PETER JAMES: Research background to LOVE YOU DEAD

Written by Peter James

International best-seller, Peter James hardly needs an introduction but for any of you who have been living on another planet or new to the crime fiction world, Peter is the author of the immensely popular Roy Grace thrillers set in Brighton, UK. His latest novel and the 12th in the series, is Love You Dead and below, Peter gives us an insight of the research he carried out …


One of the most exciting aspects of embarking on a new novel, for me, is the knowledge of what I might learn.  I’ve always been a strong believer in the importance of research in fiction – I believe in an inseparable trinity of character, research and plot – and I deliberately put these three in that order.

Character is first because we read novels to find out what happens to characters we meet and come to engage with and care about in the opening pages.  They don’t have to be good people – some of the most endearing characters in literature have been villains – Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Hannibal Lecter being just three of a huge list.  Research is equally important.  I believe that people who read books are by their nature, intelligent.  I love reading books where not only do I enjoy a good, twisting story, but where I learn something about human nature and the world in which we live.  Plot is of course important, too.  But if we don’t engage with the characters, and we don’t believe the author knows what he or she is writing about, we ultimately won’t care, however brilliant the plot might be.

As always with my Detective Superintendent Roy Grace novels, the world of the Police is paramount to me.  Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, and we work closely together on all aspects of the book.  In Love You Dead, the central character, Jodie Bentley, is a true “black widow”.  A woman in her mid-thirties, who has made it her mission in life to become very seriously rich, and who sets out to achieve this by targeting on the internet, snaring, marrying and then despatching rich, elderly men.  To achieve this without detection she has developed a number of false identities.

My research took me on a journey through the world of internet dating, into the complexities of the Financial Crimes Units of the City of London Police and of Sussex Police, into the Proceeds of Crime legislation which has had a devastatingly effective impact on the criminal world, giving the Police far-reaching new powers to seize the assets of criminals.  Prior to this legislation a criminal could make a calculated judgment on risk and reward, emerging from a long prison sentence to tax free riches.  But no longer.

In the course of researching how to obtain a false identity, I had an entertaining, if bizarre lunch, with a former banknote, driving licence and passport forger, Dave Henty and the man who arrested him, a detective called Graham Bartlett, who rose through the ranks to become Commander of Brighton and Hove Police – and with whom I am now close friends.

Graham arrested Henty back in the mid-1990s, when Henty was on the verge of making a fortune out of forged passports, destroying his plans and putting him inside on a long jail term.  Henty, a talented artist, now out of jail and making a living out of forging (openly) the works of famous painters, invited us for lunch.  The last time he had seen Bartlett was when Graham, then a Detective Inspector, had burst through the front door of his grand Brighton home with a team of police officers, to catch him red-handed with an entire passport production line.  But instead of Henty holding any grudge, he greeted Graham warmly, saying, ‘Hello mate, how you doing?’  A true, old school villain with respect for the police and the understanding that crime was a game.  Over lunch he told us how, thanks to the Proceeds of Crime Act, he’d been left almost penniless after all his ill-gotten gains had ultimately been seized.  But he was philosophical about it, and had gone on to use his talents to reinvent himself as a talented copier of paintings.  There is much more on Henty in a chapter in a book Graham and I have co-written on the criminal world of Brighton, DEATH COMES KNOCKING – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, which will be published in July.

I’m often asked if I ever get scared.  The answer is a resounding yes!  If I had been asked what the scariest thing that has ever happened to me during my research, before Love You Dead, then it would have been a close call between being locked in a coffin for thirty minutes, submerged in an upturned van in aharbour, going into a burning house with the Fire and Rescue Service, or walking at 2am with an unarmed police officer up to a car, in a deserted car park, believed to have a dangerous armed criminal inside it.

But with Love You Dead I’ve topped all that by quite a margin.  I’m scared by a lot of ordinary things that affect many of us.  I’m deeply claustrophobic, to the point where I can’t sit comfortably in the rear of a two-door car;  I have a fear of heights;  and I’m really not comfortable around spiders, creepy crawlies in general, or snakes.  Researching for this novel I did two things I never, ever thought I would – I held a live scorpion in the palm of my hand, and I had a fifteen-foot boa-constrictor wrapped around my body.

Jodie Bentley is an expert in venomous creatures, and keeps a host of them in a secret room in her home in Brighton.  To learn more about them I spoke to a number of experts in the UK and abroad, all of whom who told me the best place to learn about them would be to visit one of the regular reptile shows at Houten in Holland and Hamm in Germany.  So I did.  Gulp!  I went to Houten to one of the shows, and what I learned rocked me to the core.

It was an exhibition centre the size of Olympia, filled with rows and rows of stands selling everything from Black Widow, Trapdoor, Redback and other charming spiders, to all kinds of snakes including Taipans, the world’s most venomous snake, and Saw Scaled Vipers, which kill the greatest number of people.  The reason being, it was explained cheerfully to me, is that the Taipan lives in remote areas, so rarely has contact with humans, but the Saw Scaled Viper, common in India, lives in populated areas.  It kills a staggering 58,000 people a year in India alone.  By comparison, 45,000 people die in car accidents and 15,000 are murdered, annually, in the USA.

The Saw Scaled Viper’s venom destroys the ability of its victims’ blood to coagulate, essentially liquidising their insides.  They start to bleed from every orifice, their eyes, nose, mouth and all others.  If the antidote is not introduced within two hours, the bite is almost always fatal.  I met a survivor of a SSV bite, a very charismatic young man, who told me that he managed to get to a hospital where he could be treated within the requisite two hours.  But even now, six years on, several times a year he is bedridden with flu-like symptoms.  He was lucky.  One of the less publicized long-term effect of some venomous snake bites is that a male’s sex organs become permanently shrunk.

I kept well away from those creatures!!!

Then I made the mistake of chatting to a man selling scorpions.  He told me that one of the most docile of all was an Arabian Flat Rock Scorpion, he produced one from a box and asked me to hold out my hand.  He then laid the creature on it.  It was huge, about the size of a small lobster, and felt warm.  I was shaking with terror!  ‘Nice scorpion!’  I said to it, repeatedly, unsure what else to say to the creature, and hoping it wouldn’t misinterpret my jangling nerves as some manifestation of hostility.  When finally he took it back, to my immense relief, he said, ‘It’s OK, if it had stung you it would be no worse than a bad bee sting!’

He then opened another clear plastic box – no bigger than a sandwich container, inside of which was another scorpion which he cheerfully told me could kill me in five days, in agony.

All of these creatures were on sale for prices ranging from €50-€150.00.  Further, there are no laws against bringing them into the UK.  All you have to do, if you walk through Customs with one, is say you are going to apply for a licence within forty-eight hours.  But as the cost of a licence can be as high as £1,500 per annum, not that many purchasers do.  And there is no one to monitor them…

Another part of my research scared me in a very different way.  I have a character in the book who makes a car bomb.  I spent a morning with an explosives expert who actually made a miniature one for me, and detonated it in front of my eyes – but fortunately at a safe distance!  The scary thing is that anyone can buy all the materials they need, for what can be used as a terrorist bomb, from just three high-street retail outlets - an aquarium supplier, an art shop and an electrical goods store.

Other areas of my research led me to skiing in Courchevel, a much more pleasant experience, in search of a location where Jodie could lead her latest lover to his death, over a precipice.  And then into the world of Undercover Operatives.  I learned something fascinating here.

For decades, if not longer, police and villains have played – and continue to do so – endless games of catch-up.  Mostly it is villains who lead until the police rumble their latest ruse.  I visited one of the DNA labs many police forces in the UK use, and one of the technicians was showing me their latest advances in obtaining DNA.  I asked if television programmes such as CSI had helped criminals to become more forensically aware.

‘Yes,’ she said.  ‘Undoubtedly.  But fortunately for us they still make stupid mistakes.  They’ll commit a burglary, wearing a body stocking under their clothes, and surgical gloves, in order to avoid leaving any traces, but then throw their gloves in a bin – and we can get the DNA from the inside of the gloves!’

But there is one area where instead of playing catch-up, the police are constantly ahead of the game, and that is with Undercover Operatives, or UCs as they are known.  I was very impressed to learn that wide variety of false identities are created and seeded in the press and on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, by the police, and with full family histories and connections with friends.  So watch out, your new Facebook pal might just be a cop who is feeling your virtual collar…



Published by Pan Macmillan in hardback

at £20.00 on 19th May 2016

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