Just before Christmas, the Shots Editors [Mike Stotter and Ali Karim], together with Barry Forshaw [Editor of Crime Time and The Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction] and Carla McKay [crime-fiction critic of the Daily Mail] met up with Peter James for a Christmas lunch. The lunch was organised by the industrious Amelia Knight as Peter wished to treat us for our support of his writing over the years. Naturally the Shots Editors wished to delve deeply into Peter James’ writing, his film career, as well as what makes James into one of Britain’s biggest names in the crime fiction genre.
The meal was a delight and reminded me of when we lunched with Peter James a few years ago when he started his Roy Grace series for The Rap Sheet – when we delved into Peter’s eclectic background:
We also talked, though, about his personal history. It seems Peter is the son of Cornelia James, glove manufacturer to the Queen. Educated at Charterhouse and then at film school, he began his career in North America working as a screenwriter and film producer (his projects included the award-winning 1974 horror flick Dead of Night) before returning to England. Until recently he was managing director of one of the largest UK film companies, Movision Entertainment, and has recently produced numerous films, including The Merchant of Venice, which starred Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes; Head in the Clouds, featuring Penelope Cruz and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron; and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, headlined by Robert DeNiro, Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, and Gabriel Byrne. In addition, Peter co-created the hit Channel 4 series Bedsitcom, which was nominated for a Rose d’Or Award.
He has written 17 international bestsellers, which have been translated into 30 languages. The Roy Grace series, consisting so far of Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Not Dead Enough and Dead Man's Footsteps have to date sold over 3 million copies world wide.Dead Man's Footsteps recently spent 7 weeks in the Sunday Times Top 10. The television rights to this series have been sold to ITV Productions, and the scripts are being written by BAFTA Award winning screen writer Neil Mackay (See No Evil).
All of Peter James’s novels reflect his deep interests in criminology, medicine, science, and the paranormal. They are also meticulously researched, which for Dead Simple and LookingGood Dead meant that he had to spend several days at the Brighton and Hove mortuary, and many more days out on patrol and as a fly on the wall with several divisions of the Sussex Police. Peter has also studied the criminal mind by visiting Broadmoor Hospital, a maximum-security facility, and he works closely with the Brighton police murder squad to get authentic insight into how investigations are carried out. Read More from The Rap Sheet
So as his latest Roy Grace thriller [#4 in the series] Dead Man’s Footsteps rides high in the UK paperback bestseller lists, Mike and I decided to ask Peter James a few questions about his work – I would advise you to read this interview carefully as at the end is a very special competition.
Mike Stotter and Ali Karim
Q Peter, you went to school at Charterhouse, there was a very moving piece in the Sunday Times, about when you learned about your own heritage and suffered bullying at school – something that happened to Ali. He had additional problems apart from skin colour, as he also has German relatives. Would you care to tell us a little about that time?
The first four years I absolutely hated. I got bullied because I looked Jewish – many people in the school, like in much ofEngland in the early 1960s, were aggressively anti-Semitic. As I went there not even knowing what a Jew was it was doubly distressing, until I learned the truth from my mother, which she had kept hidden, that she was a Jewish refugee from Vienna. Then one day, ten boys sat on a wall chanting “Jew, Jew Jew” at me. I dived over it and punched the lights out on the first guy in the line. After that I was never bullied again there! My last year and a half I enjoyed a lot. Largely because I spent most of it smoking pot, playing poker and discovering the joys of women. I was also a contemporary of the Genesis guys, who were great fun.
Q What is it about human nature that leads to racism?
I think racism is inherent in human nature. We are all very tribal – something that manifests, in one way, on Saturdays on the football terraces. Some form of racism exists in almost every culture – for example in India among the castes, in theUS, the white supremacists, in Australia against the aborigines. Here in the UK, WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) have always considered themselves superior by mere dint of birth – a British characteristic I cannot abide. I think much of the cause of racism is ignorance and fear. Most of the biggest racists are the least intelligent members of society – the ignorant bullies and the rabble rousers. The scary thing is that it is so easy to become racist. We all have the capacity, but few who have been the victims of prejudice ever themselves become racist. There was a powerful book published some years ago in the US, called No Jew Ever Called Me A Nigger. I would say that is true.
Q After Charterhouse, what was it that led you to film school?
Right from early childhood I had two ambitions: to make films and to write novels. I left Charterhouse ignominiously, being (politely!) asked to leave after playing truant for a long weekend with a stunning Brazilian model I picked up in the school grounds – she had come to see a relative playing cricket. I had just taken A levels and scored three dismal E Grades in English, French and Art History. I then went to a tutorial college to cram for Oxford Entrance – interestingly one of my eight classmates was Martin Amis. Then the first film school in England started up and I decided that was what I wanted to do. My parents were very supportive, although my mother, being a good Jewish mother, felt I should have a profession first and insisted I went to law school. So I did and lasted one week there!
Q And what’s this about working for Orson Welles?
True! When I was twenty and at film school I had just enough money from my parents to eat, pay my rent in London and travel to and from the college. But no surplus. There was a girl I wanted to take out, who I knew had expensive tastes, so I decided I had better earn some extra cash! I saw a sign in a newsagent window “CLEANER WANTED – APPLY MRS WELLES” and the address was just around the corner from me in Fulham. I turned up, not making any connection to the name, and this very elegant and pleasant woman looked at me in surprise and said, “Well, I was rather expecting a woman to apply.” I persuaded her to give me a trial period, which she agreed to. I had no idea how to clean a house but there had been plenty of adverts on telly for household appliances and cleaning materials, like Flash, so I just got on with it. On my second day, I was on my knees cleaning the skirting board in the hall when the morning post fell through the front door and I saw all these letters addressed to Orson Welles. Not always being the sharpest tack in the box, I still did not connect to “Mrs Welles” and wondered if there had been some kind of error by the postman! A short while later the front door opened and in came the great man himself. I stared up at him in shock and in awe, suddenly realising that a golden opportunity had presented itself. If I could get him to like me, maybe I could get a huge leg-up my future career path! I was a bag of nerves. He looked down at me with an amiable smile, the kind of smile he might have given to a funkily shaped dog turd, stepped past me with a cursory “Good morning” and vanished up the stairs as I gasped out a strangled reply. Later that day he left for the US and I never saw him again! Two weeks later, Mrs Welles very sweetly told me she didn’t think I was really cut out for this job. I had to agree …
Q And what was working with Al Pacino like?
Of all the superstar actors and actresses I’ve ever worked with Al Pacino is one of the few, along with Jeremy Irons, Terry-Thomas and Sharon Stone, I really, really liked. He is a hugely generous-spirited man, who, very rarely for a big star, allowed us to rehears in his NY apartment, was totally professional, and extremely kind to all the people who worked for him. I remember the night of the NY premiere of the film, when Helen and I were in New York and sat at dinner at the Soho Club there, with Al, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. When we left, in the early hours of the morning and were heading back to our hotel in the car, Helen remarked that within a few minutes of sitting at the table she had completely forgotten that they were all huge names – because they were such charming people and such fun to be with. I think that sums Al Pacino (as well as the other two) up.
Q We could talk all night about your life in film, but would you care share with us some highlights and lowlights of that period?
One of the undoubted lowlights was during the making of Spanish Fly in 1975. I was on the island of Menorca, with a full British union crew and a doubled-up workforce of a full Spanish union crew (we made the film as an Anglo-Spanish co-production) Terry-Thomas, Leslie Phillips and the whole team, and received a phone call that half the finance, which was coming from the US, had fallen over – and as a result, EMI who were funding the other fifty per cent were withholding their investment until we had the balance in place. I had just two options – to let the film collapse then and there, or to fund it from my own pocket until we could replace the US money (not by any means a certainty). I chose to go ahead and funded the entire production for almost two weeks on my American Express card, until it maxed out! For several months until the money finally did come together, I had my house on the line – it was a very nerve-wracking time and one I promised I would never go through again. Although a similar situation occurred on Merchant Of Venice, thirty years later, when myself and my three partners were personally on the hook for three months for the entire production cost … Two of my highlights have been the Royal Premieres of two films I have been involved with. The first was Biggles, when we had Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the second, Merchant Of Venice when again we had Prince Charles but this time Camilla Parker Bowles. Both ladies were equally charming. I remember at Merchant of Venice asking Camilla Parker Bowles if she still smoked, bearing in mind that Charles disapproved. She gave me a big grin and replied, “Are you looking for someone to come behind the bike sheds with you for a quick fag?”
Q Were you bookish in your youth?
Yes, I was an avid reader – also an avid letter-writer to authors. I once wrote to Enid Blyton saying that I had just readFive Go To Treasure Island and I was very worried that the five of them had spent seven days on an island and not one of them had gone to the toilet in all that time. She wrote a nice letter back telling me not to worry, they had all gone several times but she didn’t think little boys and girls were interested, which was why she hadn’t put it in her book!
Q What books had you read in that period that perhaps led you to become a fiction writer yourself?
I really wanted to be a crime novelist when I began reading Sherlock Holmes at about twelve years old. Then one day in my mid-teens I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and I was totally blown away by it – probably even more so because it was set in my home town. I promised myself that one day I would try to write a crime novel set in Brighton that was just half as good as this one.
What I love most about this timeless novel is that it is both a thriller and a crime novel, although police play only a tiny part. The story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the villains and two women who believe they can redeem them. Greene has a way of describing characters in just a few lines that makes you feel you know them inside out, and his sense of "place" is almost palpable. The book has one of the most grabbing opening lines ever written, and one of the very best last lines, clever, tantalising and very, very "noir". Greene captures so vividly the dark underbelly of Brighton, as relevant now as when it was first published in 1937, and the characters are wonderful, deeply human, deeply flawed and tragic. What lifts this even further is the way that Greene uses this novel to explore the big themes of religious faith, love andhonour, without ever letting the pace slacken, for even one line.
Q And tell us about your late mother, Cornelia James, glovemaker to the Queen. Did she support your early days as a film maker and your writing?
My mother was an extraordinary woman. She was a fantastically successful businesswoman, but she was very funny, and very human and kind. In many ways, from a very early age, she was my best mate, and that bond grew even stronger towards the end of her life, when she was ill with cancer and I was going through a harrowing divorce. She loved skiing and my father did not ski, because of injuries, so from the age of 6 every December and every March she and I would go away skiing together and she treated me like a young adult, letting me order the wine from about the age of 8 – which was great because I learned about wine from that, which has always stood me in good stead – and taught me never to be intimidated by sommeliers! She was always passionately supportive of my film making but even more so my writing. God help anyone who ever sat next to her on a plane. By the time they got off, having endured several hours of her lecturing them about my books, and demanding to know why they had never read me, they would be making straight for the nearest bookstall! One big regret I have is that she died before I started writing the Roy Grace series, as I know how proud she would have been.
Q And you were a close colleague of Canadian film maker Bob Clark – what was he like to work with?
Bob was one of the few men I ever met who did not drink alcohol, yet I still liked! He was terrific to work with – like many successful creative people he had enormous drive and persistence, but he fully understood the importance of staying within budget and almost always did. One of the tragedies about his premature death is that Bob had an obsessive terror of flying. In all the years I worked with him he would never ever get on a plane, always preferring to drive or be driven. It is typical of Bob that he should have gone out to get something to eat at – he worked long, long hours – and utterly ironic that he should have died in a car smash.
Q And you really are a renaissance man as well as man with a head for business – tell us a little about your early pioneering of the Internet.
I was researching for my novel Host in 1992 in the Cognitive Sciences department of the computing sciences faculty at the University of Sussex and got friendly with a group of geeks, who showed me the Internet – then it was only used for communicating between universities. At that time there were no public Internet service providers. A year later they sent me a business plan asking if I knew anyone would be interested in investing in an Internet start-up business. I could see the potential and persuaded a couple of visionary friends and between us we put up £100k and founded Pavilion Internet, with three of these geeks, providing a primitive and erratic connection to the net. At the time Pavilion launched there were fewer than 50,000 people online in the whole of the UK and the only other two service providers were Pipex and Demon. Within a few weeks, I and my fellow directors received death threats, from a group of angry and fanatic students who accused us of hijacking the Internet for personal gain. They posted links to sites showing how to make home-made letter bombs, as well as our home addresses, and urged people to send us bombs. It was a slightly scary time. Then the police contacted us and said that one of our online customers was downloading and distributing child pornography in Birmingham and they wanted permission to monitor his activities. The three tekkies from Sussex university were vehemently against this, feeling that it compromised the free spirit of the Internet. But in the end decency and common sense prevailed, and we helped the police to achieve a successful arrest and later conviction. All this taught me, early on, that the Internet was going to be a tremendous force for evil as well as good – and I gained a massive amount of research material during the four years that we had the company, before selling out to Easynet.
Q When you started fiction writing I recall some of the supernatural work you penned. What fascinated you about the paranormal?
I’ve always been deeply interested, ever since being scared of ghosts as a small child, and then I lived in two haunted houses! My trigger for giving Roy Grace an interest in the paranormal stems from a police officer I met a number of years ago, who told me a story about how he used to live on the Isle of Wight as a child and regularly wave to two old ladies on the top floor of the building opposite (I wrote this in Dead Simple). It turned out, he discovered years later, that both these old ladies had died in a fire many years before he was born. Although I do not make a big thing of the paranormal and would never use it to “cheat” a solution for Roy Grace, there is a long history of the police and the military turning to the paranormal. Joe Stalin experimented with psychics in Russia in the 1930s. Winston Churchill started a paranormal department at the War Office in World War Two. The X-Files is based on a real paranormal department that exists today in the Pentagon. I have lived in two haunted houses and have shared many experiences with friends and relatives. I am certain that ghosts exist, and also that there are people who can have out-of-body experiences, and those that can, at times, get glimpses into the future. I cite the example, in Dead Simple, of the kidnapped teenage heiress Leslie Whittle, who was kidnapped in 1975 and was eventually discovered, dead in a drain, after a psychic pendulum dowser accurately plotted her location for the police. I have met many police officers who have in desperation consulted mediums and clairvoyants – and a couple with startling results. In the recent tragic Madeleine McCann case the Portuguese police admitted that at one time they had consulted a clairvoyant in their efforts to find her.
Q I really enjoyed your supernatural thrillers, Host , Possession , and Prophecy  being particularly special. Could you tell us which of those early novels gave you most pleasure and why?
Possession has to be at the top of that list because it was the book that enabled me to make a living as a novelist. Up until then I had written my two spy thrillers and financial thriller which did not do well. When Possession came out it went straight to No 1 in the UK and was published in twenty-three languages. The one that gave me the most pleasure to research was Twilight – I was able to combine my macabre interest in premature burial with my very real, from personal experience, research into near-death and out-of-body experiences.
Q I read in an interview that you have always admired the work of Conan Doyle, who also was fascinated by the paranormal, so tell us if you’ve ever experienced an event[s] that rational science could not explain?
When I was sixteen I had a premonition that came true – I was a passenger in a car travelling along Brighton seafront and saw a car coming the opposite direction on the other side of the carriageway. But I knew this car was going to do a U-turn in front of us and we were going to collide – and this unfolded exactly. Fortunately I was not badly hurt. Then when I was eighteen I had an out-of-body experience – I found myself floating on the ceiling of my bedroom at my parents’ house in Brighton, after my return from boarding school, looking down at my body. I saw some steel band drum kit and bongos lying on top of a wardrobe and wondered why my mother had put my steel band stuff up there. Then I panicked that if I did not get back into my body I would be dead. I felt a thump and woke up safely reunited with myself! I thought then it was just a weird dream, but in the morning I climbed up a stepladder and peered on top of the wardrobe – and all this stuff was there!
Q And I heard that your own house in Sussex is haunted, is this true?
Yes, it is built on top of a burial ground from the Battle of Lewes (1264) and we have a whole host of ghosts. I keep leaving my computer on at night in the hope they might finish my next book for me, but so far I’ve had no luck! But seriously I did have to move from my original study in the house as I could not work in it – for the one and only time in my life I had complete writer’s block. A clairvoyant we brought in said it was built over the grave of a soldier and I was disturbing him! Not half as much as he was disturbing me, I thought. But I moved to a different part of the house and then I was fine again – and the clairvoyant cleared away the soldier’s spirit. So he’s probably now bothering someone else!
Q You also penned several spy-thrillers which are highly sought after on eBay as you refuse to bring them into print. Please, tell us more…
I wrote them in the early 1980s when I was really learning my craft as a novelist. The first, Dead Letter Drop was a spoof spy thriller about the discovery of a mole inside MI5 – which of course came true few years later! The second, Atom Bomb Angel was about a terrorist plot to blow up a nuclear power station in England. The third, a financial thriller, Billionaire was about a plot to mine the Persian Gulf and force up the price of gold. I keep them out of print because I feel they are not that great, and my fans would be disappointed if they read them!
Q I noticed in Jeff Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll that there is a character named Peter James. Is this a coincidence and if so, do you plan any revenge on the talented Mr Deaver?
Indeed I do plan revenge! I have a sleazeball in my new Roy Grace, Dead Tomorrow, out next June, called Jeffrey Deaver! I told Jeffrey this when I saw him recently (he is one of the nicest guys in this industry) and he replied, “Oh great! The sleazier the better, please!”
Q I was knocked out by your Roy Grace novels which commenced with Dead Simple in 2005. Where, in your mind, did Grace came from?
He is drawn in part from a real life police officer called David Gaylor, who has become a close friend. Dave rose from when I first met him as a Detective Inspector in Sussex Police to Detective Chief Superintendent. He has a lot of the same very human qualities as Roy and was a pioneer of Cold Case investigation in Sussex CID. But his wife has never gone missing!
Q And why has a Brighton cop become such an important figure in international crime fiction circles? Did Grace’s popularity surprise you?
I would say it totally astonished me! I never expected him to be this popular – and it is wonderful. I’m immensely grateful to all my readers and to so many wonderfully kind crime reviewers like yourself who have been so supportive. Now of course I feel very protective of him!!!
Q In the follow-up, Looking Dead Good  we see you peering into the dark side of the Internet. You don’t shy away from revealing the unpleasant side of human nature. Do you ever get depressed with the human condition when you write about such evil?
I am an optimist, but a realist. There are things which I see and read almost on a daily basis, that humans have done to other humans, that never cease to shock me. It is hard not to be angry and depressed by something like Baby P. Or a horrific terrorist atrocity. Or the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Or the horrors in the Congo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda. Or the paedophile rings who don’t just rape small children but enjoy torturing them as well. A major part of my fascination with the crime genre is to try to understand more about the human condition, both the evil and the good sides. No one sees more of this than the police, and every day that I spend out with them, I take away new knowledge. Yes, sometimes I lie awake at night, fretting over what I have seen. I guess the day I stop doing that is the day I should start to worry – but I doubt that will happen. Much of human history consists of the endless saga of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. But much, too, consists of goodness and hope. I’m constantly digging for those nuggets of goodness and hope, and I have found more among the members of the police forces I have come to know than anywhere else.
Q In your research for Looking Dead Good did you find evidence that so-called “snuff films” exist?
Sadly yes. In fact I knew this already. Ten years ago a Brighton police surgeon asked me to come to his office and study footage seized by the police in a raid on the home of suspected Satanists. The footage showed a girl of about seven on an inverted cross being stabbed to death. I was asked in my opinion as a film maker whether this girl was acting or if it was for real. I replied after studying it that if she was acting she should win an Oscar. No question, it was real. I asked him what this was all about and he replied that there was a ring operating out of Russia creating snuff movies to order. Snuff movies involving small children are particularly prevalent among paedophile circles. I find the whole subject sickening but fascinating in the story it tells about one side of human nature.
Q Then in Not Dead Enough , Roy Grace tries to piece together what seems an impossible murder[s], and again Brighton features heavily in the trajectory of this novel. What drew you to set your detective series in this seemingly placid British seaside resort?
To the outsider, Brighton is a hip, beautiful seaside city, but it has a long history of darkness – right back to its roots as a smugglers’ village! In Regency days it gained a reputation as a fashionable bathing resort, but in 1841 when the London–Brighton railway line opened, criminals flooded down from London, finding rich pickings and a much nicer environment than their city! They brought cock-fighting, prostitution, pickpockets, muggers, smugglers, burglars, and gangs. Simultaneously, with the railway enabling quick access from London, many wealthy Londoners brought their mistresses down here and it became known as a place for “dirty weekends”.
Three consecutive past Chief Constables of Sussex Police have told me that Brighton is the favoured place to live in the UK for first division criminals. The reasons are that firstly it has a lot of escape routes, very important to all criminals; it has the Channel ports, Eurotunnel, and Gatwick Airport just twenty-five minutes away, London fifty minutes by train; it has a major seaport on either side – Shoreham and Newhaven, perfect for importing drugs and exporting stolen cars, antiques and cash; it has the largest number of antique shops in the UK – perfect for laundering stolen goods and cash. For nine years running, except for one year, it has held the title the Tourist Board do not like me mentioning: “Injecting Drug Death Capital of England”!; it has a wealthy young population combined with the largest gay community in the UK, providing a big market for recreational drugs; it has two universities, so a big drug-taking student community; a huge number of nightclubs and a large transient population. Very importantly it has not been over-written by other writers. The only previous author to delve into its criminal underbelly – and quite brilliantly, was Graham Greene in Brighton Rock in 1938.
Q In Dead Man’s Footsteps I realised you spent some time in New York doing research that related to a plot strand that involved the awful and mysterious events of 9/11. Care to tell us about that time?
A few years ago I was incredibly fortunate to meet two NYPD cops who were among the very first on the scene at 9/11. Dennis and Pat were in a police station in Brooklyn at on that morning, with the television on, and saw the first plane strike the North Tower. Immediately they drove over the Brooklyn Bridge – exactly one mile to the World Trade Centre – and arrived just as the second plane hit the South Tower. As they jumped out of their car, an engine hit the ground a hundred yards in front of them. Dennis described it as looking like a flying saucer crashing. Then they ran across the plaza and heard a thud which Pat described as “like a sack of potatoes hitting the ground” and they were both spattered with blood and body parts – this was the first “jumper” and what was not reported in the press was that these poor people literally exploded when they hit the ground. When I was researching the book, Pat and Dennis – who both went through mental breakdowns and suffered health problems after like many of the rescue workers – took several days off to take me to all the sites involved in the clearing up and investigations that followed. One of the most moving stories they told me was the appeal to the public to bring dogs to Ground Zero in the immediate days following the attack: not to help in the search for bodies, but for the rescue workers to stroke, to have some contact with normality. They were called “feelgood dogs”.
Q Dead Man’s Footsteps – was published in November 2008 in the UK – is a truly international tale; did you worry about the 9/11 angle for your American readers?
I have wanted to write about 9/11 for some time, but felt it was too raw a subject for American readers. I’ve tried to handle it sensitively but the brutal truth is that a large number of people, including some of the Emergency Services personnel (which was covered up), took advantage of 9/11 for personal gain. The NYPD was so enraged that in the months following they set up a special “Scams” division specifically to catch these people. And they did get most of them. I use current affairs a lot in my writing – Graham Greene once said that every writer “Needs to carry a chip of ice in his or her heart” and by that he means that sometimes, in the process of writing the truth, you will hurt or distress people. But I have always believed strongly that no subject should be taboo – it is the way you write about it.
Q And with much whispering about conspiracies, especially the strange way buildings such as WTC7 collapsed, what’s your take on those events that occurred on 11 September?
Quite a few NYPD police officers, very surprisingly to me, believe that there was some kind of conspiracy. I have mixed views – the anti-terrorist intelligence in the US has been inefficient because there is far less national co-ordination with in the USA between security forces than one might expect – this is slowly changing. But I think it very probable that the Bush administration knew it was going to happen and let it happen – to give them an excuse to go in and get the oil, which is what the invasion of Iraq was all about. I’ve had this from the horse’s mouth – a real Bush insider.
Q And without giving away too much, you do reveal a little about the mystery surrounding Grace’s missing wife Sandy. Was this plotted during the series or did you uncover the shards of the mystery while writing?
I’ve always had a long-term plan for Sandy right from the moment I was planning Dead Simple. Of course, if I tell you what it is, I would have to kill you!
Q Are you a detailed plotter like Jeff Deaver, or does the muse take you along for a ride when you type?
I’m a detailed plotter – but I do sometimes let the muse take things further than my original plans. I used to love playing chess as a child and would work out several moves ahead but beyond that, see what happened … I write in a similar way. But I always have a basic road map for every book, and I know exactly the ending I want to get to. But the real magic is when an idea pops into my head that was not there ten seconds earlier!
Q Roy Grace continues the international flavour of Dead Man’s Footsteps in your fifth novel of the series,Dead Tomorrow, out this summer. Would you care to tell us a little about the new book?
The theme is the world traffic in human organs. The story centres around a mother who is terrified that her fifteen-year-old daughter, who has terminal liver failure, will die before the UK transplant system gets her the new liver she desperately needs. So she goes on the Internet to try to buy a liver from an international broker (these people are real). Meanwhile Roy Grace is investigating a murdered teenage foreign national whose body has been dredged up off the coast of Brightonand is found to be missing its vital organs …
Q And I’ve heard rumours that there is interest in televising Grace?
These are well founded! I am co-producing the series with ITV Productions and the scripts are being written by Neil Mackay, who won a BAFTA for his brilliant dramatisation of the Moors Murders, See No Evil, two years ago. Information is being posted on my website on all developments as they happen. We hope to go into production on the first Grace book in 2009.
Q I know from your early Internet ventures you are a techno kind of guy, so tell us if you have a Kindle or other digital reading device, or are you a papyrus lover? And tell us your thoughts on the future of the book.
I still love the smell and touch of printed books, but I think that as e-books become cheaper they will become popular. When I travel I lug a book a day plus another five in case I am hijacked! How much easier to have twenty books downloaded on an e-book!!! But the “low-tech” printed papyrus novel still has a huge amount going for it and will be around for our lifetimes and way beyond. Ironically, if anything will spell the end of printed books it will be the environmental lobby.
Q Among your interests is a love of classic cars. What are your favourite acquisitions and what’s this about the Peter James-sponsored police car in Brighton?
My first ever “classic” car was a 1929 Rolls Royce hearse, which I bought when I was seventeen after passing my driving test. I planned to drive around the world in it with a fellow school friend. But my mother got spooked by it being parked in the driveway and bribed me into selling it, in exchange for a classic MGA sports car. As a teenager I drooled over E-Type Jaguars, but it wasn’t until my fortieth birthday that I finally bought one. Although it was constantly going wrong I just loved everything about it – I think it is the most beautiful car ever built. The police car came out of a “blue sky” discussion between myself, the Group Marketing Director of Pan Macmillan, Geoff Duffield, and my senior publicist, Tony Mulliken. It was Geoff Duffield who suggested we should consider a gift of some kind to Sussex Police in recognition of the value of their support. Then one of us made a jokey suggestion – none of us can now remember who – about my being a “petrol head” – so what about offering to donate a police car?
I pitched the idea to a senior Sussex police officer that afternoon over the phone. He liked the idea but was not sure about the police rules on accepting gifts or sponsorship. A few weeks later I received a phone call from the Commander of Brighton and Hove, asking if we could attend a meeting to discuss it further. At this meeting, Geoff Duffield and I were astonished and delighted to be told that the community police were short of wheels, because of budget restrictions, and they would love to have a small car with a low carbon footprint, a £9,000 Hyundai Getz, which would be out on patrol 24/7 for the next three years, and in return, would allow Macmillan to put, alongside the police livery, within reason, any advertising message about my books – and change it from book to book.
There followed a lengthy debate about the wording on the car, and it was decided it would not be a good idea to haveDEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS emblazoned on it, in case it went to any murder scenes! It was also decided that to haveROY GRACE on the side might imply that some Sussex police officers were fictitious. So in the end, the wording in the photograph was settled on: PETER JAMES NO 1 FOR CRIME, and, PETER JAMES, SUPPORTING BRIGHTONAND HOVE DIVISION.
That of course was just the beginning. The launch of the car, on 12 June, was greeted with a mixed reaction by the media, some applauding the initiative, others horrified that police had resorted to sponsorship and wondering what next? Police cars advertising massage parlours? The car has now been with the police for six months. In addition to going out as a normal patrol car, they find it very useful as an “icebreaker” in community relationships when talking to young people. Mind you, I’m still waiting for someone who has been nicked by my car to throw rocks at me!!!
Q And what feedback have you had from the Brighton police about the Roy Grace investigations?
One of my favourite stories is the Brighton DI who emailed me recently to say that he had just caught a long-time-wanted villain, after spotting him on the street and chasing him. As he was booking him into custody, the villain turned to him and said, “You know, you are just like a cop in a Peter James novel!”
Q And considering your love of cars, what’s this about your own motor racing?
I race a 2CV Citroen in a national series every year. It is brilliant fun and relatively cheap racing. We do several of the major circuits, including Silverstone, Mallory Park, Oulton Park and Brands Hatch, and a 24-hour circuit race once at year at Snetterton. My agent and my publisher both say they hold their breath every weekend that I am doing this! For me it is the best possible contrast to the sedentary business of writing – and I can let all my aggression out. Also, it is incredibly relaxing as you have to switch off from the outside world. There is no way you can think about anything but the next bend, as you hurtle towards it at 100mph!
Q We most recently bumped into each other at Bouchercon Baltimore –what did you get up to while in Charm City?
I didn’t get to see that much of Baltimore, a shame as I have always wanted to visit it. What I love about conventions is the opportunity to meet fellow authors and they were there, wall to wall! So I ended up as usual, spending most of my time in the bar – I could have been anywhere in the world!
Q In today’s publishing world how important is it for a writer to help publishers market the books? Or is this now impinging dangerously on your own time actually writing the books?
It is taking an increasing amount of time up every year, travelling both in this country and in some of the thirty others in which I am now lucky enough to be published. I think it is hugely important to do this, in terms of relationship building both with booksellers and readers. And there is a fantastic research spin-off for me.
Q You’ve been nominated for, and a winner of, many awards for your work – both film and the Roy Grace series – for which you are hugely acclaimed in Germany and France; what do you think is the international appeal for your Brighton cop?
I think the real international appeal of Roy Grace is that people like the characters. I’m a great believer that people read books to find out what happens to characters they get to know and love. I do think that “place” is really important in crime novels and almost becomes a “secondary character itself” but I don’t think that Russian, or Japanese or French or German readers primarily buy Ian Rankin’s books because they want to read about Edinburgh – they buy them because they are absorbed by Rebus and Edinburgh is a bonus, as is the backdrop of Sweden for Wallander, etc.
Q Considering the dire condition of the stock markets, are your business investments safe in the turbulent world economy?
My biggest investment is the years of research I have put in for my writing. I’ve dabbled in the stock market but never trusted it, and I’m lucky that at this moment my writing career is going really well and people still seem to be buying books. Hey, what fantastic cheap entertainment they provide! Go out for a meal for two and you can easily blow a hundred quid. Stay in with two books – less than a fiver each, a home cooked meal and a bottle of wine and you’ll have plenty of change from twenty quid – and your brain will be nourished too!!!
Q You spend a great deal of time in the USA, so have you followed the US elections and what are your thoughts on the problems facing Obama?
It was very exciting as I was there, in Florida, real Republican country, the week before the election – and incredible to hear so many diehard Republicans say they were going to vote for Obama. I think the biggest problem he faces is that of delivering the domestic and global changes we are all expecting of him. Once in office all politicians seem to change. First they find they have to compromise their original plans. Then their egos grow and they develop hubris. Then they fall. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think here is a man who will be above all that. That will be his biggest challenge.
Q Picking up the theme on racism we discussed earlier, do you agree with Doris Lessing in fearing for Barack Obama’s need for very good security?
Yes, I think the fears are very justified. It would be an incalculable tragedy for the world if anything were to happen to him. I cannot think of any human being in recent years who has such potential for influencing the world in so many positive ways – which unfortunately makes him a huge target. The dangers lie abroad even more than in the US, because in so many countries bribes will get anyone through any security shield.
Q Have you seen any films recently that impressed you?
I don’t know what has happened to the film world recently but there has been a dearth of really great movies. It has been a long time since I’ve gone “Gosh, wow!” at the end of one. I’m a Cohen Brothers fan, but I am still waiting for them to top Fargo. I thought No Country For Old Men was OK, until the last half hour which jerked to a conclusion like a switched off car engine that keeps firing last gasp after useless last gasp … The last film I really enjoyed was The Bank Job: wonderful, old-fashioned, a great story well told.
Q And what books have passed your reading table recently that kept you awake longer than usual?
Burial by Neil Cross (the lead writer on Spooks). I really enjoyed this novel hugely and could not wait to get back to it. I’ve also recently discovered Ann Cleeves and I like her gentle, slow-burn style despite not being a fan normally of this style of book. She is a fine writer.
Q And finally, as a man who’s travelled the world, can you tell us which cities you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
I love Melbourne, which has a wonderful vibe to it. I love New Orleans, even post-hurricane, because it has jazz and freedom in its soul. I love Las Vegas because, like New Orleans, it is one of the truly liberal places in the States. It is a great party city. Fab food, terrific shows, great gambling and it still permits smoking. Oh, and you can drive at any speed you want from LA to Vegas – once in Nevada the police don’t like stopping motorists – and upsetting potential visitors to Vegas! And I love LA – for a petrol head it is still a driver’s paradise. I’ve spent quite a chunk of my life there and could move there tomorrow if it wasn’t for the fact that I need to spend much of my time in the UK in order to be out with the police researching for my Roy Grace books. LA has everything – a great climate, great service, no parking problems, fantastic culture, fantastic restaurants, it is two hours’ drive from great skiing and from stunning desert, it has great beaches – and Beverly Hills Police is on of the best and friendliest police forces in the world. One problem – of course, it might all fall into the ocean one day …!
SHOTS eZine wish to thank Amelia Knight and Peter James for organising this in-depth interview over lunch, as well as Peter James’ patience in answering our questions in such detail.
More information on the world of Peter James can be found from the following links:
www.peterjames.com And Peter blogs here: http://www.peterjames.com/blog.htm
If you’ve not read Peter’s Roy Grace thrillers, then we recommend you catch the latest, Dead Man’s Footsteps now out in paperback from Macmillan.
After which we know you’ll be hunting down the rest of the series:
1. Dead Simple 
2. Looking Good Dead 
3. Not Dead Enough 
4. Dead Man's Footsteps 
5. Dead Tomorrow