Peter James talks to World of Books.com about his career, crime and Brighton.
Crime writer Peter James was born 22nd August 1948 in Brighton (that’s near us!). The son of Cornelia Jones (the former glove-maker to Queen Elizabeth II no less!) During his childhood Peter attended Charterhouse School and then, in later years went on to study at Ravensbourne Film School. As a result of his training there, he travelled to North America, and spent several years as a screenwriter and film producer. It was in 1994 however, that Peter’s name became known worldwide due to the controversial publication by Penguin of his novel, Host, officially “the world’s first electronic novel” on two floppy discs (a far cry from a Kindle!). Peter has since become a media spokesperson for electronic publishing. When he’s not writing his international bestselling stories of Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, Peter has many hobbies, one of which means that Peter holds an international racing licence and often competes in the Britcar Racing Series! Peter currently divides his time between his Sussex home- a Victorian Rectory, and his apartment in Notting Hill.
Thank you for taking the time to chat to us today. Crime fiction seems to be the most popular genre with our customers, so we know for a fact they’re always fascinated to hear what a successful writer has to say.
Q: Firstly, congratulations on being nominated for the People’s Bestseller Dagger Award (the awards will be held in London on October 7th and broadcast on ITV3 on the 11th), to vote for Peter – click here now!. How do you feel about this? And what message would you give to your voters?
– This is a wonderful award that strikes at the very heart of what good books are all about: Enthralling readers with gripping, page-turning fiction – and decided not by an elite committee but by the very people who read and loved them – the general public. I don’t think there can be a higher accolade for any author
Q: Can you describe the average day in the life of Peter James?
– My whole day is back to front! Although I am an early riser, my writing day starts at 6pm in the evening, when I mix a large vodka martini, with four olives, put on jazz or some other mellow music and get into a “zone” for the next four hours. After that I relax in front of the TV with a dinner tray and watch something wonderfully trashy like Desperate Housewives, or maybe a movie! In the morning, I revise what I wrote the night before and plan the next pages, and in the afternoon I break, walk the dogs or play tennis or catch up on emails. Once I have started a novel I write a minimum of 1,000 words per day, 6 days a week.
Q: World of Books.com has its home on the South Coast as well! You don’t seem to have moved very far from Sussex since you were born Peter, indeed, your novels are primarily Brighton-based, what is it about this area that has kept you here and captured your attention enough to write stories within it?
– Brighton holds the unique distinction as the only place in the UK where a serving Chief Constable has ever been murdered – Henry Solomon, in 1844. In the early 1930s, after a series of three dismembered female bodies were discovered in different left-luggage lockers, Brighton became known first as ‘Queen of Slaughtering Places’ and then acquired the soubriquet of both “The Murder Capital of Europe” and “The Crime Capital of England. The latter is one that Brighton, formerly a town, now a city, has never been able to shake off. For the past decade, year on year, Brighton has held the unwelcome title of “Injecting Drug Death Capital Of the UK”.
A journalist friend of mine recounted how, in a pub in Brighton a few years ago, he asked a fellow drinker at the bar if Brighton had a drugs problem. The man thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “Nah, you can get anything you want here.”
Three past Chief Constables of Sussex Police, as well as the current Commander of Brighton and Hove, have each confirmed to me that Brighton is one of the favoured places in the UK for first division criminals to live in. I have a theory for this: If you were a villain and wanted to design your perfect criminal environment, you would design Brighton! Let me explain my reasoning:
Firstly it has a major seaport on either side – Shoreham and Newhaven, perfect for importing drugs and exporting stolen cars, antiques and cash. To the western extremity of the city lies Shoreham Airport – a small but international airport where there is no Customs or Immigration control. There are miles of unguarded coastline fronting the city, and to either side of it. Very important to all criminals there are lots of escape routes: All the Channel ports, and Eurotunnel. Gatwick, a major international Airport is just 25 minutes away. London is 50 minutes by train. Brighton has the largest number of antique shops in the UK – perfect for fencing stolen goods and laundering cash.
The city has an affluent young middle-class population combined with the largest gay community in the UK, two universities, and a huge number of nightclubs, providing a big market for recreational drugs. It has a large, transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains. And making it easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. It has 100,000 vertical drinking spaces. No surprise that its main police station, John Street, is the second busiest police station in the UK.
And of course it is a fabulous city to live in! Very importantly and to my great good fortune, it has not been over-written by other writers. Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (my favourite novel of all time) are the only writers to have delved in any depth into its criminal underbelly.
Q: You admit the world of Police is one of your “principal interests above all else”. For readers that don’t know, you even donated your own police car to the Sussex Force in 2008 (the livery on it changes each year to match the latest Roy Grace novel- pretty cool we know!) Why does the predicament of the ‘thin blue line’ capture your interest so much?
– I’m eternally fascinated by the human condition, by the world in which we live, and in particular, why people do they things that they do. In thirty years of spending large amounts of time in close proximity to the police of the UK as well as many other countries, I’ve come to realize that the police are the glue that holds civilized society together.
The police see it all, from the squalid violence of sink estates, the grim tragedy of people dying in front of them at a road accident, attending a cot death, where the distraught parents in their hour of desperately needing comfort, have to be treated as murder suspects, trying to arrest an armed and violent criminal, to arriving at the scene of a horrendous and twisted killing.
One aspect that particularly fascinates me is just how many of the worst violent criminals are, outwardly, such seemingly innocuous people. The UK’s worst serial killer, Harold Shipman, was a much loved family doctor, who just had a penchant for killing his patients, and murdered up to 350 of them. Ted Bundy, one of the US’s worst criminals, raped, murdered and butchered over 35 women, yet was witty, bright, charming and had worked as a lawyer for the Republican party. The UK’s James Lloyd, who inspired my 6th Roy Grace novel, Dead Like You, who brutally raped as many as 126 women, then took their shoes as trophies, was a family man, with two children who adored him, a responsible job, a freemason, and a pillar of his community.
What is the difference between these people and ourselves? What is it that stops us doing the same – or makes them want to what they do? Are they hard-wired differently, or just brought up in some way that warped them? Or is there no difference at all? Could we be like them at some future point in our own lives? What would that feel like? Would we be able to live with our consciences?
Crime touches all of our lives in some ways, constantly. In our modern, civilized life of today we lock up our homes, lock up our cars, keep a careful hold on our wallets and bags; we receive countless emails from villains trying to get into our bank accounts, steal our identities or defraud us of all we have. We live under the shadow of terrorism, deception from trusted friends, random violence, the tax man. One small slip – such as having an accident while driving and texting – or a lover’s tiff that goes a step too far – can send any of us spiralling down the dark tunnel of the criminal world, where our lives will be changed for ever. Murder is the worst, and the crime that has fascinated us since earliest times. For murder is the one crime that cannot ever be reversed.
There is a peculiar literary snobbishness towards crime fiction, as if it is some kind of “penny dreadful” that holds no place alongside proper so-called literary fiction. I find this quite strange: It is my view that if any of the greatest writers in history, from Shakespeare to Sophocles, back in 450 BC, were writing today, they would be writing crime fiction. Shakespeare wrote plays because people did not read novels in his day – the play was the main literary form, and the novel today has replaced that. Over half his plays contain a courtroom scene. If Hamlet, Lear, Othello or Macbeth were written as novels, they would be on the crime shelves of WH Smith and all other bookstores, as would the tragedies of Sophocles and countless other writers from our near and distant past.
When I pick up a novel, I want to be thrilled , excited, gripped, and informed. I anticipate being put through a whole gamut of emotions. As well as this emotion, I will also expect to have learned something new about the world in which I live, and about the human condition. That’s why I read crime fiction, and that’s why I write it. I see it as the most important genre in all of fiction. It is this focus, coupled with my research and attention to detail, together with strong characters and great story-lines, that I believe has made my Roy Grace series best-sellers.
Q: We’ve asked a lot of authors this because it’s something that fascinates us here at World of Books.com, how difficult do you find it to switch off from your stories and characters, especially when the subject matter of your books is so dark?
– When I am in the writing process of the first draft, which takes about 7 months, I don’t really switch off at all – except when I am motor racing. It is not wise to start thinking about my next chapter when I am entering a bend at 170mph!!!! But all of the rest of the time, whether running, playing tennis, walking the dogs, or lying in bed in the middle of the night, I am living and breathing the characters in my books.
Q: In a world with an ever-increasing digital influence, what is your opinion on the future of literature? What would your advice be to an aspiring writer in such uncertain literary times?
– Well I guess I’ve had more experience than most authors in this terrain, because, as you said above, in 1994 Penguin published one of my novels, Host, on two floppy discs (as well as in print) as an experiment, billing it “The World’s First Electronic Novel.” There has been a lot of fear about ebooks, and there is of course justification in this because of the fear of piracy and the terrible damage done to the record industry, but I think this is different with books and the culture is different. Many people, for the foreseeable future will continue to read printed books. But for others it has opened up huge new potential for reading. For instance one of my fans is a soldier out in Afghanistan. Thanks to his Kindle he can take dozens of books with him out on operations in the desert, which he could never have done before as he could not have physically carried them. I have had dozens of emails from fans who have bought my recent novels electronically, but who tell me they have also bought the hardcover version to have on their bookshelves as collector items. Personally, although I have almost all of the e-reader gadgets, in general I much prefer to hold a printed book in my hand.
Q: What have been the three most important things you have learnt throughout your career?
– Firstly, that people read books to find out what happens to characters they get to meet and care about. Secondly, research is crucial. If the writer does not fully understand every aspect of the subject they are writing about the book will lack a crucial element of underpinning, and the readers will feel that. Thirdly, the first line and the last page are absolutely vital: You must have opening line that instantly grabs the reader. And you must have an ending where they go “Wow!”
Q: Your latest novel, Dead Man’s Grip, is released in paperback on 29th September. For those fans and new readers alike who haven’t read it yet, what can they expect?
– Carly Chase is hurrying through Brighton in her car, late for work. Her phone rings, and she glances down, but sensibly does not answer it. But when she looks back at the road, a young man on a bicycle is coming straight at her. She swerves and crashes into the wall of an empty café. A van behind her clips the cyclist, sending him flying across the road and under the wheels of a heavy lorry, which kills him. Carly is breathalyzed at the scene and found to be over the limit from what she had drunk the night before. The van has vanished from the scene. The lorry driver has driven 18 hours – illegal without a break, all the way down from Aberdeen. The dead boy is identified. He is from New York and has come to Brighton to be at university with a girl he met in NY the previous year. Then the police discover that his mother is the daughter of the New York Mafia Godfather. She flies to England to identify her son, crazed with grief. When she learns that Carly was over the alcohol limit, that the van driver has disappeared and that the lorry driver was out of hours, she vows revenge. Returning to New York she engages a hit man to torture and kill each of those three drivers.
For those regular readers of my Roy Grace series, I can also promise a major shock re Sandy!
Q: What has been the most meaningful/funny/touching message from your fans that you have received?
– I had an email last year from a fan saying, “Dear Mr James, I’ve just worked out that I am a lot younger than you, and I imagine I am a lot fitter, which means you are going to die before me. I sincerely hope you have left the secret of what happens to Sandy safely in your publisher’s vaults!”
Q: Now, this is a strange twist for us! We usually ask authors about their opinion on the work that World of Books.com is trying to do. Working closely with charities, we seek to sell used books to new owners at competitive prices. We’ve already asked you your opinion about society’s ever-growing digital-media base, and we completely agree about how exciting it is. However, do you, like us, still have a soft spot for the physically written word and believe in the importance of giving books the chance of a new home?
– I had an unhappy childhood and my life literally changed when I began to escape into the amazing new world that opened up to me inside books. The US writer SJ Corbett said that reading good books gives us all a second life. And I think every book should be given a second home, and a third… I love human beings, but printed books will always be my best friends!
Enjoyed this interview? Make sure you grab a copy of Peter’s newest book, Dead Man’s Grip (out in paperback 29th September). And whilst you’re doing that, why not browse our store for any of his previous work!
To vote for Peter to win the Crime Thriller Award click on the button below!