He’s sold 14m ‘DS Roy Grace’ books (with their iconic ‘Dead’ titles). Now Peter James is preparing a seasonal thriller…specially for MoS readers.
Peter James: The Books Interview.
Bestselling British crime novelist Peter James is holding court. ‘I’m a stickler for accuracy,’ he says. ‘A lot of writers say accuracy doesn’t matter. But, besides entertainment, people want to learn about human nature and the world. If you feel you’re not in safe hands, you lose that confidence in an author.’
Clearly readers believe that James knows his subject, as he has sold more than five million copies of his crime novels in the UK – and some 14 million worldwide, as well as producing films with stars such as Al Pacino.
He is best known for his character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, in what is one of the world’s most popular detective series, translated into 36 languages. The ninth and latest Grace novel, Dead Man’s Time – about the antiques world at its shadiest and set in Brighton – topped paperback charts last month.
Despite being at an age when most people are slowing down, James, 65, regularly puts his own life in danger in the pursuit of realism for his books. He joins the police almost every week on real raids and investigations, coming face to face with burglars, drug dealers and traffickers – from whom he moulds his fictional characters.
He recalls going to a tough area of Brighton, his home town, in the early hours: ‘I was with a young sergeant and a very young, inexperienced Indian woman police officer. Ten yobs with bottles and cans were walking down the street, screaming racist insults at her. I could see this was turning really ugly. Back-up can take 20 minutes at that time of night and that location.
‘I could see them squaring up for a fight. I’m thinking, “Do I run or get back in the car?” I thought the only way I could keep face was to get stuck in. I did box at school. I looked for the smallest one. “If it comes to that, I’ll hit him first.” Then one of them suddenly points at me and says, “Who’s he?” I had my hand in my pocket. Quick as a flash, the sergeant says, “He’s with the FBI.” Silence. They all just put their hands in the air and handed over their bottles. They thought I had a gun on me.’
DS Grace is modelled on a recently retired detective, Dave Gaylor, who checks James’s manuscripts for accuracy. The fictional character is so believable that some fans assume he is real, asking James to pass letters to him, hoping he can solve their problems. ‘I even got love letters for him’, he says.
Being in the public eye has drawbacks, though. James was stalked by a fan for years. She would turn up to talks and book signings, emailing repeatedly and creating a shrine to James in her home, complete with candles, newspaper cuttings and long-lens photographs of him. The woman inspired a plotline about obsession in Not Dead Yet, the eighth Grace book.
James and Grace have done for Brighton what Colin Dexter and Inspector Morse did for Oxford. The stories are full of twists and turns, like Brighton’s old alleys – but the characters are more unsavoury than Dexter’s, leading one Dutch reader to write to James for reassurance that Brighton was not too dangerous for a visit.
Now James is turning his talents to the stage and screen. His 2010 novella – The Perfect Murder, a darkly humorous story about a murderous married couple – has been adapted for the stage as a ‘modern Agatha Christie’ thriller, with a cast headed by Les Dennis. It will be the first in a series of annual plays based on one of his books and tells of a man planning to kill his wife, with-out realising that she’s also targeting him. Its title was inspired by asking a chief constable whether a perfect murder does exist. The reply: ‘Absolutely. It’s the one you never hear about.’
James is now single, having been married for 19 years, then with a partner for 15. ‘People change,’ he says, ‘and if you don’t change together and don’t have children, which bind many relationships together, it is easy to drift apart. An author’s life looks glamorous, but it is very hard living with one. I lock myself away day and night.’
He writes between 6pm and 10pm, sitting at the computer with a vodka martini, some olives and jazz or opera playing. ‘It’s a ritual,’ he says. He touch-types, thanks to his ‘best-ever’ present when he was 17: ‘My dad got me a little portable typewriter, and this big battleaxe taught me to touch-type, standing over me and covering the keypad. If I looked down, she’s hit me with the ruler on the knuckles. Terrifying. But I can type really fast.
His mother was glovemaker to the Queen and his father an accountant. Educated at Charterhouse in Surrey, where he failed his A-levels, distracted by ‘girls, poker and cigarettes’, he did odd jobs (including cleaning Orson Welles’s house) to pay for film school. He worked as a children’s television writer before becoming a producer.
He jokes that critic Barry Norman dismissed one of his earliest attempts – Spanish Fly, with Terry-Thomas – as the worst British comedy since 1945: ‘I’ve still got his review framed. Probably about right.’ But he proved himself with productions such as The Merchant Of Venice, starring Al Pacino.
A chance encounter galvanised his writing. In 1981 a detective came to his home after a burglary. Spotting a James novel, he offered to help on research. A close friendship ensued. ‘Nobody’s seen more of the world than a cop.’