Bestselling crime writer Peter James finds the side effects of his car-racing more agonising than writing, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
It amuses international bestselling crime-thriller novelist Peter James that on his most recent visit to Joburg, he was warned he would be “mugged getting into a taxi and mugged getting out of it”.
No wonder he chuckles, for he was born and raised in Brighton, England, variously described as “the crime capital of the UK and the murder capital of Europe”.
He counts himself lucky that the coastal city has this reputation, “for a little known fact about it which three chief constables have told me”, and his voice drops to a stage whisper, “is that it is the most favoured place in the UK for ‘first division’ criminals to live.”
He has set all nine of his detective-superintendent Roy Grace novels in the seaside town and some aspect of it, usually its iconic pier, adorns the front covers of his successful series.
The latest, Dead Man’s Time (Macmillan), is subtitled, “Some will wait a lifetime to take their revenge” and, in this case, the vengeful person is a 95-year-old man, Gavin Daly.
The book opens in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, with five-year-old Daly being told a story about the Man in the Moon by his father, who is a dock worker and head of the Irish Mafia there.
It is a ritual. Every night, Daly’s father takes his Patek Philippe watch out of his pocket, the top half of which has a section showing the different phases of the moon. Story done, his dad stomps off to bed.
The boy wakes to the sound of shattering glass and, minutes later, his mother is shot dead and his father is dragged off into the darkness.
The orphaned boy and his sister are subsequently sent to Ireland to be raised by their extended family. Their father’s pocket watch piques the boy’s interest in antiques and, as the years pass, he makes his considerable fortune in the trade.
The scene switches to a vicious robbery in a secluded Brighton mansion in 2012.
Millions of pounds worth of valuables, including antiques, are stolen. The elderly victim, Aileen McWhirter, is tortured to obtain the details of the combination of her safe as well as her bank account details.
Roy Grace, who heads the investigation into the robbery – and now murder – learns that there is one priceless item of sentimental value that the dead woman’s powerful family cherishes more than anything.
Daly doesn’t believe that Grace, or the police, will be able to get the watch back “so he turns to his 50-year-old thug of a son and says he must take whatever action is necessary”, says James.
It is obvious from the start that the old man actively dislikes his son, so we have all kinds of scenarios in which people are played off against each other.
Grace who, like all good fictional cops, has problems at home, one of them being a wife who has been missing for nine years, has to follow a murderous trail.
It takes him from the shady antiques world of Brighton, across Europe and all the way back to the New York waterfront of 1922.
He is chasing a killer driven by the force of one man’s greed and another man’s fury.
This is classic James and we are wound up, like the antique watch on its chain, to a tense face-off that will have you gnawing your knucklebones as I did.
“I’ve always wanted to have an elderly person as an heroic character in a book and as we are all, touch wood, living longer, healthier lives, I was quite pleased with Gavin Daly as a creation.”
There is a pause. “Well, even though he’s an old rogue, he’s a multimillionaire and has some morals, unlike his son.”
James who is an extraordinary character himself, has been writing books full-time since 2005. His first book, Dead Letter Drop, was published in 1981. Since then, he has written 14 novels, a children’s book, a novella and a short story collection, in addition to his Roy Grace series.
Over the years, he has had shareholdings in businesses, co-founded an entertainment company, produced 13 films and written TV programmes.
In 1980, he began buying the rights to all of the 93 Biggles books – “Biggles” is the title character and main hero of the Biggles series of adventure books (he is a pilot and adventurer) written by WE Johns and aimed at young boys – and was closely involved in taking the film, Biggles, to the screen in 1985: “It had a royal premiere in the presence of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.”
His family has a connection to British royalty for his mother, Cornelia James was, until her death in 1999, glove maker to Queen Elizabeth.
“British designer Hardy Amies asked my mother to make gloves for Princess Elizabeth’s going away outfit for her wedding in 1947.”
Cornelia James ran the business with her husband and today the author’s sister, Genevieve, and her husband run the firm. “They still supply the royal family, including Kate Middleton (now the Duchess of Cambridge).”
James, a popular after-dinner speaker, has lived in “a haunted Georgian manor house”, and is not dismissive of cops who visit psychics for help in solving difficult cases.
His “maddest passion”, as he puts it, “is motor racing. My first car was a 1929 Rolls-Royce hearse”.
He has his very own police car, which he donated to the Sussex police five years ago.
“The livery, alongside the police markings, changes each year to match the jacket of my latest Roy Grace novel.”
His passion has had side effects. While the 64-year-old was racing two months ago at Brands Hatch in England, in a 1965 BMW, he was hit from behind “at 85 miles an hour and I barrel-rolled four times”.
He broke three ribs and suffered three slipped discs.
“It has been agony” he admits. “I will know how to torture someone in a future book.”
But not for James, it seems, the agony endured by many an author who sits down to write.
His “working day” starts at 6pm, when “I make myself a stiff vodka martini, put on music, light a fag and get in the zone”.
He writes until 10pm, when he has a TV supper in front of “something easy on the telly”. He is up early to run anything between 5km and 12km before he checks “if what I wrote the night before makes any sense”.
He deals harshly with his book critics: “One ended up being autopsied on a postmortem slab, while others have had their names slapped on mortuary fridge doors.” His deadpan delivery has us both roaring with laughter.
He promises that when he returns to SA next year, he will discuss his other interests, which range from medicine to science and the paranormal. The joie de vivre of this multifaceted author is, it seems, unstoppable.