Peter James speaks with Hypable about the success of his long-standing Roy Grace crime novel series.
As an author of books like You Are Dead, which features a dangerous serial killer, Peter James has had plenty of interesting experiences and is, by extension, full of thrilling stories.
‘You Are Dead’ by Peter James
In Peter James’ You Are Dead, the last words Jamie Ball hears from his fiancée, Logan Somervile, are in a terrified mobile phone call from her. She has just driven into the underground car park beneath the apartment block where they live in Brighton, and seen a man acting strangely. Then she screams and the phone goes dead. The police are on the scene within minutes, but Logan has vanished, leaving behind her neatly parked car and cell phone.
That same afternoon, workmen digging up an old asphalt path in a park in another part of the city, unearth the remains of a young woman in her early twenties, who has probably been dead for 30 years.
At first, to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace and his Major Crime Team, these two events seem totally unconnected. But then another young woman in Brighton goes missing and another body from the past surfaces. At the same time a strange man visits an eminent London psychiatrist, claiming to have a piece of information on the missing woman, Logan, that turns out, at first, to be wrong-or so it seems. It is only later Roy Grace makes the chilling realization that this one thing is the key to both the past and the present-and now, beyond any doubt, he knows that Brighton has its first ever serial killer.
Interview with Peter James
Tell us five interesting facts about yourself.
1) I was once Orson Welles’ house cleaner.
2) My mother was glove-maker to the Queen.
3) I love motor racing, and own a number of historic cars that I race.
4) I was selected to train for the British Olympic Ski Team at 15 years old.
5) I once broke the Under 16s British 100 yards sprinting record.
What got you interested in the crime/mystery drama?
When I was 14 I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and this book totally changed my life. It is quite simply the book that made me realize I wanted to be a writer, the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is also the inspiration behind my setting the Roy Grace series in Brighton. This timeless novel is both a thriller and a crime novel, although police play a small part and the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the villains and two women who believe they can redeem them. Greene has a way of describing characters, in just a few sentences, that makes you feel you know them inside out and have probably met them, and his sense of “place” is almost palpable. It is for me an almost perfect novel. It has one of the most grabbing opening lines ever written (“Hale knew, within thirty minutes of arriving in Brighton, that they meant to kill him.”), and one of the finest last lines — very clever, very tantalizing and very, very “noir” — yet apt. Greene captures so vividly the dark, criminal underbelly of Brighton and Hove, as relevant now as when the book was first written, and the characters are wonderful, deeply human, deeply flawed and tragic. And yet, far more than being just an incredibly tense thriller, Greene uses the novel to explore big themes of religious faith, love and honor. And additionally, a bonus, it is also unique for being one of the few novels where the film adaptation is so good it complements rather than reduces the book. But it is not just Brighton Rock — I learn so much from Greene’s writing. I don’t think any writer before or after him has been able to create such vivid characters with so few words and description.
Is it difficult to make each book feel fresh and different?
I try to be innovative all the time with every description, metaphor, simile because I always want to raise the bar with every book I write, so, yes, it gets more difficult with each one! Also I have many threads and characters running through the series so that adds complexity. But I like writing about issues of our time and I have many, many more stories waiting to be written!
What’s the secret to such a long-lasting series?
I am a great believer in a balance between spontaneity and structure. By this I mean that whilst adhering to the basic framework, I think it is very important as a writer that I constantly surprise myself, because if I didn’t surprise myself then I wouldn’t be surprising my readers… For example, I am not afraid to kill characters off! I try to create characters that my readers will love — even the baddies.
Tell us what makes You Are Dead different from previous installments in this series.
It is the first novel I have written about a serial killer. I think we are fascinated by how the most seemingly normal people often are the most monstrous criminals. What is the difference between these people and ourselves? What is it that stops us doing the same — or makes them want to what they do? Are they hard-wired differently, or just brought up in some way that warped them? Or is there no difference at all? Could we be like them at some future point in our own lives? What would that feel like? Would we be able to live with our consciences?
We can understand the motives of many murderers. A partner who kills their loved one in a fit of jealous rage. A ruthless armed robber who shoots out of greed. The terrorist who kills out of warped ideology. The professional hit man who kills for a fee. The husband who buries his wife beneath the kitchen floor because he’s fallen in love with someone else. But it is the serial killer who intrigues and chills us the most. The person who kills for sheer pleasure or satisfaction, the gratification derived from the act, driven by a mindset that is sometimes beyond comprehension, sometimes alien — and always repugnant to decent human beings. And the scariest thing about most of these is their cunning — serial killers who get away with it for years — and sometimes decades — are often highly intelligent chameleons who blend into society, unsuspected by family and friends. America’s worst serial killer, Ted Bundy, who raped and killed 106 young women, was a handsome former law student who had worked for the Republican party. The U.K.’s worst serial killer ever was a jolly, bearded family doctor who just happened to like killing his patients and was very good at it, killing as many as 350.
In my research to create my central villain for this novel, I eventually singled out four names. These came from a catalog, hundreds of pages long, of murderers who have taken three or more lives at different times — the actual definition of a serial killer. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. Harold Shipman. Dennis Nilsen. What fascinated me about these was how, outwardly, they seemed very respectable men. Shipman was a well-loved family doctor. Nilsen was in the army, then a police officer, then Executive Officer for a Jobcentre. All four of these got away with their killings over many years. Each of them very nearly got away with it completely…
Have you ever considered writing in a different genre or for a different audience?
Over the years I’ve been a published author I have experimented with different genres. I began writing spy thrillers, then moved to supernatural thrillers, then to psychological thrillers, as well as a black comedy The Perfect Murder, which was turned into a hugely successful stage play, before turning to the crime thrillers that have been so successful, globally, for me. I am fascinated in the human condition and why people do the things that they do, and I find my crime thrillers are the best way I can study human behaviour. I have just started writing a religious themed thriller that has been a work-in-progress for 23 years, but after that I’ll return to crime, with an occasional ghost story as a change.
Do you have any interesting stories as a result of conducting research for your books?
During my research for my first Roy Grace novel Dead Simple, I was incarcerated in a coffin, with the lid screwed down, for 30 minutes. And I am very deeply claustrophobic… It was the most terrifying 30 minutes of my life! I asked the undertaker to leave me there alone, and I remember lying there, suddenly thinking what if he has a heart attack and drops dead! I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
About Peter James
I lived for 10 years in a very haunted Georgian manor house, near Ditchling, Sussex. It was converted from a monastery built on the site of Roman ruins, and had the ghost of a Centurion, a monk, a baby and a nasty, man-hating grey lady! Then moved to a group of converted farm buildings on a historic site outside Lewes, which were occupied by a whole bunch of ghosts of victims of the Battle of Lewes, but they were politely evicted. My Sussex home is now a Victorian rectory and so far ghost-free, as is my apartment in Notting Hill, London, on the site of a former cinema. No spectral screenings yet during the night, but always hoping…
In 1994, in addition to conventional print publishing, Penguin published my novel, Host, on two floppy discs, and it is now in the Science Museum as the world’s first electronic novel. It caused huge controversy, I was pilloried on the Radio 4 Today Programme for attempting to destroy the novel, and I was front page news on many papers around the globe, all equally furious! In the immediate following years I became a media spokesperson for the electronic publishing age, and in 1996 found myself as a keynote speaker at a conference at UCLA on the future of reading, alongside (gulp) Steve Jobs and the CEO of Time Warner!