The truth is often stranger than fiction, as bestselling author Peter James discovered when he was developing the plot of his new crime thriller Not Dead Yet, which was published yesterday.
In auctioning off the right for someone to have a dead body found in their business as part of the plot, Mr James became one of the first of a series of authors, including Chichester writer Kate Mosse and television comedian Katy Brand, to offer a chance to have a character named after you in a novel.
And as the winner was Keith Winter, the owner of Stonery Chicken Farm in East Sussex, it was obviously a case of murder most fowl.
Former film producer Mr James said: “This was a very unusual auction and when the farmer won it, I wrote the discovery of body parts concealed in the chicken dung at the farm into the plot. It was quite a challenge, but in the end it worked very well.”
Not Dead Yet is the eighth novel in the series of thrillers featuring his Brighton based hero, Det Supt Roy Grace of Sussex CID.
Incredibly popular, two of his Roy Grace thrillers have already shot straight into the Number One slot in the bestseller lists and overall he has sold 11 million books in Britain and abroad.
This time, Grace is simultaneously investigating a gruesome murder and tracking down the stalker of international rock superstar Gaia, who has landed the leading role in a major Hollywood movie being filmed on location at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, about the city’s greatest love story between George IV and Maria Fitzherbert.
Local fans enjoy the Brighton setting of the Roy Grace series, in which many of the locations and ‘characters’ are real, among them Michael Beard, the Editor of The Argus.
It’s not the only weapon Mr James has in his writing armoury, though.
Revenge, a constant theme for his fictional protagonists, is sometimes the motive behind the peopling of his novels.
He has previous form, including real life enemies in his plots as dead bodies or criminals.
And true to form, in Not Dead Yet, the author has created a character based on his own real-life stalker, a woman who for a decade turned up at book signings all over the country, smiling at him as if they knew each other with an intensity that prompted him to increase security at his home near Lewes.
He said: “Part of writing this was to lay down a challenge to her.
“I’m saying to her: I’m outing you. So come and make my day. I’m actually fed up with her and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this gets some sort of reaction from her.”
Meticulous research is one of the secret weapons Mr James deploys in his writing. He famously spends hours shadowing Sussex Police officers and endlessly refines the details of police procedure with his friend, retired Sussex detective Dave Gaylor, on whom Roy Grace is based.
Mr James also travelled to the USA to research stalking with the Threat Management Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, which deals with more stalkers than anywhere else in the world.
Equally meticulous research with the charity Missing over a decade ago inspired the long-running mystery of Roy Grace’s missing wife Sandy.
He said: “I asked someone if there was such a thing as a perfect murder, and he said yes, because many people remain missing and some will have been murdered, their bodies still undiscovered.
“There’s no closure for those left behind, who are trapped by never knowing what’s happened.
“In most detective novels, the detective has a drink problem and a broken marriage. Real detectives can’t have drink problems, though, because they’d be out straightaway, but detectives solve puzzles and I thought it would be interesting to have a detective with a personal problem he couldn’t solve.”
Mr James throws his fans tantalising morsels about the Sandy saga in Not Dead Yet, and reveals that the plot of the next book in the series is a revenge story set partly in 1920s New York and then moving into the present-day antiques trade in Brighton.
There are moves afoot to turn the first Roy Grace novel Dead Simple into a film and Mr James is trying to fund a deal to make a television series of his newest standalone thriller Perfect People, a chilling glimpse into the future where genetic selection makes perfect people.
He said: “A genetic scientist in LA told me they had discovered the cluster of genes responsible for empathy.
I said: ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘Yes’. Then he told me about the genes for hand-eye co-ordination and for designing human sleep patterns and I came away reeling. I thought I must write about it now or the science would overtake me.”