ABC Talks To: Crime author Peter James

Peter James is the author of 25 books (so far), the most recent of which are a highly successful series of crime novels set in the seaside town of Brighton. He’s also a film producer and scriptwriter and has worked on films ranging from children’s adventure movie Biggles to a BAFTA-winning adaption of The Merchant of Venice.

In his spare time, Mr James leads a life that itself seems to come from the pages of a thriller: he lives in  a haunted house, races cars, skis, owns a WWII bomber, has owned Aston Martins (but seems to have grudgingly given up on them for the time being) and, of course, his tipple of choice is a Martini.

We asked Mr James a few questions and he was kind enough to send us his thoughtful and entertaining answers, even after his computer crashed and he lost our e-mail. Also, he answered Tiemen’s zombie question, which makes him one of our favorite authors. 🙂

The parts of your books that deal with police procedures are written with great authority, which I know comes from the time you regularly spend with police. Can you tell us about the research you did specifically for this new book?

Dead Like You was inspired by a really chilling rape case: I was at a lecture four years ago given by the Senior Investigating Officer on serial rape case:  Between 1983 – 1987 a man in South Yorkshire, England, dubbed The Rotherham Shoe Rapist brutally raped a series of women in the Rotherham and Barnsley area.  He would strike late at night as they were leaving pubs or nightclubs, truss them up, and after he had finished, would take their shoes as trophies.  Suddenly, he stopped offending, and the trail went cold.

In 2003 a woman in the Rotherham area was stopped for drink-driving and as is standard procedure, her DNA was taken.  There was a familial – partial – match with the rapist.  The police went to see her and asked her if she had a brother.  She replied that she did, James Lloyd, but he could not possible be their man as he was a very successful and respectable businessman.  When the police had gone she phoned her brother and told him about this strange visit.  That night he tried to hang himself in his garage. 

James Lloyd was 47, nice looking, the manager of a large printing company, a freemason, married with two kids who adored him, and generally a pillar of his community.  When they police raided his office the next day, they found a trapdoor beneath the carpet, under which was a cache of 126 stiletto heeled shoes in cellophane.

I was captivated by this story – because I found it so chilling.  I’ve always been fascinated by how the most seemingly normal  people often are the most monstrous criminals.  The UK’s worst ever serial killer, Dr Harold Shipman, being a classic example, but there are many more.  James Lloyd fitted this mold exactly.  I was also interested to explore how attitudes in the police toward rape have change dramatically in the past decade, yet still rape has an appalling clear-up rate, large because so few victims actually report it.  The clear-up rate for murder in the UK is 98%, for rape it is just 6%.

I also realized by having two time frames in the book – now and 12 years back, I would have the opportunity to show a little more of Roy Grace’s life when he was with Sandy, before she disappeared – and also to show for the first time, a little of their life together through her eyes…

For my research, I spent time with the Police Rape Prevention team, and also with a number of counselors who work with the victims of rape, and I talked to a number of rape victims themselves. Also I learned that one of the groups of people who turn into rapists are house burglars – who get progressively more confident and aggressive, and I spent time in prisons talking to some of these characters. I try always to write from three perspectives – that of the victim, that of the police investigtion team and that of the perpetrator. To do that I need to understand each of their perspectives.

One of the main characters struck me from the first pages, instantly recognizable as someone with autistic traits. I loved the way you wrote about his rituals, and the conversations with the people in his taxi. How did you manage to write that so authentically?

Firstly, thank you! I was approached three years ago by a journalist friend who has an autistic daughter, with Aspergers, and she told me I might find this an interesting area to write about. Then I discovered a couple more friends who had similarly afflicted children and one with a brother with the same condition. There is a broad autism spectrum with people at one end able to function fairly acceptably, and at the other end, where they are institutionalized. I went to a psychologist specializing in this field and she told me that one of the traits of Aspergers is an assumption that everyone else will be interested in the thing you are interested in. She also told me that they can be obsessively methodical, so one area where they can function out in the world very well is anything involving dealing with figures/numbers/measurements.

I was then taken to spend a day at a famous home for autistics, near Brighton, called Holyrood House. There I was taken up to meet a 35 year old man, who was very pleasant, very boyish looking. He greeted me by asking, “Do you have a low flush or high flush toilet in your home?” After a moment’s thought, I told him they were all “low flush” toilets. He then, very sternly, asked me, “Why?” I explained because they had been there when we bought the house. He then proudly pointed at the wall, where there were five lavatory chains, hanging from working mechanisms, all in beautiful condition, and started going on about his collection of 250 of these – explaining he kept the best ones hidden in case anyone tried to steal them. After some minutes of exuberantly telling me about every kind of toilet chain under the sun, he broke off, explaining he had to have his half-hourly flask of tea. Then with a dark expression he told me this made his life very difficult, as he could not go anywhere unless he had his tea with him… When I left this guy’s room, I knew I had the character of Yac!

You were way ahead of the e-book trend. One of your novels  was published in Germany on a format for mobile phones. That format is picking up now in Africa I believe. And another of your books, Host, was the first to be published on CDROM way back in 1994. There were critics at the time – you were accused of killing the novel – but you were proved more than right in the end. Please feel free to use this forum to gloat about your prescience! And perhaps tell us your views on the future of books?

It was funny when Host came out – it was published here by Penguin in print and as “The World’s First Electronic Novel” on two floppy discs for both Mac and PC platforms. It had lots of extras, such as we are seeing today, you could click on key words and see specific details about my research and at the end of the book, there was a very short film of me speaking to the readers. You are right, there was massive press, and in addition to being accused of causing the death of the novel, I became the instant world authority on the future of the novel!!!! I guess for no other reason that I was the only author to have published electronically. I remember two years later finding myself giving a keynote speech at a convention on the future of the novel at UCLA’s Westwood campus in California and discovered that my fellow speakers included Steve Jobs and the CEO of Time Warner! I said at that conference that the day the electronic book started to take over from the printed book would be when it was in a nicer and more convenient form to read. Well, that is starting, very slowly, to happen now:

The convenience of something like an iPad, or Kindle or Sony eReader where you can take dozens of books with you, alter the print size, is terrific, but they are still limited: For instance you don’t want to read them on a beach when you are covered in sun lotion, or in a bathtub, and, most infuriating of all, you have to keep them switched off for long periods of time during take-off and landing on aeroplanes – the very time when most of us want to be distracted by reading! So for now the printed book still rules, and it will continue to dominate until an electronic book appears that is waterproof, suntan lotion proof and bossy airline steward-proof!

You have an extensive background in film and television. Perhaps because of this, your Grace books, with their real-life characters, read just like a really great TV drama series. I was disappointed that the planned two-part movie on ITV a few years ago fell victim to budget cuts. Are there any other plans to bring Grace to the screen?

Yes, I am working on bringing Roy Grace to the screen at the moment and am exploring several options, which include both making Dead Simple as a movie, and making the series for television. On of the main reasons for the delay is that I am determined that when films or tv dramas are made of my Roy Grace books, that I have a strong degree of creative control. I’ve have three of my earlier books filmed and I was not happy with the finished result of any of them. I am determined to bring Roy Grace to the screen in a manner that does credit to the books, and I will hold out for however long that takes. Realistically I expect to see the first Roy Grace screen appearance early in 2012.

Many people feel that they could write a book. Not many do, and most of them never make it over the hurdle of writing the first sentence. How do you start writing a new book?

I always start with a theme that interests me – if you look at the Roy Grace series, at its heart Dead Simple is about the loyalty of friends – who can you really trust in life. Looking Good Dead is just how badly wrong doing a good deed can go… Dead Like You is on the subject of rape. When I have decided on my theme, I then come up with my basic storyline – it may be something I have heard about, such as the Rotherham Shoe Rapist, and which has intrigued me, or the world shortage of human organs (Dead Tomorrow). I then decide on my principal characters outside of my police cast. Then I map out the first twenty percent in some detail, and the very ending, so that I have a kind of “road map”. Then I do my first major tranche of research. After that, I spend several weeks on that crucial first chapter. For me, the first sentence of a novel, followed by the first page, are the most crucial of all. I am always mindful of how I can hook someone who is browsing in a book shop, who glances at the first page….

You have a healthy disregard for literary fiction and the prizes dished out for it, preferring books to be readable and engaging. Which author would you give a prize to?

I would give my big prize to Graham Greene every time. He was a writer who knew how to create terrific characters in just a few lines, people you knew you would instantly recognize in the street. He wrote gripping, page turning books with very little “fat” in them, and dealt with so many of the big human emotions and themes of life. He wrote what I still consider to be among the most grabbng first lines ever written, in Brighton Rock: “Within thirty minutes of arriving in Brighton, Hale knew they meant to murder him.” I defy anyone to not want to read on!!!

You get a lot of your information from contacts inside the world of law enforcement. Are there any stories you’ve gathered from them that you liked but which you could never use?

Not so much stories that I could never use, but certain covert police techniques. I am giving almost completely open access to the Sussex Police, but the expectation from them is that if they ask me to keep something a secret and not write about it, then I do. One such example, currently, is their surveillance methods, some details of which I omit. Another example was, a few years ago, the fact that they used deaf and dumb people on long-distance surveillance – for example watching a drug deal taking place a mile away, through binoculars or a telescope and being able to lip read what the dealers were saying to each other. I was asked to keep this secret for a number of years, but it is out in the public domain now, so that is fine.

I guess there will forever be a game between the good guys and the bad guys, such as cops and villains, the spys and state enemies, with one always striving to be one up on the other.

In the case of a worldwide Zombie Apocalypse, what would be your weapon of choice and mode of transportation?

Oh well, if I was going to meet my fate, I would do it in style, so I guess the mode of transport would have to be an Aston Martin and my weapon would be a book, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I would read the book in those last moments to make me smile, and then I would hurl it at the Zombies and hope I hurt one of them. Vonnegut would have approved. He wrote about alien invasions of earth where the aliens got it all wrong, had out of date weapons and totally misunderstood earthlings. And as I hurled the book I would take solace in his wonderful words: I don’t know what is going on and I guess I’m not smart enough to understand if someone were to explain it to me. I think we are being tested by someone or some thing that is a whole lot smarter than us, and all I can do is hang around and try to be calm and friendly, and have a nice time until it’s over.

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