour. You know, cops… traffic police… they go to the most appalling sites every day, and they tend to use humour as part of the relief. In my writing day, I tend to work slightly back to front. I like to work best in the evenings, so at about six o’clock, I lock myself in my den, turn off the phone, and make a massive vodka martini, and put on some music. Jazz or something chilled… And I kind of ‘get in the zone’ until about ten o’clock, and then I have supper on a tray in front of the telly, and I watch something – usually complete junk, like Desperate Housewives or something like that, which is a good switch-off for me. But there are things that stay with me. I remember the first time I went to a post-mortem… I had nightmares for weeks. And a few times I’ve been to a horrible death… That does stay with you. It’s the same with a lot of police officers – there are some things that do stay with them. Particularly kids. The death of children is something… I’ve met a lot of very hardened cops… If you talk to any cop, however hardened, and say, “Has anything that’s ever bothered you”, they’ll tell you about the death of a child that they had to deal with.
EB: I can imagine that that must be one of the worst things…
PJ: Yeah. I remember, about 18 months ago, Christmas 2008, I’d regularly go to the mortuary – not for fun – but there was a sixteen year old boy who had been killed a week before Christmas, going to get a pizza… I was upset all over Christmas, thinking about that.
EB: Earlier you mentioned that the police in Brighton will ring you up and invite you to go along with them to various things, like the dawn raid on three drug dealers. I saw that on your blog, where you proclaimed your new career as a photojournalist… Could you tell us a little about the raid? Are you allowed to talk about it?
PJ: There are things that I’m not allowed to talk about, but that’s usually when the police have things that aren’t in the public domain, like a few years ago, I was on a drug surveillance, and they had this great idea of using deaf and dumb people, watching drug dealers at a distance through binoculars, lip-reading! It’s really clever! For about three years, I couldn’t write about that, because it was a secret.
But on this raid, there were forty officers. They’d had a tip-off that there was dealing going on in these three flats, one above the other, in a council tower block, in the centre of Brighton. It was like a motor operation. We had a briefing in the morning at about 06:45. We were told that we had to be absolutely silent – surprise was a big element. They’d got a key to the downstairs back door from the caretaker, no a pretext. We had to turn our mobile phones off. We rolled up in vans, and parked quite a distance from it, so that if anyone looked out the window, they wouldn’t see the police vans. We all trooped along, through the door, then up the fire escape stairwell, and they had this sort-of battering ram, but these guys had put reinforced doors on. And the key thing to doing a drug raid is that you want to get in fast, because if you take a couple of minutes, they could flush everything down the lavatory – and in a tower block, you’ll never find out that it was from them. When we got there, they had reinforced doors, but luckily the police had hydraulic jacks with them, so they could force the door hinges apart, but it took about two minutes. It’s real shock and awe – they hammer on the door, shouting “Police! Keep clear! Police! Keep clear!” – That sort of intimidating thing. One guy jumped out of a window 20ft high, and broke his ankle, another guy jumped out and ran off, but they caught him. He had a wallet full of stolen credit cards. They got quite a stash of heroin and cocaine and hashish and stolen goods.
EB: What part did you play? Were you observing from a distance or were you in the thick of it?
PJ: I was in the thick of it, because they didn’t have any press there. They had me, but it was all top secret. One of them said to me, “Have you got your camera with you?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Good, could you take the pictures, please?” So the shot that’s on my website – I was about six feet from that! I was standing on the stairwell and thinking, “They’re all in body armour, and I’m only in my stab vest!” I have a stab vest, but if somebody sticks a gun out and starts shooting… It doesn’t happen very often in England, but it was slightly leery! I get caught up in the adrenaline of it all.
EB: I can imagine that it would be quite an adrenaline rush!
PJ: Yeah, it’s huge! I’ve also been in car chases – the cops love it themselves!
EB: Are the car chases like we see in the movies?
PJ: Yeah, it really is, quite often! They have to be more careful these days because of accidents, and sometimes a chase will get stopped by the controller, if they think it’s endangering other people on the streets. But the last one I was in, about eight months ago, it was a stolen car around Brighton. I mean, we were six cars, a helicopter, dog handlers… One guy, a cop, said, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this!” It’s… just high on adrenaline!
EB: And then this all finds its way into your writing? If people read a car chase in one of your books, they’re actually getting a real car chase?
PJ: Yeah, when I started writing books with police in, before I started writing crime novels per se, you know, after ‘Possession’ I started writing more conventional thrillers – I had, invariably, police in the books – I realized very early on that every profession has its own culture – your profession has its own culture – but the police look at the world differently to everybody else. I call it a ‘healthy culture of suspicion’.
If you and I took a walk down a shopping street in Jo’burg or Cape Town or London, we see two guys looking in a shop window, we think, “Oh, they’re wondering what they’re going to buy.” A cop looks at them and thinks, “Why are they standing there? Are they doing a drug deal? Are they going to mug someone? Are they going to rob the shop?”
If you go into a bar or restaurant with a cop, the first thing he does is he’ll stand in the entrance, and he’ll look at every single face in that room because he doesn’t want to spend an hour having a drink or lunch and didn’t spot some villain they’ve been looking for, for two years. In September, about a year and a half ago, I was driving across open countryside, a beautiful summer’s day, with a senior detective inspector. I said, “How do you view the world as a police officer? Do you feel you’re different to everybody else?” And he said, “Well, you’re looking out the windscreen at this beautiful summer’s day; I’m looking out the windscreen at a guy who’s standing in the wrong place.”
EB: That really is a very different way of looking at the world.
PJ: Yeah, and it becomes part of their mindset. There’s a very high divorce rate in the police.
EB: I can imagine so.
PJ: Partly because of the unsocial hours, and partly because police do get obsessed with solving crimes. You know, particularly if there’s been a murder, it becomes personal for the police officer very quickly, and it gets to the family. Even after they’ve retired, they carry on, not letting go.
EB: Is there some sort of forum that police officers can go to and discuss this – almost like a therapy group?
PJ: Not really. It’s surprising – very little therapy. It’s happening a little bit more… In Brighton, police recently got ribbed for wasting – I don’t think it was a waste – but allegedly wasting tax payer’s money by having Indian Head Massages. But they’re under incredible pressure. I’ve met quite a few NYPD cops who were involved in 9/11, who’ve had mental breakdowns since.
EB: Peter, what has been the highlight of your writing career?
PJ: I think the first time I got to number one was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. And last year, I was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Brighton, so I’m now a doctor of letters. And that was an extraordinary moment, because I did really badly at school. I left school with the lowest grades you could have in the exams I took. It was fantastic, like thirty years on, to suddenly become a doctor. That was an incredibly proud moment, I think.
EB: In many of the articles about – and interviews with you I’ve read, you come across as a man’s man who is enjoying his success – there’s the loving partner Helen, the dogs, the homes, the car… But there are also the ghosts… Do they still hang around, or have you had them dealt with?
PJ: No, they’re still around. At one point they were quite aggressive, but they’ve calmed down. I’ve always been much more scared of the living than I am of the dead. But I do have a respect. I think that there’s so much we don’t know about. There’s no question that ghosts exist. The big question for me is whether ghosts are simply electronic imprints left in the walls or the atmosphere of places, or whether they do actually represent something from the afterlife. By that, I mean, there’s a difference between what I call a dumb ghost and a smart ghost. The smart ghost is Hamlet’s father – you know, he says, “Get revenge, my son!” That’s incredibly rare. It’s much more the grey lady in the same place everyday, moving across the floor… We’re full of electricity, and the walls and floor of a building contain carbon – the same makeup as a video tape – and I think we give off a huge amount of energy. Some people are able to see that and pick that up. I think almost every person I’ve met in my life has had some sort of experience that they can’t explain, and those fascinate me.
EB: I think that those experiences are more common than many people realize, simply because they’re not often discussed…
PJ: Yeah, there’s a fear of ridicule. But, equally, if you look at the history of the military… I mean, Stalin was experimenting with telepathy in the 1930’s. Winston Churchill had a paranormal office, trying to get people to travel out of their bodies and see behind enemy lines in the Second World War. And the Pentagon… The X-Files is based on a real department in the Pentagon, that’s still there now. Pretty much every government, probably as far back in time as we can go, has one. And the police will quite often –and when I say often, I mean often – they will go to mediums if all else fails in the enquiry.
EB: I’ve heard of that happening here in South Africa.
PJ: Yeah, because most good police officers are very open-minded. The bad ones are the ones who are close-minded. The biggest qualification to be a good police officer is to have a high degree of emotional intelligence.
EB: Thank you very much Peter! It’s been great talking to you!
Peter James’ latest Roy Grace novel is Dead Tomorrow, published by Pan Macmillan. Dead Like You is due to be