In the past couple of months, I have read a lot of Peter James’ Books and been captivated by the mystery webs he weaves and embroils you in them. I had the great fortune of meeting him and interviewing him in person. He is a man to meet for sure. Funny and at the same time thoughtful. He knows what he does and what he wants from his writing. Without any further waiting, here is my interview with Peter James:
1. Why crime fiction in particular?
I wanted to write crime novels from the age of 11, when I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. I was blown away by the powers of observation of this amazing detective and decided that one day I would try to create a detective who was as clever as Holmes. I am fascinated by human nature, why we do the things that we do and I think the best way to observe the world is through the eyes of the police. During a career in the police force the average officer will see almost every facet of the human condition – from violence to tragedy to comedy. From wealth to poverty. From good people to totally evil people. I think what is forgotten is how many of the greatest writers of the past wrote what we could today term “crime genre”, For instance over half of Shakespeare’s plays contain trial scenes! Look at the works of some of the greatest writers of the past. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for instance is a great crime novel! Go right back to the Greeks – all those tragedies were “crime” of a sort. The last work of Charles Dickens was a crime novel.
In addition, I find the law and the whole criminal world fascinating. There is no question in my mind that the police are the glue that holds civilised life together.
2. From writing for films to producing them to writing books. How has the journey been so far?
I think I have learned a great deal from my start in life as a scriptwriter which helps me to write engaging novels. In screenwriting there are three invisible words in the mind of the author all the way through the process. Three very simple words: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? It is almost like a mantra. For me the biggest lessons I have learned from film and TV production are pacing and intercutting more than anything else. I love using a technique of intercutting between different characters and converging storylines, which is a very cinematic technique and I have always loved reading novels constructed in this way. There is a different experience between film and TV in that because the audience is captive, films can afford to start more slowly than TV dramas. I worked for a time on a sitcom in the US and learned a big lesson from that: In a sitcom the US rule is that you must have a laugh every 12 seconds, because they figure otherwise they will lose their audience. I have translated this into my crime writing – not a laugh every twelve seconds, obviously, but the realization that to keep my readers interested and hooked, I need to constantly surprise them. Laughter and fear are very close emotions and they compliment each other. You laugh to shrug off fear. Then when the laughing stops, the fear is even worse. Many of the greatest crime thriller novels and films have humour in them – Silence Of The Lambs is a great example of this. Polanski’s early film, Cul De Sac is a wonderful example of tension, terror and pure comedy.
But above all the great joy of writing a novel compared to writing a script or a screenplay is this: With a movie or tv production you are part of a huge committee-like process, where a whole bunch of different people all lay claim to the finished product. You have two or three producers each claiming it is their movie! The director claims it is his. The Director Of Photography claims it is his film because without him, it would be nothing. Your 2/3/4 lead actors each claim that really it is their film. The Production Designers says it is his or her film! The editor claims it is his film. The composer says the film would have been rubbish without the music. And so on…. You end up with a compromise on almost every film, because creatively they are one long fight from beginning to end. With a novel it is totally different – it is just me! I don’t have to change one single word, if I don’t feel like it. And I love that!
3. Is detective Grace modeled on someone you know?
Having read several of my earlier thrillers, in which I had increasing amounts of police involvement, in 2001 the publishers, Macmillan approached me through my agent and asked if I would consider creating a new fictional detective character, with a view to writing a crime series for them.
I thought very hard about all the fictional detectives currently around, and there seemed to be common issues between many of them – an almost universal theme: An alcohol problem and a broken marriage. Yet in my experience, no detective with a drink problem would last two days24 hours in today’s modern police world. It just would not happen. I decided to take a completely different approach:
Fifteen years ago I had been introduced to a young Detective Inspector called David Gaylor, a rising star in Sussex CID. I went into his office and found it full of plastic crates bulging with manila folders. I asked him he was moving offices and he replied with a sardonic smile: “No, these are my dead friends.”
I thought for some moment that I had met a total weirdo! Then he explained to me that in additional to his current homicide investigation work, he had been tasked with reopening cold cases and applying new forensic developments to them. He said something that really touched me: “Each of theses crates contains the principal case files of an unsolved murder: I am the last chance each of the victims has for justice, and I am the last chance each of their families have for closure.”
I loved the deeply human aspects of this man. During his work hHe saw the most terrible sights imaginable (and unimaginable) during his work, yet he retained a calm gentle humanity – and it is this aspect thatthis aspect is one of the key characteristics of almost every homicide detective I have met: They are calm, kind and very caring people. In very many cases they develop a close relationship with the victim’s loved ones, and solving the crime becomes personal to them. It is the reason why so often, even years after they have from the force, that many detectives still continue to work away on any case they could not solve during their career.
FBI founder, J Edgar Hoover, said: “No greater honour will ever be bestowed on an officer, nor a more profound duty imposed on him, than when he or she is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being.”
At this first encounter with DI David Gaylor, he asked me about the novel I was then working on, and immediately started coming up with creative suggestions involving the policing aspects – and other aspects too. I realized that to be a good homicide investigator you had to have not only a very analytical mind, but also a very creative one. This is because the solving of every major crime is a massive puzzle, usually with a key bit missing.
From that day onwards, I would discuss the plots of my next novels in advance with him . At the time Macmillan approached me to create a fictional detective, David had risen to become Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, in charge of Major Crime Reviews. I asked him how he would feel about becoming a fictional character – and he loved the idea! He now reads every hundred pages as I am writing, and gives me his view on how a real detective in Roy Grace’s position would think.
However, there are two more key aspects to Roy Grace’s character: The first is his missing wife, Sandy: Twelve years ago I attended a Police open day at the Missing Person’s Helpline offices in London, and learned a staggering 230,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year. Most turn up again within a few days, but if they have not reappeared within 30 days almost certainly they are gone for good. There are currently 11,500 people classified as permanently missing in the UK. So where are they? Some have run off with lovers; some have faked their disappearances and reinvented themselves elsewhere, often in another country. Some have had accidents or committed suicide and their bodies have never been found. But some, for sure, some have been abducted, and either murdered, or being held captive somewhere – such as in a crazed Austrian’s cellar. Whatever the mystery, there is one common denominator: The loved ones they leave behind are left without closure.
When we first meet Roy Grace, in Dead Simple, he is approaching his 39th birthday and we learn that 9 years earlier on his 30th birthday, his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, had suddenly vanished without trace. Although continuing to function as an effective homicide detective, all his free time has been spent in a fruitless quest to discover what has happened to her. Has she been kidnapped and murdered in an act of retribution by some past criminal he has encountered? Has she had an accident? Lost her memory? He has had no girlfriend subsequently and his private life is at a standstill, in total limbo. He has tried every avenue, even resorting to mediums, and at one point has come under suspicion himself. During the series progressesRoy finally falls in love again, with the gorgeous Cleo who runs the Brighton and Hove mortuary. As their relationship progresses progresses towards marriage, and Cleo becomes pregnant with their child, Roy decides, finally, to have Sandy declared legally dead. But then we start to learn a different aspect of the relationship between Roy and Sandy – and that perhaps she is not dead after all, but alive and angry…
The second key aspect to Roy Grace’s character is his open-minded attitude to the paranormal. This is not just in his searching for Sandy, but his willingness to turn to the occult when desperate on a case. I have come to realize that being open-minded to absolutely everything is a key aspect to beingattribute of an effective good homicide detective. The use of mediums by police in the USA is far more openly commonplace than it is here – but I have met many UK police officers, at all levels from Chief Constables down, who are more than prepared to talk to any sensible medium who claims to have information. As one said to me: “If I am in a desperate situation and all else has failed, I would be derelict in my duties if I failed to listen to a medium who claimed to have information.”
4. Where do you get your ideas from? How do you manage to keep pace with the latest technology depicted in your books?
The starting point for any of my novels can be triggered by anything. The first Roy Grace book, Dead Simple, was inspired by the brutal and sometimes really dangerous things that men do to each other on pre-wedding stag night parties, combined with my fascination about premature burial. The second, Looking Good Dead, was inspired after I was asked by a police surgeon in Brighton to study a piece of footage in a video seized by the police that showed a teenage girl being stabbed to death. He wanted to know if it was real or if she was acting. It was real for sure, and opened my eyes to the horrific world of snuff movies. The third, Not Dead Enough I wrote about one of the world’s fastest growing crimes – identity theft. The fourth, Dead Man’s Footsteps combined two subjects I wanted to write about: The dream of so many people to fake their disappearance and create a new identity and life in a different country, and the horror of New York on the day of 9-11. The fifth, Dead Tomorrow was inspired by an approach I had with a famous documentary maker, who had been trying to make a documentary on the sinister world trade in human organs. She discovered that in Columbia, some organized criminals were making more money from the trafficked organs of street kids they murdered, than from drugs – she sent two researchers there and they were both murdered. She then gave me all her research material to write the story as fiction.
The most current, Dead Like You was inspired by a really chilling rape case: I was at a lecture four years ago given by the Senior Investigating Officer on serial rape case: Between 1983 – 1987 a man in South Yorkshire, England, dubbed The Rotherham Shoe Rapist brutally raped a series of women in the Rotherham and Barnsley area. He would strike late at night as they were leaving pubs or nightclubs, truss them up, and after he had finished, would take their shoes as trophies. Suddenly, he stopped offending, and the trail went cold.
In 2003 a woman in the Rotherham area was stopped for drink-driving and as is standard procedure, her DNA was taken. There was a familial – partial – match with the rapist. The police went to see her and asked her if she had a brother. She replied that she did, James Lloyd, but he could not possible be their man as he was a very successful and respectable businessman. When the police had gone she phoned her brother and told him about this strange visit. That night he tried to hang himself in his garage.
James Lloyd was 47, nice looking, the manager of a large printing company, a freemason, married with two kids who adored him, and generally a pillar of his community. When they police raided his office the next day, they found a trapdoor beneath the carpet, under which was a cache of 126 stiletto heeled shoes in cellophane.
I was captivated by this story – because I found it so chilling. I’ve always been fascinated by how the most seemingly normal people often are the most monstrous criminals. The UK’s worst ever serial killer, Dr Harold Shipman, being a classic example, but there are many more. James Lloyd fitted this mold exactly. I was also interested to explore how attitudes in the police toward rape have change dramatically in the past decade, yet still rape has an appalling clear-up rate, large because so few victims actually report it. The clear-up rate for murder in the UK is 98%, for rape it is just 6&.
I also realized by having two time frames in the book – now and 12 years back, I would have the opportunity to show a little more of Roy Grace’s life when he was with Sandy, before she disappeared – and also to show for the first time, a little of their live together through her eyes…
My novels tend to be very research driven as well as character driven. I spend a average one day a week out with the police, and my original ideas get shaped by my experiences I have during the researching. Central to each book is the main character I create, and what he or she would do in the circumstances in which they are placed.
In terms of how I keep pace with technology: In a number of ways. First, I am a regular visitor to the fasted grown division in Sussex CID – and in all Police forces – the High Tech Crime Unit. Secondly I’ve always had an interest in technology, so avidly keep up to speed. I’m a bit of a sad gadget freak, so I always have to have the latest laptop, the latest iPad, etc….and of course as a writer I’m enormously interested in social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, firstly to see the new forms of communication between people, but equally importantly, new ways of communicating with my fans.
5. What is the most rewarding aspect of being a novelist and what is the worst?
The most rewarding thing of all is to see my books on the bestseller lists. It was a fantastic thrill last year when I had three No 1s – the hardback and paperback of Dead Like You and my novella, The Perfect Murder No 1 on iBooks. The worst is bad reviews. Lots of writers will tell you they don’t read reviews, but in my experience they are lying. We all do. And bad ones really hur
6. Future of E-Reading and do you think it will impact the world of physical books?
Well I guess I’ve had more experience than most authors in this terrain, because 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 forseeable 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.
7. Describe Roy Grace for us…
I was once asked to sum him up in three words, and I chose Caring, Unconventional, Sharp. Many children have “invisible” friends and I guess as an adult Roy Grace is my “invisible” friend! He’s the kind of guy I would have for a good friend, someone I can rely on, who never panics, who is interested and curious about everything, someone gentle deeply incisive about the world and people. He gets angry at the same things I get angry about, particularly corruption, bad planning decisions, the terrible state of Brighton’s hospital. If I to had to be stranded on a desert island with someone, he’s the person I’d choose!
8. Advice to Debut Crime Writers
I believe in a crucial trinity of character, plot and research, in all fiction, but research is especially important in crime fiction, because the world of the police is unique, they have their own culture, their own procedures and in turn their own way of looking at the world. People read books first and foremost to find out what happens to characters they become engaged with. That is the first step with a debut crime novel – instantly engaging characters. Second is to put them into a situation that leaves the reader gasping, and wondering how they will get out of it. Thirdly is to imbue the story with a veracity that can only come from good research.
I don’t believe good writers can be taught, although I think their technique can be helped. My most important recommendation to any person who wants to write novels of any kind is to read, read and read. Particularly the kind of novels they would like to write – and to deconstruct them, literally – and work out what made them like this or that particular book. How did the writer get them hooked… how did the writer make them care for the characters…. It is impossible to stress this enough.
9. Why is crime writing so underplayed and often ignored?
I think, as I have answered above, that crime writing is the most important and powerful literary genre for all people who want to have a gripping read, and a thrilling ride, but want at the end of the book to feel they have learned something of value, about human nature, about the world we live in. There is a lot of literary snobbism, and I’m sure in part that comes out of jealousy. Crime fiction, combined with thrillers, cover a quarter of all fiction novels sold in the UK and in many other countries. Writers of literary fiction, which rarely sells in remotely similar quantities tend to dismiss crime novelists as people who have sold out to the devil! I think they are very misguided. Crime novels sell because they are quality fiction of a kind that people want to read.
10. Thoughts on being the #1 bestseller…
For some years my novels always got to No 2 but I could not get past certain writers, such as John Grisham and James Patterson. My publisher used to say “I don’t like No 2” although I was pretty pleased with it! Then I did get past them and kept both Grisham and Patterson from getting to No 1 and suddenly I understood what my publisher meant! There is no greater feeling in the world that I could have, than to see my books on that Number 1 slot – to be on the very pinnacle – it must be what a mountaineer feels to have reached the summit of Everest!
11. Peter as a writer
I would write even if I was never paid a penny (but please don’t tell my publishers that!!!) It is in my blood. I started writing when I was seven and I have never stopped. I love to create characters, to tell stories, and to research. I’m never happier than when I am at my desk writing – and particularly at 6pm when I have my vodka martini!!!
12. Peter as a reader
I was lucky, because my father was an avid reader, consuming several books a week and he started taking me to libraries from a very early age. I’m a compulsive reader – I read everything around me, even what is written on cornflake packs if there is nothing else! I always read books but authors I don’t know that feature prominently on the bestseller lists, and some literary fiction that has been acclaimed, and of course a huge amount of non-fiction. I am always looking for a novel which I put down at the end and think “Wow, wish I had written that!” Among my constant companions on my desk are a wonderful research tool – a heavy tome titled “Practical Homicide Investigation” by Vernon J Geberth. But I have to be careful who looks at it. Many of its hundreds of crime scene photographs are pretty grim. I’ve seen people nearly keel over after peering into it!
Here are my reviews of Peter James’ Books:
Dead Like You
Not Dead Enough
Looking Good Dead
All these books can be bought here on Flipkart