When the Charterhouse school poetry prize was won in 1967 by teenager named Peter James, the real winner was the reading public. Today, he’s the author of 38 novels, including 16 in his popular Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, and two nonfiction works. Novels by the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author have been translated into 37 languages. In addition to a stellar career in the book world, James has had a long and successful run in television–having produced, written, and/or created more than 25 shows. He’s won more than 40 awards, including a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons of which he was executive producer. His new DS Roy Grace novel, Find Them Dead, debuted July 9. When he’s not racing up the bestseller charts, he likes to take laps at the racetrack in one of his three vintage cars, including a 1965 BMW 1800 Ti–followed, of course, by a great meal and wine with friends.
Currents: In Find Them Dead, while Roy Grace is dealing with the advancing scourge of county line drug expansion, your character Meg Magellan is handed a terrible choice to make. Tell us about this.
Peter: We meet Meg, a widow of five years, just as her 18-year-old daughter, Laura, is leaving for her gap year in South America. Meg is excited for Laura, but worried about how much she’s going to miss her–her daughter is Meg’s whole world. So, it seems like a good thing when Meg receives a summons for jury service: it might be interesting and will help distract her from her constant worries about Laura. Unfortunately, the criminal on trial isn’t going to go quietly… Just a few days into jury service, Meg arrives home to find a photograph of Laura, in Ecuador, lying on her kitchen table. Threats follow, and Meg must make a decision about how far she will go to protect her daughter.
Currents: You take research for your books seriously–very. In hindsight, what’s the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of research?
Peter: That would have to be the time that I spent 30 minutes inside a coffin in order to write Dead Simple. I had the guy screw the lid on, as I thought it was important to genuinely experience the claustrophobia. It was the scariest 30 minutes of my life. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen to me if there was some kind of freak accident, or the guy who was supposed to get me out dropped dead. Thankfully, all was fine, and I lived to tell the tale!
Currents: Your true crime book Babes in the Woods, which came out in February, is about the successful prosecution of one of Great Britain’s most dangerous paedophilic psychopaths. About this project, you’ve said that a criminal trial isn’t about finding the truth, it’s only about the question of proof. Writing true crime demands an emotional investment of the author. How did writing this book impact you?
Peter: It’s definitely a very different process, and I agree that the emotional investment is far greater. I have such strong feelings about that case–I remember clearly how sick I felt about Bishop walking free in 1987, when everyone knew he’d done it. I continue to feel shocked about how easy it was for a killer to be acquitted. The other big difference with writing about real cases is that you must be very careful not to glamourize or sensationalize the crime or the criminals, as you might do in fiction.
Currents: Like your character Roy Grace, you’re interested in the paranormal. Your novel The House on Cold Hill and its sequel, The Secret of Cold Hill, are seriously scary. Does writing paranormal open different avenues of creativity for you, and how does writing a ghost story differ from a traditional mystery?
Peter: Writing about the paranormal gives you so much freedom–that’s what I’ve always loved about ghost stories. You can take them wherever you want; there are fewer limitations. I’m lucky to have plenty of experience to draw on, having lived in two haunted houses. Ghosts are one of our great mysteries–we still can’t explain them. Are they conscious? Are they imprints of energy? Are they capable of action? If we knew the answers, it would change everything, and I think that’s why we’re so obsessed with them.
Currents: Let’s say, a cunning psychopath is plying his trade on Roy Grace’s patch. He can have five fictional detectives join him on a special taskforce. Who makes up his murder investigation team, and why?
Peter: Good question! I would choose Sherlock Holmes, of course, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Val McDermid’s psychological profiler Tony Hill, Morse, and Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. I think that’s a good mix of expertise!
Currents: You’ve said that the police are the glue that holds a society together. Although most crime writers have a special relationship with law enforcement, please tell us about your support of the Sussex Police Charitable Trust.
Peter: The head of the Met Police once told me that wearing a uniform doesn’t protect you from trauma, and it’s so true. The police have to do some of the most incredibly distressing things in their line of work, from knocking on someone’s door to deliver the news that a loved one has died to being first on the scene of a violent crime, sometimes where children have been the victims. This, of course, leaves its scars. They deserve our support in their time of need.
Currents: What’s next for your fans and devotees of Roy Grace?
Peter: I’m hugely excited that ITV are currently adapting the first two of my Roy Grace books, Dead Simple and Looking Good Dead, for TV. John Simm will be playing Roy, which I’m delighted about as he truly does look like the Roy Grace of my imagination, and the hugely talented Russell Lewis, creator of Endeavour, has done the scripts. It’s a dream team. There’s also the stage play of Looking Good Dead which will begin touring in March, and I’m already hard at work on the next novel!
To learn more about Peter James, visit his website at www.peterjames.com