by Lisa Frascarelli
Peter James’s cleaning lady recently left a message on his desk which read: “Worried about you! You’re reading weird books — men’s pregnancy and women’s shoes. Are you OK?”
“I think she saw the books and thought I was going to have a sex change and try to get pregnant,” smirks James, who it turns out is not gender confused, just researching his latest novel — Dead Like You.
“It’s about a rapist who takes his victims’ shoes, so I’ve been hanging out in women’s shoe shops to see how people behave.” And how do they behave? “Pretty unsurprisingly, apart from one guy in a pinstripe suit who was trying on a pair of bling, silver lame, 6in heels.”
Luckily, his cleaner hasn’t spotted him in LK Bennett or seen the contents of his hard drive which he says is bulging with compromising material. “If anybody looked at my computer they’d think I was really weird — it’s full of foot fetish websites.”
James is quarter of the way through what will be the sixth in his Roy Grace series, which sees the detective with a missing wife and a penchant for pies shuffling about in the seamier side of Brighton life. The fifth, Dead Tomorrow, is out next month and follows the story of a desperate mother who turns to the murky world of organ trafficking to find her daughter a new liver.
“Do you know how much you are worth?” (James, who is very excitable, is almost bursting at this point). I don’t.
“About a million dollars,” he splutters. “Seriously. Your kidneys are worth about $45,000 each, your liver is worth $350,000, your heart and lungs about $350,000, skin, eyes, bones, everything…
“The irony is, as transplant surgery has become more advanced, donors have decreased and the principal reason for this is car seat belts. In the old days, people would hit the windscreen and die of a broken neck. Now they tend to only die if they’re mangled or burned.”
Grim facts aside, James says he’s been wanting to do something on the subject for a long time.
A few years ago he was approached by a documentary maker who told him that in Columbia, criminals were making more money out of organ trafficking than drugs. But the project never came off. “They sent two journalists out there to investigate and they were both killed.”
James decided it would be best to tackle the subject from the safety of his Beddingham office, near Lewes, where the only murderous criminals he’s likely to encounter are the ones he writes into his best-selling novels. But there have been some unwelcome visitors to the sprawling barn conversion he shares with his second wife, Helen. “When we first moved in there were a lot of spooky goings-on,” which James says includes cigar smoke, ringing doorbells and a clothes rail which travelled the length of the library, under its own steam. “Helen has felt someone getting into bed with her in the middle of the night, when I’ve been away.” He raises his eyebrows. “She claims it was a spirit.” They enlisted the help of an exorcist, twice, who said some prayers and did a bit of dowsing, since when the house has “felt a lot lighter”.
James is interested in the supernatural, which often works its way into his novels. He’s also into flashy cars (a red Bentley Continental is one of many cars cluttering his gravel drive), serious research and is in the midst of a battle with a group of travellers residing near his home — all of which you’d know if you’d been following his latest obsession, Twitter.
“It’s fun. I can knock off a Twitter before breakfast. I can have a pop at things,” like the travellers, The Real Eating Company in Lewes, which he likes but thinks is “precious” because they don’t serve Diet Coke and won’t let you smoke outside — “Hello?”. But the author also uses the latest internet obsession to reach the four million fans who buy his novels and who in the past have sent him chocolates, T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “The world’s greatest crime writer” and fan mail scrawled on a piece of pretend coffin. But he says the most memorable correspondence he’s had is from one of his many fans obsessed with Roy Grace’s missing wife, Sandy.
“I had this email, it said: ‘Dear Mr James, I just worked out that I’m quite a bit younger than you and I suspect I’m quite a bit fitter than you, which means you’re going to die before me. I sincerely hope you’ve left the secret of what happens to Sandy safely in your publisher’s vaults’.” Did he reply? “No, but I felt like challenging him to a marathon next year.”
Anyway, James is a man who takes his research very seriously. He spends around one day a week out on the beat with Sussex Police, hunting down armed robbers and sitting in on car chases, which he assures me are, “Better than any fun fair ride. Real boy’s own adventures.”
James, who you may have guessed is half man, half overgrown schoolboy, also works closely with ex Sussex CID man Dave Gaylor, who Grace is based on. In the name of research, James has spent time in the mortuary fridges. “Some years ago they kindly put me on a tray and slid me in. I looked around and there were five bodies. It was the ghost train at Brighton Pier x 10,000.”
He has also been buried, or at least boxed up, alive.
“I asked an undertaker if they would put me in a coffin and screw the lid down and leave me for half an hour. I immediately started to regret it. I thought, what if he goes out and gets run over? You can only survive in a coffin for a few hours.”
But the research and the writing has paid off. James’s novels have been translated into 30 languages and shifted more than four million copies worldwide. He’s also struck a deal with ITV to co-produce his book Dead Simple. The script, which James says is “fantastic”, has been written by Neil McKay, the man behind Moors Murders drama, See No Evil, but the project has stalled due to “finances”. Who does he see playing Grace?
“Well, ten years ago, Daniel Craig, but even if he’d do it now I wouldn’t have him. I’d like an unknown. Someone who can become Grace the way John Thaw made Morse himself.”
In a former life James was a film producer and so has plenty of (good and bad) experiences with actors.
“Some are a nightmare and some are delightful.” Al Pacino who he worked with on The Merchant Of Venice, was “an absolute gentleman”. Robert De Niro, who he met on The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, was not.
“De Niro wanted a private jet and goat’s milk because he wanted to get into character. He was playing an 18th century archbishop who would have probably crossed the Channel on a f***ing raft!” But De Niro’s behaviour was dwarfed by that of Bonnie And Clyde actor Michael J Pollard and his continent-sized ego.
James was called out to the Hyatt hotel in Montreal where he found the actor, a girl and a crazy cockerel.
“It was flying around and squawking and crowing and I was trying to catch it.”
But dysfunctional fowl and difficult actors are a long way from James’s Brighton beginnings, where his father was an accountant and his mother was Cornelia James, glove-maker to the Queen. His sartorial legacy means he’s particular about appearances. Scuffed shoes are a pet hate “You never see a detective in a pair of scuffed shoes”, as are grey ones, “If I see a bloke in a business suit and a pair of grey shoes I immediately think, hmmm. Terrible.” But a bloke in a pinstripe suit and 6in heels, well, “that’s just Brighton”.