There’s a very good reason why stories by hit thriller writer Peter James chill the blood so effectively. He bases them on the REAL killers he meets in prison. Here he describes his most disturbing encounters… and explains why his latest monstrous creation is drawn from four of the most sinister serial killers in history.
Giving a talk in a women’s prison recently, there was one bright inmate asking me very informed questions about literature.
I was curious to know what crime she had committed.
At the end I approached her and broke the ice by asking how much longer she had to serve. ‘Nine-and-a-half more years – and it’s just not fair!’ she replied indignantly.
‘A woman did exactly the same as me in London and she’s only got six more years!’
I asked her what had brought her in here and she replied, ‘I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag.’
She continued: ‘She went in to hospital to die, and I embezzled her bank account. But the bloody woman didn’t die and was sent home.
‘I realised she’d find out so I had to poison her, and then I realised my husband would find out and I had to poison him too.
‘It’s just not fair, how long I got!’ she ranted.
Her mother-in-law had died and her husband had permanent brain damage. Yet all she cared about was the length of her sentence…
I recently met another murderer, as part of the research for my latest novel, You Are Dead, this time in a pub. His family ran a social club near Brighton.
One night, in 1985, he bludgeoned his father, stepmother and ten-year-old stepbrother to death with a baseball bat, making it look like a burglary gone wrong, so that he would inherit.
He served 23 years in prison, has found God and is now writing and painting. Did he regret what he’d done?
He told me: ‘What happened is between me, my dad, stepmum, stepbrother and God.’
The impression I got was all he regretted was being caught.
Creating credible villains is vital to me, and I learn so much from meeting people like this.
The absence of empathy and guilt is one very common denominator – and I frequently portray just how relaxed my own fictitious murderers are.
When someone kills another human, they cross a moral Rubicon. Those who are capable of living with that are the truly dangerous ones, because they may strike again at any time, without losing a night’s sleep.
For that reason, I always find it strange and discomforting to be in the presence of a killer, yet at the same time, utterly intriguing.
I’m wondering what the similarities are between us, and the differences. Are there any circumstances in which I could do what they have done?
Why is it we are we so fascinated by murder? I believe for two reasons.
First, murder is the ultimate crime – because there is no possible restitution.
When a killer takes someone’s life, that life can never be returned. Victims are destroyed, and the lives of their loved ones blighted for ever.
One such victim who deeply moved me was Trish Bernal, whose beautiful daughter, Claire, was shot dead in the London department store Harvey Nichols, in 2009, by her former boyfriend, Michael Pech, a security guard at the store.
They had only dated for a short while, but Pech simply could not accept the relationship was over.
Trish wanted to help prevent other vulnerable people enduring the hell and ultimate fate Claire suffered, by giving me details about the personality of Pech, the background and traits of obsession that he showed, though she made no stipulations about how the material was to be used.
Her insights helped me to create one of my most convincing and scary villains, Bryce Laurent in Want You Dead.
Second, each of us is actually capable of murder – and many of us have at some moment in our lives contemplated it – but fortunately, most of us not too seriously.
We all have the requisite tools – our bare hands, kitchen knives, wire, hammers, cabinets full of drugs. And for disposal of a body, we possess saws, bin-liners, shovels and vehicles.
Yet for all of that, the murder rate in the UK is a relatively small 650 a year, when compared to over 12,000 in the U.S. Why is it so low here?
I believe it’s because most of us have a conscience, and could not live with the knowledge of having killed. We can understand the motives of many murderers.
A ruthless armed robber who shoots out of greed; the terrorist who kills out of warped ideology; the professional hit man who kills for a fee; the husband who buries his wife beneath the kitchen floor because it’s quicker and cheaper than a divorce. The lover who kills in a fit of jealous rage. But what about the serial killer?
These are the ones who intrigue and chill us all the most.
The person who kills for sheer pleasure or satisfaction, the gratification derived from the act, driven by a mindset that is sometimes beyond comprehension, sometimes alien – and always repugnant to decent human beings.
As part of my research for You Are Dead, I studied a wide number of serial killers around the world, trying to establish what common denominators, if any, there were.
One who has long fascinated me, was Dennis Rader, self-styled BTK – Bind Torture Kill – who between 1974 and 1991 killed ten people in and around Wichita, Kansas. He liked to stalk, tie up and torture his victims before eventually despatching them.
Outwardly Rader was a seemingly ordinary family man – he was a church warden, scout leader and local government compliance officer. I saw the police videos of his interviews. In one, after he had confessed, the officer asked him why he did it?
‘It was erotic,’ he replied, chillingly. ‘It turned me on to tie them up.’
The officer asked him if he couldn’t simply have tied his wife up.
‘Oh sure, I used to do that but it got boring,’ he answered, totally matter-of-factly.
Our cultural fascination with serial killers is in part because so many of them are smart, cunning, personable and absolute chameleons – blending in to their environment, killing and escaping undetected for years and sometimes decades.
They both terrify and intrigue us because they could be living next door to any of us – or even be a close friend.
Ted Bundy, one of the true household names among serial killers, fits exactly that mould.
Good-looking, charming, highly intelligent and charismatic, he studied law and worked for the Republican party.
Born in 1946, he was executed in 1989, having confessed to murdering more than 35 young women.
After a troubled middle-class upbringing, he was dumped by his first love, a teenager with long brown hair and a centre parting.
Some months later he saw a similar-looking girl hitch-hiking, gave her a lift, then raped and strangled her.
‘That made me feel good,’ he confessed years later on Death Row.
He then went on a spree that was to last over a decade before his capture in 1975 and subsequent escape, and a further spree, before being recaptured in 1978.
There were occasions when he raped and killed two different women on the same day.
As with Rader, I saw tapes of the police interviews with Bundy.
One of the most chilling moments, and which I have used elements of in You Are Dead, was Bundy explaining to an FBI agent what he liked to do to his victims: ‘I would put my lips over hers and suck out her very last breath. That way she would never leave me, and I would possess her for ever.’
Clearly the moral codes of Bundy, Rader, Fred West, Harold Shipman and the rest are way outside the boundaries all decent people exist within. But are these people evil, or can excuses for their behaviour be found and explained through mental illness?
A while ago I was invited to spend a day at Broadmoor.
The criterion to be an inmate is to be violently, criminally insane. Few things have remained with me more indelibly than that visit.
There were a number of very scary moments, and much of the day filled with incredible darkness yet there were some surprising moments of light, too.
I asked the chaplain if he believed evil existed.
He said: ‘Every inmate fits into one of two categories – schizophrenics or psychopaths.
‘Schizophrenics are born with a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to delusions.
‘Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is one. He heard voices from God telling him to go and kill prostitutes.
‘Schizophrenia can be treated with medication, and a percentage of schizophrenics can, in time, be released and live normal lives, provided they remain on their medication permanently.
‘But psychopaths are very different.’
Much research has been done on psychopathy.
Essentially, a psychopath is born hard-wired different to the majority of us – they have a lack of empathy.
Evidence of this can present at a very early age – such as stealing his or her best friend’s favourite toy, with no guilt.
How that child develops is going to be in some considerable part down to the parenting. Brought up in a kind, loving, nurturing family, that child can grow up to become a captain of industry, a top politician and often, as we have seen, the leader of a nation.
Many psychopaths are highly intelligent and personable people.
In his book, Our Own Worst Enemy, psychologist Norman F Dixon wrote: ‘To be born a psychopath is the best possible qualification to get you to the top in life.
‘Unfortunately it is the worst qualification to then keep you there.’
Robert Maxwell, Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, are just a few among the vast A-list of utterly ruthless people who used their cunning to get to the top, but then through their hubris, were unable to sustain it.
The psychopathic child brought up in a dysfunctional family or by an abusive parent is a potentially dangerous person.
One classic example is Adolf Hitler – his bullying father forbidding him to become a painter may have been a trigger for the warped path his life then took.
There is a long list of multiple or serial killers who have a dark childhood history, but equally there are many serial killers who just don’t fit this mould.
In order to create my central villain for You Are Dead, I eventually singled out four names who had the character traits I needed – including having operated for many years without being caught.
They just blended into society discreetly, quietly, keeping beneath the radar.
What particularly fascinated me about these four was how, outwardly, they seemed very respectable men. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. Harold Shipman. Dennis Nilsen. These men came from a catalogue, hundreds of pages long, of murderers who have taken three or more lives at different times – the definition of a serial killer.
Shipman, a well-loved family doctor, from a caring family, is believed to have murdered over 215 people, making him our nation’s worst-ever serial killer. I used elements of his charm, his meekness and the trust he instilled in people.
Nilsen was in the Army, then a police officer, then executive officer for a job centre. He had a massive ego and deep insecurity, exactly as my killer does.
Just like Bundy, my villain is attracted to women in a certain age range and with a specific hairstyle.
Like Rader, my villain has a sadistic streak.
And like my villain, all four got away with their killings over many years. Each nearly got away with it completely.
Serial killers are smart, that’s how they avoid detection for so long. It never surprises me after one is finally arrested, to see the neighbour being interviewed on TV.
‘He was such a nice man…’
Peter James’s latest novel, ‘You Are Dead,’ is published by Pan Macmillan on May 21 and the paperback of ‘A Twist of the Knife’ on June 4.