Best-seller Peter James will be talking tonight about just why writers are attracted to the dark side of life … and, he tells Sarah Walters, it’s a genre Shakespeare would have found a home in.
Crime: it’s not all doom and gloom.
When we catch up with best-selling crime writer Peter James – author of the massively successful Roy Grace detective series – he’s off to a murder mystery evening in a nearby church organised by Crimestoppers dressed as a 1960s mod.
The mod image isn’t one he’s planning to foster – unlike his relationship with Crimestoppers and the police. Peter’s insight into his genre owes much to his close work with crime-fighting bodies; when not ‘murdering’ rockers down the local church, he regularly shadows the police.
His latest title, Perfect People, though is far from the average crime thriller. The novel is based on a decade spent with gene scientists in southern California – where Peter made his name as a film director and screen writer – and explores the idea of designer babies.
During his research, he discovered that geneticists are now able to identify not only which human genes control our physical attributes but also our emotional ones.
“I was working with the head of brain science out in America and he said, ‘Here’s something that might interest you – we’ve just identified the cluster of genes responsible for empathy’,” says Peter. “He then added: ‘We’re pretty confident that within our lifetime parents will be able to choose whether they want a sweet kid or a tough kid’.
“I’ve visited their lab and some of things they were doing are extraordinary; for instance, they’ve identified the genes responsible for hand-eye coordination and sleep architecture.
“They’ve even discovered what genes are responsible for ageing and, in a realistic time frame, it might be possible to stop people from dying of old age.
“I thought, ‘Wow! I want to write about this’. When I started 10 years ago, to a large extent this was science fiction, but a couple of years ago I realised I’d better get it written or the progress of the science was going to overtake my research.”
In the book, Peter allows the more sinister implications of this kind of scientific knowledge to come to the fore. It is the story of grieving parents John and Naomi who, having lost their four-year-old son to a rare genetically inherited disease, are looking for ways to avoid conceiving another sick child.
They hear about a secret clinic on a deserted cruise ship where, for $400,000, Dr Leo Dettore allows parents to choose the exact genetic makeup of their child. The couple opt in, choosing to eliminate only the gene that could cause her child to inherit the disease, but it becomes apparent that the doctor has done a lot more than they ever asked him to do.
It could have made Perfect People preachy, but Peter says it is not a cautionary tale about maniacal scientists playing god or competitive parents trying to design a flaw-free child.
Instead, it tries to offer a lively discussion on both sides of the genetic modification debate. “I’ve tried not to be empirical or to stamp one point of view down,” says Peter.
“What I’m basically saying is this is going to happen, these are choices that parents in the western world are going to have put in front of them. We’re not equipped emotionally to deal with them, but none-the-less we’re going to have to.”
Tonight Peter, who is also chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, visits the Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, to discuss his latest book and to pick through the phenomenon of crime fiction – something that continues to fascinate us in books, on television and in movies.
“The key to understanding people’s love of crime fiction is understanding why they read in the first place,” Peter considers.
“People read to be entertained, to be captivated, but people also read to learn. Good writing, through a story, teaches us something about the world in which we live.
“If you go back to Shakespeare, he wrote plays because at that time most people couldn’t read and very few people could afford books. But if Shakespeare was writing today, he’d be writing crime novels; you look at King Lear, Richard III, Macbeth – half his plays have got a courtroom scene in.
“People love puzzles. And every major crime is a puzzle.”