Author of two bestsellers has come a long way since Polka Dot Door

By Jamie Portman, For Postmedia News January 4, 2012

LONDON – Back in the days when he was working in a lowly position at the Toronto-based children’s TV show, Polka Dot Door, Britain’s Peter James knew he wanted to be a writer.

But he never envisaged a time when he would become one of the world’s most successful suspense novelists. And would his career ever have happened without those Canadian years and an unexpected opportunity to try his hand at writing a script for kids?

His current double whammy – two new books dominating British bestseller lists and now cramming the shelves of Canadian shops – is unusual. So is James’ skill at straddling more than one genre in the world of popular fiction, while also posting credentials as a successful film producer.

But his fame rests in his books. And whether he ventures into the paranormal – and hey, this is a guy who has happily lived in two haunted houses – or simply spins a cunning mystery yarn, the material always seems reality-based.

“I’m fascinated by the world in which we live; I like to explore aspects of it and discover why people do the things they do,” he says.

His two current books – Dead Man’s Grip, a classic police-procedural novel that HarperCollins brought to Canada in the autumn, and the just-published Perfect People, an eerie thriller about two parents who decide to have a designer baby – testify to his versatility. They also reveal his knack for rooting his fiction in fact.

Consider Dead Man’s Grip, the seventh crime novel to feature Det. Supt. Roy Grace of the Sussex police force. It begins with a two-vehicle collision that leads to the death of a young American student attending Brighton University. Later, two other people involved in the accident are found tortured and murdered – and Grace becomes convinced that sinister forces from the New York underworld are exacting retribution for the student’s death.

James wondered whether his plot was too improbable, until he sat down with two friends from the New York Police Department.

“I took them out for dinner and said, ‘What I really want to know is whether the Mafia still exists today, or whether it’s just a sort of fiction like The Sopranos.’ I told them my story in the book about the accident: Three characters and this 20-year-old boy from New York and the mother comes over and wants everybody involved in that accident tortured and killed. And they just looked at me and said, ‘You know this did happen, don’t you?’ I felt a chill.”

It was then that James learned the story of notorious mobster John Gotti, whose son was killed when knocked off his bicycle by a drunk driver. “Gotti’s wife, understandably, went mental and said, ‘I want that bastard tortured and killed.’ And two weeks later, he disappeared and was never seen again. Was that life imitating art, or what?”

James’ previous Roy Grace book, Dead Like You, was about a serial rapist, and was drawn from the true story of a predator in England who raped 126 women and took their shoes as trophies.

“So, quite a few of my books have been triggered by something true,” the 63-year-old novelist says.

The just-published Perfect People occupies its own special territory. Although James wants his fans to have a good read, he also wants them to think hard about the issues it raises.

Talking to Postmedia News from his Brighton home, James says the seeds for this novel were planted a decade ago during another visit to America.

“I met the head of brain genetics at Cal Tech, and he gave me a morning of his time. He was telling me about the stuff he was working on there, and one of the things he’d identified was the cluster of genes responsible for empathy.”

James immediately saw rich potential for a novel. But he also recognized the disturbing implications of such a discovery.

“Parents in the not-too-distant future would be able to decide: We want to have a boy and this is the level of empathy we want that boy to have. So do they want a sweet, gentle child who’s going to get trodden on, or do they want a tough little boy who could end up being a sociopath? There are all kinds of decisions like that. Do you want to enhance kids’ hand-eye co-ordinations to make them better at ball games? If you say no, you’ll be bringing your kids into a genetic underclass, because other parents will be advancing theirs. I wanted to raise questions like this.”

James believes it’s only a matter of time before such procedures become a reality. In Perfect People, the parents aren’t prepared for the consequences of choosing the genetic makeup of their child. Their action produces fearsomely intelligent, but distinctly eerie, offspring – and the prospect of annihilation by a fanatical religious cult outraged at their crime against nature.

James’ own creative life has followed a fascinating arc. After graduating from a British film school in 1970, he ended up in Canada, where he managed to get a poorly paid job as a “gopher” on Polka Dot Door, “making tea and running errands.” Within three months, a panicky producer was asking him if he could deliver a script on short notice. “I ended up writing one, three times a week for a year, and for me, it was a phenomenal break.”

Polka Dot Door introduced James to the pleasures of writing, but it also hooked him on producing. By 1972, he and business partner David Perlmutter had managed to set up the Canadian company, Quadrant Films, which specialized in low-budget horror movies (The Corpse Grinders, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, David Cronenberg’s Shivers) with occasional forays into the respectable (the film version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood). But by 1979, James was ready to sell his share in Quadrant so he could return to England and concentrate on writing.

Now, the pleasures of the pen reign paramount. Still, success has its negative side.

“The process of writing isn’t difficult. I’ve always been able to sit down and just get on with it. The hardest problem – it’s a high-class problem, I guess – is that the better my books are doing, the more my time is taken up travelling. I’m in 34 languages now, so I’m constantly travelling, because every publisher wants me to do something. So my window for writing is getting smaller.”