Peter James: Getting it dead right

Peter James' crime thrillers sell by the millions around the world. Picture: Supplied

Crime fiction writer Peter James shares his hugely popular perspectives

Writing thrillers – particularly series built around the same protagonist – requires a set formula. Does that ever become frustrating for you in terms of the limitations it places on your creativity?

Peter James (PJ): I don’t find it restricting because I don’t really stick to a formula. All my crime thriller Roy Grace novels are usually written from three different perspectives: that of the perpetrator, that of the offender and that of the police – Roy Grace and his team. I love writing all three perspectives equally. With Roy and his team it is great to meet up with them again. I feel I’m returning to my family! So really every novel is a standalone, and they can be read in any order, although going through from the beginning readers will get more out of the running thread of Roy’s missing wife, Sandy.

Conversely, does setting Want You Dead and the other Roy Grace books in Brighton allow for new ideas, in that many readers will have set perceptions about London or other major cities that might conflict with your imagery if the story took place there?

PJ: Fortunately for me, villains don’t stick to county or national boundaries, any more than they do to office hours. My fictional Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is closely based on the real-life former Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gaylor. During the course of his career as a homicide detective, Dave travelled to the US on many occasions, to Australia, Germany, France, Thailand, Hong Kong and several other countries. In the ten Roy Grace novels I’ve written so far, I’ve had major scenes in Romania, Germany the USA, Mexico and Australia.

The cover art for Peter James’ latest book, Want You Dead.

The cover art for Peter James’ latest book, Want You Dead.

Do you have a favourite off-the-beaten-path spot in Brighton that you’ve brought to light in the books?

PJ: Having been born and raised in Brighton, I know almost every inch of the city and its environs and I have a number of favourite off-the-beaten-path places. I love in particular Shoreham Port, where I spent many happy hours as a child, cycling along, looking at all the foreign flags on the cargo ships, seeing the bunkering stations, watching cargo being loaded and unloaded, my imagination being fired all the time about adventures that might have taken place on board these massive vessels as I wondered what the ports they had sailed from might be like.

Many of Peter James' books are set in Brighton, where the author grew up. Picture: AFP

Many of Peter James’ books are set in Brighton, where the author grew up. Picture: AFP

Do you need to turn of your film and TV-making instincts when writing (or vice versa)? It?s great to have a cinematic style in print, but it can get clumsy if not properly handled.

PJ: I think I have learned a great deal from my start in life as a scriptwriter that 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 – what happens next? It’s 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: the rule there 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 realisation that to keep my readers interested and hooked and I need to constantly surprise them.
Laughter and fear are very close emotions and they complement 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. And Roman Polanski’s early film Cul De Sac is a wonderful example of tension, terror and pure comedy. 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 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 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 in 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!

How useful are thrillers versus, say, literary fiction in terms of encouraging people to read (and to keep reading)? Your Roy Grace books are packed with some of the worst of human nature ? violence, corruption and all the rest ? but they keep readers turning pages far more than some potentially edifying philosophical treatise?

PJ: There is a terribly literary snobbishness about so-called “literary” fiction. For instance, I remember the late Gilbert Adair once writing in the Sunday Times: “Any novel that makes you want to turn the page cannot be worth reading.”
Not only is that arrogant nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. We have too many choices these days. If someone picks up an impenetrable book, they won’t necessarily then look for an easier book. They’ll turn to watching movies, playing computer games, watching TV and listening to music, and the book world has lost a reader possibly for ever. Everyone forgets that the writers from the past who have endured, like Dickens, were the popular fiction writers of their day because they knew how to write gripping page turners. People forget that Dickens wrote several novels that would be on the crime fiction shelves today.
Shakespeare wrote plays because at the time he was writing, few people could read and fewer still could afford books. If you were a writer wanting to communicate with the largest possible audience you wrote plays. Over half of Shakespeare’s plays involve courtroom scenes. If he was writing today, he’d be writing novels, and I’m pretty certain we’d be looking for his work on the crime fiction shelves. Good crime fiction reflects the world in which we live in a more accurate and accessible form than any other form of literature. You only have to read the world of Deon Meyer or Margie Orford to learn so much about South Africa, for instance.

Researching your crime novels: what is attractive about the process and what is an annoying necessity?

PJ: I believe in a crucial trinity of character, research and plot, in all fiction. Readers can instantly tell if a writer knows what he or she is writing about or not. If the writer does not fully understand every aspect of the subject they are writing about the book will lack a crucial element of underpinning, and the readers will feel that. I have a huge thirst for knowledge and love the research process as much as I love the act of writing itself. I guess the only annoying aspects are being caught out by readers. Such as: “Dear Mr James, in your novel, Twilight, on page 147 – please note that brass does not rust, it corrodes.”

Is there an aspect of your enjoying the vicarious thrill of being a policeman closing in on a suspect that keeps the Roy Grace series going?

PJ: I’m sure there is! I spend an average of a day a week out with the police, mostly in and around Brighton and Sussex, but in many countries overseas, also. I find their world fascinating, and often think about whether I would be a cop, but then I worry if I would be brave enough. One of the questions I ask every cop is whether he or she has ever had their life on the line and the answer always comes back yes. Yet if you ask any cop what they most love about the job, almost all say “driving on blues and twos”, and getting into a “bundle” – a fight or a dangerous situation!
I’ve been in a number of situations where I have been scared. One, a year ago, was when I was on patrol in a rough estate with a young sergeant and a rookie constable – a young Indian woman. It was 10pm and we saw a group of 10 youths walking along, swigging from open bottles and beer cans. It is a criminal offence to have an open bottle or can of alcohol on the streets of Brighton and Hove. The officers pulled over and climbed out the car, and I followed them, wearing a fluorescent jacket marked “Police Observer”, and stood some distance back with my notebook, as they confronted them.
Several of the gang were clearly drunk and they became aggressive and threatened violence, and started hurling racial taunts at the Indian woman officers. The sergeant radioed for backup, but that can take 20 minutes to arrive on a busy night. As the gang advanced on the two officers, some of them pulling out knives, I began to wonder whether to get back into the car or run for my life? But I knew that if I was to keep any respect I had to stand my ground and help out the two officers. I used to box at school when I was small, so I can look after myself a bit. Then the ringleader came straight towards me, jabbed a finger at me and demanded to know who I was. Quick as a flash the sergeant replied: “He’s with the FBI!”
This had an instant effect – they all backed off and turned into pussy cats, meekly handing over their drinks and their weapons!

It’s not only new crimes that need to be dreamed up for each new title, but realistic new characters and contexts as well. Do you base these ideas on trends (e.g the popularity if internet dating for Want You Dead) and if so, how careful do you need to be regarding turnaround time to avoid publishing the book after interest in the subject matter has peaked?

PJ: Interesting question. I would never write about a trend per se, as then the book would rapidly become out of date. But I do write often about issues of our time, and much of my inspiration comes from true stories I have heard during the time I spend out with the police – an average of one day per week – or something that has intrigued me. I’m a great believer in that adage that truth is stranger than fiction and I am very interested in different issues that affect us all. All of my Roy Grace novels have a different theme in them:
The first, Dead Simple, was inspired by the simple truth of how much we can trust anyone, however well we know them. 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. In 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 organised 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 sixth, Dead Like You is on the subject of rape, and I wanted to explore why, in the UK, the homicide clear-up rate is a creditable 93% year on year and yet for rape is has traditionally been a horrific mere 6%.
The seventh, Dead Man’s Grip, was on the theme of a wholly innocent person being plunged into a nightmare not of their making; the eighth, Not Dead Yet, on the scary subject of celebrity obsession; Dead Man’s Time on the theme of revenge, and now Want You Dead, which like many of my books was inspired by a horrific true like stalking case, is on the theme of internet dating.

today in print