I met with Peter James (right) at the Merrion Hotel last week, to interview him for the Sunday Independent, and a very pleasant lunch it was too. Beforehand, I was a little concerned he was one of these robo-writers – we all have our (koff) favourites – who write crime fiction because crime fiction readers are so dim they’ll read any old tat so long as there’s a corpse on every second page. As a matter of fact, Peter James was a charming interviewee – articulate, erudite, self-deprecating and charming, and passionate about the morality of crime fiction and a corresponding attention to detail.
I don’t usually publish interview transcripts, but I had to leave out so much of the Peter James interview when I was writing it up for the Sunday Indo, and because I think Peter James has quite a lot of interesting things to say, I thought I’d put it up here. I’ve nipped and tucked here and there, but what appears below is roughly how it happened in real time. One other thing that’s delightful about Peter James as an interviewee – he needs very little prompting to get going. And once he gets going, he’s almost impossible to stop …
I started by asking him about the first three novels he ever wrote, which he currently keeps out of print on the very noble principle that anyone who buys them won’t be getting their money’s worth. Will he ever make them available again, or can I just go ahead and steal the wonderful title, ATOM BOMB ANGEL?
“I think I might republish them some day, under ‘Vintage Cliché’, or something like that (laughs), with a warning on the front, ‘Read these at your own risk’. But I wrote those a long time ago. I’d always wanted to be a writer, this is going back to the ’70s, and I saw this article saying there was a shortage of spy thrillers. So I wrote this kind of pastiche, and to my amazement I got published. And then, to my amazement, it completely flopped (laughs). So I wrote two more … and they flopped too. I nearly gave up writing, I got very despondent.”
“The real tipping point for me was when I was pouring my heart out to a friend of mine who was writing jacket blurb at Penguin. And I was saying, ‘How do earn a living at this?’ And she said, ‘Why are you writing spy thrillers?’ So I said, ‘Because I read somewhere there was a shortage.’ And she said, ‘You will not make money from writing something because you think it will pay. You have to write what you’re passionate about.’ That was the best advice I ever had. And around that time, the son of a very good friend was killed in an horrific car-crash. Afterwards, his parents started seeing a medium. Now, I’d always been interested in the paranormal, and they were absolutely convinced they were in touch with their son. Anyway, I went along to one of the séances, and decided that, whether or not they were in touch with him, they believe that. And I could see how people could take comfort in that. But then I thought, what if you went to a medium to contact your dead son, and discovered through the medium that he’d murdered his girlfriend?”
“I’d always wanted to be a crime writer, right back when I was 12 and I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. And then I read Graham Greene’s BRIGHTON ROCK, and it just blew me away. Brighton was my home town … And I thought, One day I want to write a book that’s twenty percent as good as this. That was my dream. But I kept away from writing crime fiction for a long time, and then after POSSESSION I wrote a series of supernatural chillers, and I kept away from the [crime fiction] genre because of what I thought of as the very rigid conventions. You had to have a country house, with a library, and a dead body is discovered … Then I discovered the Americans. Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, and a whole world opened up. And then, about eight years ago, Macmillan asked if I’d ever considered writing a crime novel. And I just said, ‘Yes!’”
“I had a great relationship with the police at that point. I’d been setting books in Brighton, and I’d been out with the police a lot. And I’d met one guy about 14 years before, who was then a detective inspector in Brighton. I remember going to his office and there were about 20 boxes, big crates, piled up in there. And I said, ‘Are you moving?’ And he said, ‘No, these are my dead friends.’ And I thought, okay, I’ve found the only weirdo in the Brighton police force (laughs). But he then explained that he was in charge of cold cases. They weren’t called cold cases back then, that’s a relatively recent term, but he said, ‘Each one of these crates holds the principal case files in an unsolved murder. I’m the last chance the victim has for justice and the last chance the family has for closure.’ And I loved that rather caring, quiet man alone with these ghosts who were depending on him. In creating Roy Grace I drew heavily on that. And I became very friendly with this guy, and we’re great mates today, he then became detective chief superintendent, and he’s really the role model behind Roy Grace.”
“I spent a lot of time thinking hard about what would make him different. I like Rebus, but I didn’t want to copy Rebus. And I decided to stay away from the drunk, cynical … you know, the clichés. And about two years before I created him, I got taken with a group from Sussex Police to an organisation called the Missing Persons’ Helpline, an open day run by a charity which basically helps the police look for missing people. And I discovered that over 230,000 are reported missing every year in the UK. Now, most of those turn up within 30 days, but if they don’t turn up in 30 days, they’re not going to turn up. And there are over 11,000 at any one time permanently missing. It’s roughly 60,000 in America, it’s the same, pro rata, all around the Western world. And that’s a kind of a similar situation to an unsolved murder. You have people left behind wondering, Where are they? Are they under Fred West’s toolshed? Are they down in some Austrian cellar? Have they run off with a lover? Have they had an accident and never been discovered? Were they kidnapped by some lunatic? Have they changed their identity? And what detectives do is, they solve puzzles. That’s really what major crime solving is about, putting together the pieces. And I thought it would be interesting to have a detective have a personal puzzle of his own, one he can’t solve. And that was when I decided that, when we first meet Roy Grace, which is in DEAD SIMPLE, he’s got a wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, but who, when he came home nine years earlier on his 30th birthday, wasn’t there, and he hasn’t seen or heard from her since. And that dogs his life.”
“In the last book, DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS, a character, right at the end of the book, is on a beach in South America, and is chatting to the woman next to her, who tells her that her name is Sandy. Now, you don’t have to know who she is to read the book, but in DEAD TOMORROW, Roy has his new love, Cleo, and she’s now pregnant. So he’s ready to move on, but the shadow of Sandy is actually starting to lengthen … The book I’m working on now, the sixth one, some of it is set ten years back, when Roy is still with Sandy, so we’re seeing life from her perspective too.”
“I get really angry at the snobbery against the crime fiction genre. I mean, look at Shakespeare. If Shakespeare was writing today, he’d be writing crime fiction. Most of his plays feature a crime, or a trial. Dickens’ last novel was a crime novel. Dostoevsky. But you had the chair of the Booker prize, three years ago, saying that hell would freeze over before crime fiction would get short-listed. Well, I’m sorry, but I think the crime novel is the way to examine the world in which we live. I go out with the police once a week, and they see stuff, that aspect of human nature, that you’re just not going to get at a Hampstead dinner party. The police see the world warts and all, every possible facet, and the insights into human nature they get, whether it’s arresting an armed robber, or going into some godawful sink estate apartment where there’s a domestic going on … I mean, the police look at the world with what I call a healthy cultural suspicion. You and I, if we were to walk down Grafton Street, and saw two guys looking into a shop window, we’d think, they’re wondering what to buy. A cop looks at them and thinks, Why are they standing there? Are they about to kick off? Rob the shop? Do a drug deal?”
“There’s a pub [the Chief Super and I] go to, the same pub every time, the same table every time (laughs), and we sit down and I go through the planned storyline, and he gives me his input. And he reads every book as I’m writing it, I send him every 100 pages, and then we discuss the police aspects of it. What I need for a particular situation, what procedure I need to follow … I’ve also got a young copper now too, he’s 28, he does the same thing for me. So I get the younger perspective too, and from a street police officer as well as a chief super. So anything I want to find out, I can. For instance, in DEAD TOMORROW, a dredger pulls a dead body up off the seafloor. So I’m wondering, what would the police do in a situation like that? Well, a police diver would go down to try to find the place where the body came from. So I contacted the diving unit – I’m kind of fairly well known at this stage – and they said, Why don’t you come out with us and we’ll do an exercise for you. So we actually went out, with a dummy called Eric, which actually replicates the human body, and chucked Eric overboard and recovered him. So I spent the day with the diving unit. And similarly, with the dredging ship … So pretty much everything that the police do in my books, I have experienced first-hand – car chases, surveillance, helicopter pursuits, I’ve been on two or three of those. For me it’s really important to get the details right. I get very irritated when reading, or more often seeing on television, people who get the details wrong. The classic example is Frost. I think some of the public must think that the reason SOCO officers wear white suits is that they don’t want to get dirty attending a crime scene. Because they’re all wearing their protective suits, and along comes David Jason with his big brogues and clumps all over the crime scene. The early Rebus did it too. I mean, the reason the SOCOs wear those suits is so they do not contaminate the crime scene. The first police officer at a murder, or a rape scene, his first job is to seal it off, with one exit-entry point. And it doesn’t matter if he’s the most junior police officer in the entire force, he is empowered to prevent anybody, including the Chief Constable, through that tape if they’re not wearing protective clothing. And it’s not just being fussy about detail for its own sake. I think if you get it right, then the story tends to come out better as well.”
“For me, I could never write something that I hadn’t checked out, and didn’t know was accurate. That’s not the way I want my books to be perceived. And I always find that when I do the research … For example, I went out on the dredger ship for DEAD TOMORROW because I’d never been on a dredger. I didn’t even know a dredger brought up gravel for commercial purposes, I thought they just cleared harbours. And out of that experience came the idea for having the ship’s engineer as the husband of Caitlin’s mother, and gradually the characters started to come together. I really do find that the research tends to inform the story in ways I never expect. For example, DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS was about a guy who fakes his disappearance in the wake of 9/11, and while I was researching it I got friendly with two New York cops, who’d been first on the scene on 9/11. And they became quite major characters in the story. And likewise, for the character of Caitlin’s mum, I wanted to have her working in a debt collection agency, but I didn’t know what that actually entailed. So I contacted a debt collection agency, and as it turned out I had a fan who worked there … (laughs). I just thought that, at the moment, given that the world is in financial crisis, that that would be interesting work to be doing, but how does it work? And I ended up going there and spending a couple of days, and asking questions, and realising that, yes, you could actually steal money from a place like that, if you knew what you were doing. And that turned out to be a very important aspect of her character.”
“Brighton’s great. I think a sense of place is as important as character. A lot of the great crime novels that I’ve admired, such as Rebus in Edinburgh, Hiaasen’s Miami, Ed McBain in New York, and so on, are very true to their setting. And Brighton for me is perfect. I was born in Brighton, and Brighton’s been known as the Crime Capital of England since 1934. It’s the favourite place to live in England for first division criminals. It goes right back to the razor gangs of the ’30s, protection rackets … It’s got a seaport either side, the largest number of antique shops in the UK, it’s got the racecourse … It’s always had a seedy reputation as a weekend resort. And it does have this undertow of violence. It doesn’t have the kind of inner-city gun violence but it does have endemic criminality. For nine years running it was the ‘injecting drugs death capital’ of the UK. We lost it last year to Liverpool, but we got it back this year.”
“In terms of how I work … I think, as I was saying earlier, it comes back to the relevance of the good crime writer to the world we live in. But I also tend to take the theme that intrigues me at the time. DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS is about a man who uses 9/11 as an opportunity to fake his own disappearance and get out of debt. My previous novel, NOT DEAD ENOUGH, was about identity theft, which is the fastest-growing crime in the Western world. And with this book, its genesis came one night when I was out a dinner, and this woman was talking to me and she said, ‘Do you know how much you’re worth in bits?’ I said, ‘In bits?’ And she said, ‘In body parts.’ And the answer is about a million dollars. She then started telling me about how, since transplant technology has improved, the number of organ donors has actually decreased. The big irony is that less people are dying in car accidents, because people are now wearing seat-belts. The perfect donor is someone who dies in a car accident by hitting his head off the steering-wheel, leaving the organs intact. Motorcycle accidents are another good source. And she’d been trying to make a documentary about the growth in black market human organs, and she’d tied up with Médecins Sans Frontières. And they discovered that in Colombia, in some areas, the Colombian mafia make more money out of human body parts than they do from drugs. They sent two reporters to Colombia to investigate, and they got murdered. So she was scared off it, but she had all this research, and she said it was mine if I wanted to use it. So I started researching it, and discovered that Manila, for example, in the Philippines, is known as ‘One-Kidney Island’. For forty-five thousand pounds, you can go on holiday and get a new kidney. The Chinese are shooting prisoners, and selling the cadavers for a million-plus to Korea and Taiwan, or they’re harvesting the parts themselves. Places like Romania feed this part of the world …”
“Wherever I go, I’ll always try to meet police officers from around the world. And I had to go to Moscow last year, for my Russian publishers. I asked if there was any chance of meeting any Russian police officers, so they introduced me to the Chief of Police for Central Moscow (laughs). But I got on really well with him, I ended up going out to dinner with him and about 15 of his colleagues. And his office is full of animal heads, wild boars and what have you, and he has invited me to spend four days hunting with him, at the beginning of September! I just could not say no to that …”
“I’ve just always been fascinated by human nature, and human beings and why they do the things they do. And the crime genre gives me the chance to explore that to its fullest extent. I’m writing now about a rapist who takes his victims’ shoes, but oddly enough, before I decided to make that the theme … I met and became quite friendly with the governor of our local prison, and he’s a moderniser. He’s quite controversial, because in his prison, sex offenders and paedophiles are not segregated from other prisoners. And his view is that it’s almost politically correct to regard these people as somehow worse. I mean, I’ve been burgled, and it took me years to get over the horrible feeling. So I know what he means when he says that other crimes can destroy people’s lives just as much as a paedophile can. And rape is really interesting … The average clear-up rate for major crimes in the UK is 34%, and for murder, it’s 98%. Very few murderers end up getting away with it, because so much in the way of resources are thrown at it, and because a lot of the time, unless it’s committed by the member of a gang, most murders are committed by a member of family, or the murderer can’t live it. There are a lot of issues that go with it. The clear-up rate for rape, on the other hand, is under 4%. And women who’ve been raped, their lives are destroyed. So I’ve been reading a lot about the psychology of rapists, and the psychology of what happens to the victim, and why people rape … So, with each book, I’m interested in taking an issue, or an area of crime, that impinges on society, hopefully without being didactic.”
“I do plan my books – perhaps because of my background in film – in terms of the three-act structure. I always think of three high-points as the basic guts of the book. And I do plan the ending, I must know the ending. It might change when I get to it, but I do need to have a vanishing point. And I plan the first 20% quite carefully. But I love the magic that happens, and I’m sure you know what I mean, as a writer, when something pops up that wasn’t originally intended. My best time for writing is six o’clock in the evening, a vodka martini, put on some music, and get in the zone. And then blitz until about ten at night. And when a character appears, who was not there 10 seconds ago, then wow … But then, that happens to me in almost every book.”
Peter James’s DEAD TOMORROW is published by Macmillan.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.