New York Times bestselling author Peter James has been published in 37 languages and his DS Roy Grace crime novels have sold an incredible 18 million copies worldwide. Here he talks to me about the essentials of a thriller, his writing routine and what it was like to be buried alive…
Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to write crime novels?
Ever since I was a small child I wanted to be a writer and to make films. I wanted to entertain people but at the same time, I wanted to examine the world and society in which we live through these media. My first break was when I was 17. I won a national BBC short story competition and had to read my story out on air. I loved doing that and it made me realise that much though the printed book is the bedrock of novels, there are all kinds of other media where the written and spoken word can be used to wonderful effect. After all, long before printing, stories were told and passed on orally. In my work today, I find the crime novel is the best genre through which I can explore the world in which we live.
Your recently published Need You Dead is your thirteenth featuring the loveable Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. I couldn’t put it down, testing whether it’s possible to read while walking my dogs. (It’s not). What ingredients make for a page-turning thriller?
I believe what lies at the heart of most page-turning books is a character the reader cares about put into mortal peril. The story has to be underpinned by good research, because if the reader doesn’t believe that the author knows his or her subject inside out you will lose them. The other essential elements are not cheating the reader, and not patronising either… so just a small job!
Do you ever get scared writing your own books?
Yes, quite often. Sometimes it’s because I find I’m in a dangerous situation – accompanying officers on a rooftop chase, or standing with them as they put in the door of a violent and possibly armed suspect or, for an earlier novel, being submerged in Shoreham Harbour in a van.
My worst moment was researching my first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple. My central character is left buried alive in a coffin in remote woodlands after a stag night prank has gone badly wrong. I needed to feel what it was like to be utterly trapped like this so I asked a local funeral director I knew if he could put me in a coffin, screw the lid down and leave me for 30 minutes.
When I arrived there a few days later, I was greeted by a frail elderly man who informed me he was the funeral director’s grandfather. Everyone else in the family business was out, attending funerals or collecting bodies. “You’ve come to be put in the coffin, right?” he croaked.
I’m deeply claustrophobic, and remember lying there, in this cramped little space as the lid closed, putting me in total darkness, then hearing the screech of the screws being tightened. I had asked a coroner friend how long the air would last in a coffin. “In a well-made one about three to four hours – but if you hyperventilate you could bring that down to 40 minutes or so,” he replied, cheerfully.
Suddenly, I had visions of this frail man suddenly dropping dead and I began to panic. It was the longest and most horrific 30 minutes of my life!
Need You Dead is the first whodunit of the Roy Grace series. How did you like writing a whodunit, and do you think you’ll continue?
Need You Dead is very much a modern take on the traditional idea of the whodunit with a number of suspects and a very dark twist, but written as a thriller rather than a police procedural. I will definitely write more whodunits because it is a really great challenge, and huge fun to know that I will be keeping my readers guessing, and hopefully constantly wrong-footed, (without cheating them).
I read that Detective Grace closely resembles David Gaylor of Sussex CID. How did you meet Detective Gaylor and decide that he was the man for the task ahead?
Over 15 years ago I was introduced to a young Detective Inspector 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 if he was moving offices and he replied with a sardonic smile: “No, these are my dead friends.”
I thought I had met a total weirdo! Then he explained that, in addition 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 these 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 he saw the most terrible sights imaginable (and unimaginable), yet he retained a calm, gentle humanity – and this 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 left the force, many detectives continue to work on cases they could not solve during their career.
At this first encounter with David, 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 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 my publishers, 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. It helps to give my novels the authenticity I strive so hard for.
You’re a stickler for research, talking to the police, as well as victims and criminals. Is it tricky getting criminals to trust you?
I frequently give talks in prisons. Partly in my ambassadorial role for The Reading Agency, trying to improve literacy in UK prisons, where the average reading age for 50% of the inmates is below 11 years old, and partly to get the chance to meet and talk to the prisoners. One of my tricks, at the start of each talk, told me by a detective, is to ask all of them to turn off their mobile phones – which always gets a laugh, as it is common knowledge these are forbidden!
Who is the most intriguing baddie that you’ve met?
The most intriguing baddie I met inspired my novel Love You Dead. She was a very intelligent woman in her mid-50s in a Midlands prison. When I asked her how much longer she had to go (I never ask directly what they are in for, not etiquette!) she replied: “Nine and a half more years and it’s just not fair, there’s a woman in here who has only six more years to go and she did exactly what I did.” When I then asked her what had brought her in here she replied, ‘Well, I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag!” She then explained that her mother-in-law had gone into hospital to die, so she had embezzled her bank account. “But the bloody woman didn’t die she came home. I realised she would find out what I had done, so I poisoned her. Then I realised my husband would find out, so I had to poison him, too! And it’s just not fair. A woman did exactly what I did, in London, and she’s only got six more years!” I asked the officer escorting me out if this was for real. ‘Oh yes, sir,’ he replied. “Her husband was three months on life support and he has permanent brain damage – and she’s just angry about the length of her sentence…”
What inspired you to write about “a domestic” in Need You Dead?
Something that left a lasting impression on me, and still chills me to this day, was listening to the taped replay of an emergency call made to the police by a woman utterly terrified that her estranged husband was going to kill her.
The call started quietly, the woman clearly afraid, saying she had locked herself in her bedroom and her husband was trying to break into her house. Before the call handler had despatched a police car to the scene, she began screaming that the man was now in the house. Then we could hear hammering sounds, and the woman now crying, stammering that he was trying to break the door down. Her voice turned to utter stark terror as he succeeded. We then heard five gunshots. He had shot her dead.
A recurring thread of the Roy Grace series is the detective’s missing wife, Sandy. Can you tell us why you created Sandy in the first place and why you bid her adieu in Need You Dead?
When Pan Macmillan asked me if I wanted to create a new fictional detective, I was given a two-book contract. I didn’t know if the books would be successful or not, so in Dead Simple I planned to set up the mystery of Roy Grace’s missing wife Sandy, and then solve it in the second book Looking Good Dead. I was completely taken by surprise with the enthusiastic response by my readers to the Sandy mystery and was deluged with speculations as to what might have happened to her. Once my publishers asked me to continue the series within weeks of Dead Simple being published, I thought it would be fun to keep the missing wife back story ongoing. While it had to come to a conclusion at some point, I hope to have given my readers a satisfying continuation.
Your writing routine begins at 6pm with a large vodka martini. Can you expand on this enviable working routine?
I like my writing process to be routine but all writers are different. The time that I write best is from 6pm-10pm at night so at 6pm, I typically sit down with a vodka martini I’ve mixed myself, put on music, turn off the phones, ignore emails and get myself into a “zone”. I love this period of “me time” and the martini is a treat I look forward to throughout the day! I do this six days a week during the seven months I am working on a novel.
Can you tell us about your next book Absolute Proof coming out next year which is a total break from the past?
I’m just editing ‘Absolute Proof’ which is my latest standalone away from the crime genre. The book centres on what might happen if someone credible claimed to have absolute proof of the existence of God. It is a subject that has long intrigued me, and I have been working on the research planning of this book for nearly two decades. It will be published October 2018 and of all my books, it is the one I am most excited about!