By Cole Moreton
27 May 2012
Best-selling crime novelist Peter James is seeking revenge – on his stalker and novelist Martin Amis.
The Home Secretary had better watch out. The last woman who upset Peter James is now on a mortuary slab. “She wrote something really nasty about me, so that was my revenge,” says James. “I took great pleasure in her dissection.”
Softly spoken, he looks sinister in a black T‑shirt and black slacks, his eyes blinking behind rimless glasses. We’re in his rooftop lair, an apartment with views over Notting Hill. James also has a heavily protected house in the countryside, collects classic cars and goes motor racing for thrills. Crime clearly pays when you’re able to commit murders for great reward.
There’s no punishment if you only commit them to paper. James is one of our most successful crime writers: his series of mysteries starring the Brighton-based detective Roy Grace have sold 11 million copies so far. The last went straight into the bestseller charts at number one, in hardback and paperback. So did the book before that. The next is just about to come out. Not Dead Yet is likely to sell just as well, making it a remarkable three in a row.
The critic who upset him appears as a corpse. There is another act of revenge in the book, against a very famous writer who snubbed him in real life, but like the story-teller he is, James won’t reveal the identity of his victim until the end of our chat.
Theresa May has reason to fear, because James is a fierce ally of the police, researching his books by spending a day a week on patrol with officers in Brighton.
“I think the police are a major part of the glue that holds civilised life together,” he says. “They’re not highly paid. Almost every officer is going to put their life on the line at some point in their career. They might be confronted at two in the morning by some idiot with a knife, and they deal with it. They do it because it’s one of the few professions where you can make a difference.”
Some of that bravery ends up in his books, along with their faults. “They like the way I portray them: warts and all, but accurate and fair.”
His friends feel undervalued just now. “The police feel that most of the public are against them and that there is a lot of bad feeling. The only contact most people have is when they are nicked for speeding. All you need is a rude traffic cop and you’ll hate the police for the rest of your life.”
He also sees anger in the ranks, at the budget cuts being imposed on them. The Police Federation says they are criminal and thousands of officers marched in protest earlier this month. James has been campaigning against a rule that some forces have introduced, requiring all officers to retire after 30 years. “Our government has instructed every police force to lose 20 per cent of its budget by 2015, and this is the way some have chosen to do it. It is bonkers.”
He knows a CID officer whose training has cost a million pounds over the years, but who has now been forced to leave. Another highly skilled detective has had to become a chauffeur. “To throw the top coppers on the scrapheap at 50 like this is absolute madness. The blame goes to the Government for the way they have allowed it to happen and left the chief constables with no choice.”
The cuts are a theme in Not Dead Yet, as Roy Grace and his team struggle to cope with protecting a film star. She’s in danger because a stalker is going way too far. “Pretty well every book I have written has come out of something that has touched a nerve for me,” says James, who went to film school and spent decades writing, producing or financing movies. Al Pacino and Sharon Stone are in framed photos on his wall.
“I worked with a lot of A‑listers, from Peter Sellers to Charlize Theron. I’ve seen the way they crave their public. There is a desperation to have the adulation. The bodyguards are there, but you can be sure their publicist will phone the paparazzi to say where they are going to dinner.”
There is, however, another more unsettling reason why this book is personal. It’s a challenge to his own stalker.
“It started about 10 years ago when I saw this woman at a book event in Glasgow, smiling as if I knew her.” She began to appear at events all over the country, without approaching him. Then came an email, praising what he was wearing and thanking him for smiling at her.
“I did reply, at first, but then stopped. I was spooked but she seemed harmless… until she sent me a photograph of her Peter James shrine. It had all my books, but also photographs I didn’t know had been taken, of me getting into a car or coming out of a restaurant. They were flanked by candles, burning.”
The police advised him to be vigilant. “Three years ago, I was signing in Newcastle and this woman is in front of me. She has changed her hairstyle and I don’t recognise her. I say, ‘What name would you like in the book?’ She says, ‘Mine!’ I go blank. I say, ‘How do you spell it?’ She storms off, then sends me a 10,000-word email saying, ‘I’ve been your number one fan for years, I can’t believe you didn’t remember my name.’ Then I don’t hear from her again for a while. Which is a relief.”
Two years ago someone tried to break into his house on the South Downs, where his wife Helen was alone. “The dogs saw them off.” There was no way of knowing if the stalker was involved. “Then I’m doing a signing in Bristol last October when suddenly a book lands on the table. Blam! She says, ‘I’ve decided to forgive you.’ ”
What did he do? “I signed the book. It has calmed down. I probably get three or four emails a week from her. It made me realise that if someone is obsessive, all it takes is for the celebrity to be accidentally rude and then…”
Won’t he provoke his stalker by writing and talking about her like this? “Graham Greene said, ‘Every writer has to carry a chip of ice in their heart.’ I am more secretive about my location these days, but after moving house I felt, ‘Fine, I’m actually not going to be scared by you. I’m going to write this book about an obsessive stalker. If you don’t like it, come and find me. Make my day, punk.’ So far nothing. Although perhaps a longer silence than usual, the last few weeks…” And he laughs again, aware that the story is on a cliffhanger.
His own back story is as good as a plot. His mother, Cornelia James, was a Jewish refugee who came to this country in 1938 with the clothes she stood up in and a suitcase of gloving leathers she had been using as a fashion student in Vienna. “After the war, when all the clothes were drab, she dyed her gloves in different colours. This caught the eye of the designer Norman Hartnell and Vogue called my mother ‘The Colour Queen of England’.”
Princess Elizabeth began wearing Cornelia James gloves after her wedding in 1947 and still does. Will she wear them during the Jubilee celebrations? “I imagine so. We are still the only glove-maker with a royal warrant,” says James.
James started writing spy thrillers while working in the movies, but they were not a success. His life was changed by a burglary. “A young detective who came to see us gave me his card, saying that if I ever needed any help with research, I should call him.”
James subsequently became personal friends with many police officers, including a detective inspector called Dave Gaylor, who is now retired. “I said to him, ‘How would you like to be my fictional detective?’ He loved it. He is my real-life Roy Grace. He doesn’t look like him and he doesn’t have a missing wife, but he and I plan the plots, he reads the pages and then we discuss how Roy Grace would act.”
James is now developing a film, also set in Brighton. “I was born there, I know every street and alleyway. I have my own police car there…”
Sorry? His own police car? “Yeah. I said to my publishers, ‘We get so much off the police, we ought to offer them something back.’ It’s a pool car that goes on patrol. The words ‘Peter James – Number 1 for Crime’ are on it and the livery for the books, but not the titles. It might not be good to turn up at a murder scene with Not Dead Yet on the side.” Is this ethical? “We have only had one complaint, and that was from a burglar in Lewes.”
James also writes stand-alone novels – the 12th is soon to appear in paperback. Perfect People is about genetic selection. His prose may not always be elegant but the story is always a cracker. “I’m often sneered at by the literary establishment. They say, ‘Why don’t you write real fiction?’ If Shakespeare was alive today, he would be writing novels, to communicate to the largest audience, and what would King Lear, Othello or Macbeth be? Crime novels.”
Sometimes sales figures are not comfort enough. This is where revenge comes in. James directs me to a sleazy, old-style villain in Not Dead Yet called Amis Smallbone. Can you guess who he is named after?
“I was at Charterhouse School with Martin Amis, many years ago. I didn’t see him again until an awards ceremony in 2010. I went up and said, ‘You might not remember me, but we were at school together.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t remember you – and you only remember me because I’m famous.’”
James says this with a drawl meant to mimic the writer.
“I stormed off and wrote on Twitter that I had just met the rudest writer on the planet. Ian Rankin [his fellow crime writer] asked who it was. I told him and said I was going to get my revenge by writing Amis into the next book and giving him a very small penis. Rankin bet me a hundred quid I wouldn’t. He’s going to have to pay up.”
Amis Smallbone is ridiculed by a prostitute, who compares his manhood to a stubby pencil. The gangster he is staying with says, “You’ve always traded on being your dad’s son, but you was never half the man he was.”
James grins like a boy who has tripped up a bully. “I was rather pleased with that.” He’s not sinister at all, of course. And law-abiding at all times. But still, I make very sure to shake his hand nicely. Don’t want to end up on a slab…