An Interview with Peter James, Crime Writer

Peter James

Peter James

Peter James is an internationally best-selling crime fiction novelist, whose work has been translated into 28 languages. He was in India to promote his newest book, Dead Like You, featuring his popular police detective, Roy Grace. He’s also an active blogger, writing regularly about his research and about book at his blog. We caught up with him and had a chat about his work, his characters, and his influences – and the books that he’d count as must-reads in Crime Fiction!

Q. Maybe you could start by talking a bit about your Roy Grace series and how you started working on it?

Sure. When I was a child, I always loved detective fiction. I remember, when I was about eight, I read my first short Holmes story. I was  amazed at Sherlock Holmes and his powers of observation. And I thought that one day I want to create a detective who’s as smart as that. And then I read Graham Greene’s novel <i>Brighton Rock</i> – and I grew up in Brighton, and the book just blew me away. I was fourteen when I read it, and I thought, one day I want to write a book set in Brighton, a crime novel, maybe ten percent as good as Brighton Rock. I actually wrote a number of other kinds of thrillers, for many years, and during that time i got to know the police very well.

Dead Like You

Dead Like You

It started when I got burgled (laughs). A young detective came to my house, and said, “Is that your book?”, and I said, yes, and he offered to help me with my research. And my wife and I got friendly with him and his wife, and we started meeting their friends, and then realized that all their friends were police. It’s a completely inclusive world, it’s like us and them. I got fascinated by the idea that they look at the world differently. They’ve got a healthy culture of suspicion. If you and I took a walk down the street now, and we saw two guys looking in a shop window, you’d think nothing of them. The police would think, what in the world are they up to?

And, about fifteen years ago, I met a detective by the name of Dave Gaylor. I went to his office, and it was full of crates, stacked with crates, filled with folders. I asked him what they were, and he said, “These are my dead friends.” He explained that he’d been put in charge of cold cases. “Each of these boxes contains the files for an unsolved murder. I am the last chance the victim has for justice. I am the last chance the family has for closure.” He asked me what I was writing, and I told him about my book. We became very good friends. And from that point onwards, whatever I put down in my books, I would discuss it with him.  Good detectives actually have creative brains.

Then nine years ago, Macmillan approached my agent, and asked whether I could have a go at writing a crime novel. It was something I always wanted to do, but I thought there were too many people writing crime, and there wasn’t any opening in the market. Anyway, they asked if I’d like to create a new detective. So I went to Dave Gaylor, and I said to him, how do you feel about being a fictional detective? He is my real-life Roy Grace, he rose to become Detective Chief Superintendent, Head of Major Crime, and every one of my Grace novels, I discuss with him. He reads every hundred pages, and tells me how Roy Grace would think, as a detective. He’s an invaluable resource.

And that’s how I came to make Roy Grace.

Q. You’ve probably been asked that question 30 times earlier.

No problem.

But tell me this. Roy Grace does have a belief in the supernatural. And there are points in the story where he is stuck, and cannot go ahead, and at that point you introduce this supernatural element – a medium, or someone who picks up a bracelet or a map and solves the problem. Do you feel you are taking a shortcut, by introducing a supernatural solution to a problem that, otherwise he would have had to solve by himself?

Dead Simple

Dead Simple

Well, I’d only in one book used a supernatural solution, and that in a small way, which is the end of Dead Simple, in terms of finding an address. Now, I have a personal interest in the supernatural, I’ve lived in two haunted houses. But, what’s interesting is that although the police are seen to be very cynical, lots of good police officers, good detectives, if everything else fails, they’ll try listening to  mediums who say they know something. They won’t take it seriously – not all of them, but a percentage of them. I have met police officers who had the experience – that’s why I used it in the book – of a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped. For six weeks the police could not find her. And then a medium told the police, “I know where she is.  I’ve been dowsing with a pendulum on a map.” And she told them, and they went there, and she was there. She was dead, she was down a storm drain. And I know a detective who was told the address of a murderer he was looking for, by a medium. And he got him at the address. So… but I’ve only used it once, in one book. I had it there, with Roy Grace was more interested in it in terms of finding his missing wife. But I will at some point have more about it in a future book.

You’ve written in multiple genres. I read in earlier interviews that you were at one time billed as the ‘British Stephen King’, and then you shifted to writing detective fiction. So you’ve done horror, you’ve done thrillers, and some of your books had elements of sci-fi in them. These are all what are popularly called ‘genre fiction’, and they’re kind of ghettoised, and only people who follow a particular genre read those books.  Do you feel that is an invisible line between the so-called ‘genre fiction’ and the so-called ‘literary fiction’?

Yes, I feel this is a terrible trend. Book stores always want to put books in a particular category – “Oh, that’s horror, that’s literary fiction, that’s science fiction, that’s crime.” But I think it’s rubbish, because good writing is good writing . A good story is a good story. This is something I really feel strongly about – I’ve just been made Chairman of the Crime Writer’s Association of the UK, and I’m going to use my office to hammer this. Because if you look at the history of literature, I think that almost every great writer, if he were writing today, he would be writing crime novels. Or maybe horror novels, or maybe science fiction. Take Shakespeare, for example. He wrote plays, because at that time people didn’t buy books – they watched plays. Over half of Shakespeare’s plays have a courtroom scene in them. If he’d written Hamlet as a novel, it would be a crime novel. King Lear, Macbeth… if you go back to the ancient Greeks, all their plays were about murder, intrigue, deception – they’d all be writing crime novels today. Or supernatural thrillers or science fiction. Even within a genre, a good writer is a good writer.

There’s this tremendous literary fiction snobbery like [with an accent] “Ehh, if a book, any book wants to make you turn the page, it can’t be worth reading.”

Q. Yes, and in fact, some of the best writers have written both kinds of books.

Yes, there’s an English writer called John Banville, who wrote ‘The Sea’, and he writes crime fiction under the name of Benjamin Black. And he was asked, why do you write crime fiction, and he answered something like, “I did it so I could earn some money.” How F..king insulting is that?

Good crime fiction – I think is the best kind of fiction to examine and to understand the way the world in which we live. The police – what they see in the course of a day or a week or a year or a career, reveals every facet of human nature, more than any other profession.

Q. Do you also feel crime fiction as a genre has evolved over the past couple of decades? I don’t know whether we’d really call Agatha Christie’s books as crime fiction, they’re cozy and comfortable. Police procedurals are really popular today, but earlier, Chandler and the like, the books were all about a lone ranger trying to sniff out crime, and today it’s the system itself that is represented in these novels.

Yeah, I think what happened is that the old books, like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christies, the Chandlers, the idea of the private detective doesn’t work any more, because now, so much of policing is about forensics. You have to have the on-site detective. The idea of Miss Marple turning up today and solving the crime’s not going to happen. They wouldn’t be allowed near the crime scene anyway. They might be writing the psychological profile maybe. So I think the involvement of policing has changed.

And if you take the ending of any Agatha Christie novel, and today, we’d have someone saying, okay, I’m the defense lawyer, show me the forensic evidence. [laughs]

Q. Do you consider yourself as an ambassador for the police? You’re quite closely associated with them and are writing about them, really.

Yes, I have a great relationship with the Sussex police, and I donated them a car that they use. And the Met Police in London, sometimes on drug raids and such, invites me to be with them. What’s interesting about raids is seeing the people –  going into somebody’s house and seeing the way they live. I’ve been with the police in Russia, Germany, the States, Australia… quite a lot of countries. And I feel that the police are the glue that hold civilized society together. You get good and bad cops, but I think, on the whole, most police officers are good people.

Every police officer, sometime in his career, is going to have his life on the line. He turns up in the morning, knowing that he might have a guy pointing a gun at him, or a sword or a dagger, but the good ones actually make a difference. They’re not just about locking up criminals, some of them actually try to change criminals, try to help them, they’re more into social service than most people realize.

Q. I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences once you come to India and spend some time with the police here.

I’d be fascinated to go.

Q. Do you feel crime thrillers as a genre splitting up among countries? Scandinavian Crime Fiction is the rage now – Stieg Larsson started that. Is that stream different from say, American or British Crime Fiction now?

I feel there’s a certain difference. You take the classic English crime novel – you start with the body, and the book is the puzzle, you solve it. That’s the format. Scandinavian writing – Stieg Larsson is a kind of exception – but you take, say Jo Nesbo, Inger Frimansson, or [Henning] Mankell, you’ve got a different location, but similar principles. Frankly I’m getting pretty bored with Scandinavian crime fiction – my girlfriend is Swedish. She discovered Stieg Larsson in Swedish, four years before anyone translated him. But I find all of them the dreariest stuff, never really liked them.

I like the American ones, I’ve always liked them. When I was in my teens, after I’d read Brighton Rock, I read Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald – his Travis McGee character, I read Chandler, I read Joseph Wambaugh, and more recently Michael Connelly. They’re my influences, far more than the British. I find the British dull. Very rarely do I go ‘wow!’

Q. That’s a good segue into our next topic – to create a list of the best british crime books that made you go ‘wow!’

Only British? Not American?

Q. Let’s start with British.

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock

Well, number one is Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. That is the best crime novel ever written. I think The Silence of the Lambs is second-best. But Brighton Rock is… Then there’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I love. And Holmes generally, as a character. I think Ian Rankin is a very good writer. I like pretty much all his books a lot. In terms of other British writers, I run out of steam pretty damn fast. The ones I mentioned are the ones I wish I’d written – I wish I’d written Brighton Rock, I wish I’d written Hound of the Baskervilles. I wish I’d written the whole of Ed McBain’s body of work. Elmore Leonard I love. In terms of the Brits… Val McDermid has written some very good books – the one about the torture chamber was a clever book.

Q. How about Americans – what are your top 6 American crime fiction books? You mentioned The Silence of the Lambs, for example.

Yes… My list would be:

First, The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris

Then there’s Get Shorty (Elmore Leonard).

Ed McBain’s The Con Man.

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly.

Harlan Coben’s Tell No One.

And, if it counts as a crime novel, I’d like to add Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. That’s a literary novel, but yeah…

The Silence Of the Lambs

Q. My co-founder had this one burning question that he wanted to ask As a crime writer, as someone who studies crime, have you ever felt really impressed by a criminal? “Wow, that guy’s really smart!”

Oh yeah, a few times. One time I was at Broadmoor, which is Britain’s number one criminal insane asylum. To be invited as a guest, you have be certified criminally insane. It took me a year before I could get in, and when I was in there, I started talking to this guy. He was wearing a suit, a tie and he was doing christmas cards – this was just before christmas. And I did meet the officers there and I asked them who he was, what he did. I thought he might be a writer or something. They told me he’d wanted to become a woman, so he murdered his girlfriend, cut off her breasts and sewn them onto his own chest.(!)

That really shook me for a long time, that I’d actually had a conversation with him and never realized it.

Then once I was talking to a guy who was a career burglar specialized in high-end robberies. He’d also been convicted of Rape, and he was telling me about how burglars become rapists. When they’re burgling, they get more confident – one day they smell the perfume, feel the underwear, then when someone comes into the house, they run off. And they think, “well, next time, I’m going to get that one.” Because a lot of time, Rape is about Power more than sex. So this guy was telling me his story. He was about 42 years old, but looked about 60, because prison ages you. I asked him whether he had a dream. He said, he’d love to get married again, have a kid, a nice house, a car. But, he said, that wasn’t going to happen. I asked, why not? You’re only 42. He says, I have a 175 previous convictions, no one’s going to give me a job. “And anyway”, he said, “I’m okay here. I’ve got telly. The electricity’s paid for. The food’s nice, I’ve got my friends.” It’s like he’s institutionalized.

I had a very spooky moment, about 3 weeks ago, when I was talking at a women’s prison. This is a serious women’s prison – they have a serial killer who, along with her husband killed 27 people. Anyway, there was this one woman there, and she was asking very good questions. And I went and talked to her afterwards, and asked her what she was here for. I thought maybe she was here for some little fight or something. She goes, [talks with an accent]”Well, I swindled my mother-in-law, the old bag, and then I realized my husband was going to find out, so I poisoned him.”

Q. I’ve noticed you do this quite a bit – you take on the accent when you’re quoting people. Do you pay a lot of attention to this? Even in the books – in the first book, Dead Simple, you have a character who speaks with different American accents. Roy Grace tries to always place people by their accents.

I think it’s really important – accents and mannerisms really define people, and dialogue in books is really really important.

Do you consciously try to be British in your writing style (if there is such a thing)?

Not really – if anything, I just try to be me in my writing style. I think the world has become less and less boundary-wise anyway. So I use whatever words I think of – for instance, Brits woul’d say, “getting in the lift”, but I’d say “elevator”, which is American.

Q. I was looking through your blog today, and would like to ask about some folks you mention on it. First: Lee Child. What do you think of his writing?

I like his writing, and actually I like him too. He’s a really nice guy. And we have a lot of things in common – we were talking just before Christmas, in New York, about Posterity. I said, “Jeffrey Archer once said that it won’t be Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie that they read in a hundred years time, it’ll be me.” And Lee said, “Actually I wouldn’t want them to be reading me in a hundred years time, I want them to be reading new books then.” I thought that was a very interesting comment.

Q. Tell us about Al Pacino [Mr. James is also a film producer, and Pacino acted in his production of The Merchant of Venice].

I’m not a big fan of movie stars generally. But Al is a delight. I played poker with him in New York. And then I went to dinner with my girlfriend and we were with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes in a resturant, and when we came away from the table, I’d forgotten that we were in the presence of a big star. He’s fun, he just puts you at ease. When we did The Merchant of Venice, he did it for a fraction of his normal fee, because he really wanted to do it, but he gave big tips to all the crew who were around him. I couldn’t say enough about him, he’s an absolute delight to work with.

Q. How about P.D. James and Ruth Rendell? They’re the more traditional crime writers.

I’ve met P.D. James several times, she’s very sweet, she’s a nice lady, over 80 now, very sharp, though. Ruth Rendell I have not met.

Q. You used to write horror novels, as we discussed. Who would you rate as the best British horror writers today?

Shrine

Shrine

There are not many actually writing today – horror has gone out of fashion nowadays. But – James Herbert is very good. He’s one of my best friends, too. Then there’s Michael Marshall Smith. Can’t really think of any more at this point – most them are now working for television. Of course, the top player in this genre is Stephen King. His books are good because he writes great characters.

You mentioned earlier that your detectives are based on real people. Do you do the same for your villains as well?

Yes, every character I write is based on someone I’ve met, with modifications. For instance, I’ve met you, I might put you in my book, but you’d be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon or a waiter.

Q. Thank you, Mr. James, for your time and your recommendations.

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