Peter James has written 25 books, the most recent of which feature Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. His books have been translated into 29 languages. In England they are published by Pan Books and in the US by Carroll &Graf Publishers. James has written supernatural thrillers, spy fiction, Michael Crichton-style science-based thrillers, and a children's novel, as well as the introductions for Graham Masterton's collection 'Manitou Man' and Joe Rattigan's collection 'Ghosts Far From Subtle'.
Over the course of the Roy Grace series, the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Sandy has always been there as a reminder to us of his troubled past. With 'Dead Like You', you seem to have moved us as readers firmly away from 'Sandy as possible victim' into the possibility that she simply got fed up with Roy not getting the top job and took off for pastures new. Did you originally have that in mind or has it changed over the books? Or was I being dense in thinking something nasty had happened?
About 12 years ago I attended an open day for the Police at the Missing Persons Helpline offices in South London. I was staggered to learn that 230,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year. The majority turn up again within a few days but if they don’t turn up after 30 days, they are unlikely ever to be seen again. At any one time we have 11,500 people permanently missing in the UK, and the figure is the same pro-rata to population around the western world – there are 55,000 permanent missing in the USA, for example. It is a staggering figure. And the big questions is, where are they?
Some have been murdered and their bodies never found – under the floorboards of monsters like Fred West. Some have run off with lovers. Some have disappeared deliberately, running away from debt, and reinvented themselves in another country. Some have had accidents. Some have committed suicide. But the one thing in common, is that the families and loved one they leave behind are left in a state of limbo, because they have no closure.
When I was asked about nine years ago to create a new detective, by my publishers Pan Macmillan, I wanted to make Roy Grace different to other fictional detectives. I thought really hard about what it is that detectives actually do, and I realized that first and foremost what they do is to solve puzzles! Every major crime, whether a murder, a rape, a big robbery or a fraud, is a puzzle, to be solved in steady, painstaking steps. I thought it would be intriguing to create a detective who had a personal puzzle of his own that he could not solve, and I came up with the idea that Roy Grace has a missing wife. Almost 9 years before we meet him, we learn that he came home on his 30th birthday to find his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, had vanished.
My original plan was to reveal the truth about Sandy in the second book. But to my amazement there was such excited speculation by my readers about what might have happened to her, that I decided it would be fun to keep it as an ongoing mystery, and feed a little bit more information about her into each successive novel, so that my readers could start to make their own deductions. In answer to your question, in the first five novels we have tended to see Sandy only through Roy’s rose-tinted memories. There is a snippet of someone who might be her in Dead Tomorrow but very fleeting. In Dead Like You for the first time we see Roy and Sandy together, twelve years back in time, and we see the relationship is not quiet so perfect as Roy had always imagined. I don’t think you were dense at all thinking something nasty had happened. But equally there is a long way to go yet with this story strand!!!! And I can promise you quite a shock at the end of the next novel, Dead Man’s Grip!
Your books are full of threat wrapped up in otherwise ordinary, sometimes mundane situations. Do you consciously consider what kind of threat will play most on peoples' fears as the basis for the book, or does that come later?
I have always tended to write about the things that interest and intrigue me. I do a lot of psychology research in addition to the specific research time I spend with the police and on other aspects of each of my novels. I am interest both in what motivates criminals, and in what the fears are that we tend to have. I once had a valuable piece of advice from a very eminent psychiatrist when I asked him what he thought, in general, was the thing most people are afraid of. I expected him to say terrorism, or war or cancer, but he surprised me with his answer: “Most people are afraid of being alone,” he said. By that me meant totally alone, rejected by all attempts at making human contact, with no family and no friends. I have used that theme of the fear of being alone in different ways in many of my books. In Dead Simple for instance, Michael is trapped in the coffin. In Looking Good Dead the mother is chained up on her own in the dark. In Dead Man’s Footsteps, Abby is alone, a self-imposed prisoner in her own flat. In Dead Like You again being alone in captivity is a major element in the story.
But I guess the biggest theme of all, and the one that interests me the most is the innocent person getting into big trouble through no fault of their own. This is Michael, buried alive in Dead Simple. Tom, in Looking Good Dead, who puts his entire family in jeopardy by doing the decent thing, of trying to return a CD he has found on a train. And in Dead Man’ Grip an innocent woman caught up in an accident in which the grandson of the Mafia capo is killed – and the terrible revenge on everyone involved instigated by the dead boy’s mother…
Relationships (good and bad) between victims and perps form an important backdrop to your storylines. Was there anything which made you look towards this aspect of life for your books?
I loved crime stories from a very early age, devouring Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle among numerous others. But although very different writers, the structure of the classic English crime novel tends to be the murder at the start and the rest of the story is the puzzle by the police and/or private detective to solve it. Solving the crime is much more important than the actual crime itself, however heinous. Then, when I was 14. I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock for the first time - and was just blown away by this novel. Partly because it was set in my home city (a town then) and partly because it was the first time I read a crime novel in which the central characters were the villains and the victims rather than the detective and team – and in fact the Police play a minor role in the book. I have always been deeply fascinated by human nature, and curious about why we all do the things that we do, and that is what interests me above all else about this genre. For instance, in Dead Like You one of the central characters, Darren Spicer (his surname is a homage to Brighton Rock!) is a career burglar, just released from jail – and very much based on a real life character I interviewed in prison.
You've made more of a study of crime probably than most people. Do you think crime occurs because of opportunity and circumstance, or intent? In other words, do people do wrong more easily through temptation or inclination?
I was a member of a gym a few years ago and the owner, a really nice guy in his late 30s, a committed family man, told me one day he was writing a book about his life story. I asked him if he had a particular angle and he told me yes, he had done five years in prison for armed robbery! I was intrigued. He was from a good, comfortably off, loving Jewish family, never in trouble as a kid. But, he told me, he got into financial trouble at the age of 22, was at a gym opened the wrong locker in the men’s changing room and found a handgun. He took the gun and held up a building society! That is a real instance of an opportunity and circumstances. However, I don’t think there is any short answer to your question and you’ll get a different answer for theft than you will for murder: I think the majority of thieves/burglars are victims of circumstances. Crap parenting, broken homes, no moral values, prison life and its resulting recidivistic spiral, and above all, almost certainly today an expensive drug habit.
However killers are altogether different: Some years ago I spent a day with the chaplain of Broadmoor. To be an inmate there you have to be classed as “violently criminally insane” and have committed an act of severe violence or murder. I asked him if he believe from his experience at Broadmoor whether people were born even or just became evil. He told me that roughly 50% of the inmates were schizophrenics – people born with a chemical imbalance in their brain. These cold be treated with medication and many, provided they continued to take their medication, could go back into the community safely. The Yorkshire Ripper is a classic schizophrenic, who said he had been informed by voices in his head to do his slayings.
However the other 50% were sociopaths – or psychopaths – (the same thing). A psychopath is someone born wired differently to other people – someone who has no “conscience” as most of us have. As a child it would not bother him to steal his best friend’s favourite toy. As an adult he could kill or rape and not lose a wink of sleep. These are them most dangerous of all criminals – and often the most clever. Think of Harold Shipton here in the UK, or charming (genuinely charming) Ted Bundy in the USA…
Over the years you've covered subject as diverse as transplants, 9/11, surrogacy, genetics, pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligence. Is there a particular subject you've been waiting to use, but haven't yet, and if so, what?
I like to explore and write about issues that can or do affect our lives, and which may shape all our futures. In my Roy Grace series, there are several themes responsible for major crimes that I have not yet written about but certainly will – one of them being lover’s jealousy. At the moment I’m writing about revenge in my new book, Deads Man’s Grip – a subject that has long fascinated me. Not that I’m a vengeful kind of guy…!!!
Is the advance in DNA testing a good or bad thing for crime writing, and do you think it will make crime writers lazy and readers too expecting of a scientific solution every time?
As technology progresses, criminals progress too. Ten years ago the first place Police would look for stolen goods would be antique shops, today the first place they checkout is eBay! The murder clear up rate in the UK is 90% and I don’t see that getting any higher. As science progresses, criminals get more forensically aware, too. As criminals are caught because they make a mistake as they are through good detection. What is interesting is there’s a major shift from the days of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to now in the importance of the crime scene. The crime scene is still today vitally important but the mortuary and the path lab are equally important. I wonder today, if a smart defence brief were to walk up to Poirot or Miss Marple and say, “OK, show me the forensic evidence to back this up,” just how many last pages of Agatha Christie novels - and many others of her era – would need to be rewritten…
You spend a lot of time with the Brighton police force, and see an aspect of life most of never do. Does anything about Brighton and its 'seedier underbelly', to use a PR phrase, surprise you anymore?
The one thing that never ceases to surprises me is the way some people live – and I’m not talking just at the poorer end of the scale. I often go into people’s homes with the Police, whether on a raid, or sorting out a domestic dispute or because of a missing person, or because they’re suspected of running a brothel – and a whole myriad of other reasons. The sheer slovenly way in which so many people live shocks me. Recently, I learned a new expression: I was with two police officers called to a domestic fight in a low-rise apartment block in a pleasant area Brighton. We entered the flat and it stank to high heaven. Out shoes literally stuck to the carpet as we walked across. There were soiled nappies on the floor, old MacDonald’s and Chinese takeaway cartons lying around covered in fungus and mould. Naturally, there was a 50” plasma TV screen on the wall… The two officers calmed the situation down – the couple were going hammer and tongs at each other, with a baby screaming in a cot. As we left, one of the officers turned to me and said, “Peter, this is the kind of place where you need to wipe your feet on the way out!”
As a follow-on, does the Brighton Tourist Board worry, do you think, about your next book, or do they enjoy the exposure?
The Tourist Board love the exposure! We’ve been having discussions about Roy Grace tours of Brighton. I think the one thing that that would prefer me not to mention too much is that for 9 years running Brighton has had the unwelcome title of “Injecting Drug Death Capital Of The UK”. We actually lost the title in 2008 to Liverpool – but unhappily for the Brighton Tourist Board, we got it back again last year!
Does your writing energise or drain you, and how do you (if you have to) cope with momentary obstacles in working on each book?
My writing totally energizes me, especially when I’ve had a good session. I constantly come up against obstacles because of my complex plotting, and I find in the daytime that a short – or sometimes long walk, either in the country or around the streets of London, helps me to think clearly. My other big boost is my 6pm treat of a drink – normally a vodka martini! My best writing time is from 6-10m, fuelled by a moderate amount of alcohol and music – mostly jazz during the first two thirds of a book and opera arias during the last. I love setting myself puzzles when I am writing and then working out the solution. I think the hardest one of all for me was when I wrote Dead Simple, in how I was going to create a credible way of getting my character, Michael, out of the grave he had been buried in. It took weeks of slog and long walks and stiff drinks (!) before it finally came to me….
Poor old Roy Grace; he's been through the grinder, privately and professionally. Should we feel sorry for him, or is the old adage that a policeman's lot is not a happy one just grist for your mill?
In my experience the vast majority of police officers do genuinely love their work, despite the often crazy hours of the job, the bureaucracy, the horrific sights they see and the internal politics. The police look at the world in a different way to the rest of us. I don’t just mean physically, but culturally too. Last year, I was driving through Sussex on a sunny July day with a Detective Inspector, on our way to a crime scene. I asked him if he felt that as a police officer he viewed the world differently to other people. He smiled and said, “You’re looking through the windscreen at a beautiful summer day. I’m looking at a man who is standing in the wrong place.”
There is however something different about major crime detectives, particularly on homicide. I would say they get more personally involved with their cases than any others in the force, save those working with rape victims. Murder is the ultimate horrific crime, because it can never be reversed. Good homicide detectives, in particular the Senior Investigating Officers become involved with the victim’s loved ones, and rapidly feel a massive sense of responsibility – and caring for these people – and for the victims. They become all that stands between the victim and justice – and between the loved ones and closure. That is why so many homicide detectives go on privately working on unsolved cases long after they have retired.
Roy Grace has indeed been through the grinder, in his private life, both with his beloved Sandy’s disappearance and now Cleo’s perhaps endangered pregnancy… and professionally with a boss who disliked him, largely for his maverick behaviour and tried hard to undermine him. But he’s a survivor, and above all, he is a good man in a dark world.
Dead Like You by Peter James is published in paperback by Pan on 14th October at £7.99
Read SHOTS review of DEAD LIKE YOU