Sudeshna Sarkar / 15 March 2014
Peter James has turned his killer instinct to perfect use, plotting a series of spine-tingling murders that have sold over 14 million copies. SUDESHNA SARKAR catches the man who gave the world Detective Superintendent Roy Grace in the act
By his own admission Peter James would have probably remained a ham spy story writer if his house had not been burgled. But his house was broken into and when he reported the crime to police, a detective came home to investigate.
Nearly 30 years later, when James narrates this story to me, he forgets to include whether the stolen goods were ever recovered. Instead his conversation is about the wealth of wonderful things he gained from the experience — the friendship of the detective, the camaraderie of the local police officers whose lives he found to be far more fascinating than the three spy thrillers he had written till then, and the culmination of all this novel knowledge and insight into a new-found talent for writing whodunits which turned out to be bestsellers.
“Nobody sees more of human life in the course of his career than a cop,” he says, half musingly, half in admiration. “And of all the crimes that human beings commit, murder is the one crime for which there is no possible restitution.”
Treachery and murder has been part of human life since time immemorial and men have continued to be both fascinated and repelled by it. Think of Qabil in the Holy Quran who killed his brother Habil out of jealousy, or the betrayal of Jesus by Judas that led to the crucifixion.
“Look at Shakespeare,” James urges. “The stories of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Titus Andronicus. Look at Sophocles’ Oedipus. That’s a crime novel.”
There’s something else too that James shares with Shakespeare. While the bard’s father was a glovemaker, so was James’ mother.
As he expounds the link on his web site: “My mother, Cornelia James, was Glovemaker to Her Majesty the Queen… The firm is today run by my sister, Genevieve and her husband, and still supplies the royal family, and there were plenty of our gloves on display during the recent jubilee. All those wonderful waves by Her Majesty on the boat on the Thames were in Cornelia James gloves!”
James’ crime fiction has given the world Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, the sleuth based on Dave Gaylor, the officer who investigated his burglary in the 80s, and now checks his manuscripts to ensure that there are no false notes. DS Roy Grace not only solves other people’s mysteries but nurses one in his own life as well, after coming home one day and finding his wife had vanished into thin air.
The other thing that adds zing to the Roy Grace books is the cunning use of the word “dead” in the title: From the debut novel Dead Simple to the ninth Dead Man’s Grip, to the newest one, Want You Dead, that will be released ceremoniously at a “big party in England” in June.
Besides the drama that he witnesses firsthand when he goes out with his police friends — to murder scenes, on drug busts and searches for missing persons — James also finds fodder for his plots in his own life. The eighth Roy Grace title, Not Dead Yet, was inspired by the fan who became obsessed with him. She flooded him with email, took his photographs with a long lens and began turning up at his public programmes with a chilling regularity.
Want You Dead is also about obsession. The idea came to him from a real-life incident he chanced upon during his trips with the police.
“It was a case of domestic abuse,” he explains. “It is about a man who became obsessed with a girl he had met through a dating agency. I take a lot of things that actually happened and then adapt them to the plot. Want You Dead is about the dynamics in a relationship, how people change. How men change and women blame themselves. Domestic abuse is much more serious than people think.”
Why do people love to read about blood and gore, even those who would never harm a fly?
The man who has made crime pay has given the matter a great deal of thought. “At the deepest psychological level, it is about what one can learn from this. What made a person behave the way he did? What made him kill his wife? What can I do to avoid that?
“At another level, human beings love puzzles. We love solving them and the unravelling of a crime fascinates us.
“At the third level, we all have a dark side to us. Even a few years ago people used to go to public hangings. We like reading about crime and murder in the safety of our own homes, in the company of our loved ones.”
Though James’ books have been published in 36 languages, sold over 14 million copies and been adapted for the stage as well as the screen, he has one little grouse.
“The writer is always at the bottom of the movie chain and business,” he says indignantly. “In 1993 I had three books adapted for the screen and was taken to the studio and introduced to the lead actor. He shook my hand as if I were a piece of dog turd.
“I thought to myself, you wouldn’t have been here but for me. Everything starts with the writer, somebody who puts a pen to a piece of paper. That is where it all begins.”
But last November, like the victims in his novels, James too had his just desert moment.
It was another adaptation of his books and he met Claire Goose, the British television actor who had a role in it.
“‘You must feel like God,’ she told me, ‘having created all this.’ Yeah, I thought. Finally somebody has got her priorities right!”