Peter James – Research? I’m dead serious

Peter James – Research? I’m dead serious

Peter James is a bestselling crime writer who takes his preparatory fieldwork to alarming limits. By Jenni Frazer.

As benefits a crime writer, Peter James’s London flat is a mystery. try as you might, you will not see a regulation front door, hall or porter. Instead, there is a gate, which gives out mixed signals: might this be the way in, or is it a disused tradesman’s entrance? You have to get up close to discover the secret of getting in and, once inside, the unwary visitor has to battle with a lift which would not look out of place in a run-down council block, rather than the bijou apartments it serves.

Since there is a truly horrible scene in his latest book, Dead Man’s Footsteps, which takes place in a lift, one is entitled to wonder, and the answer comes straight away. “Yes”, says James with relish, “I based that scene on that lift, it’s awful, isn’t it?” He’s grinning as he says this and that may well be the secret of his success: he is warm and cheerful and, at 60, retains an almost boyish enthusiasm for his work, which encompasses television, cinema (he was a producer on al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice), and the bestselling roy Grace thrillers.

James’s enthusiasm for research can sometimes be perhaps a tad too strong. In his first Roy Grace book, Dead Simple, he places one of his protagonists in a stag night that goes horridly wrong when his “friends” put him in a coffin and leave him there. these are scenes that one reads with mounting anxiety but James himself, a self-confessed claustrophobic, says: “I wanted to know… I went to an undertaker and asked not only if they would put me in a coffin, but if they would screw the lid down and leave me there for half-an-hour. and I was going bonkers. I kept thinking: What if the undertaker drops dead? no one would know I was in here. but I do like to do the research.”

James’s meticulous research has given him a unique insight for a crime writer. He has a close association with the police, to the extent that he is able to accompany them on their daily rounds. this gives his books an unparalleled authenticity. (and if you ever wondered, the police’s most hated cases are “domestics”.)

Grace, his fictional detective, based in Brighton (where James himself lives when not in London), is now on his fourth outing and the new book examines what lies at the heart of all crime fiction: questions of identity. not only does one of his villains reinvent himself, taking advantage of the chaos that resulted from the tragedy of 9/11, but so does the book’s slightly dodgy heroine. and James has a surprise for readers who have been wondering, since the first book in the series, quite what did become of Roy Grace’s wife, Sandy.

James, who is currently in discussions to turn the Roy Grace books into a TV series, has a fascinating identity story in his own background. His father, an Anglican chartered accountant, was married to the Queen’s glovemaker, Cordelia James, a Jewish refugee from Nazism. as a schoolboy at Charterhouse, James was bewildered to be picked on as Jewish, because he barely knew anything about his mother’s background, and it took him a long time to get her to acknowledge the Jewish part of his family.

But for James, being Jewish is a matter for celebration and, he freely acknowledges, it was “a huge advantage” in kicking off his film career in America. His first encounter with the rest of his Jewish family was in Toronto, when he was 22. It was, he says, a revelation. He arrived on a Friday night to find a beautifully set Shabbat table and a family who “welcomed me with open arms… they couldn’t believe my mother hadn’t told me anything.”

His background, James says, “has left me deeply interested in prejudice”. although he hasn’t yet brought his family’s Holocaust survival into his books, he does plan to eventually.

In the meantime, watch out for an entertaining twist in book number five in the Roy Grace series. there will, inevitably, be some dastardly torture, although James, being a warm, friendly Jewish man, admits he even has a soft spot for his villains

Dead Man’s Footsteps by Peter James is published by Macmillan at £16.99

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  • 27 June, 2008