In conversation with
the bestselling crime author talks to Fanny Blake about his new novel, Need You Dead, his love of racing cars and his real-life research with the police
Peter James, the bestselling crime author
“I wrote a comedy that did so badly, I decided to turn back to novels”
Peter lives with his wife, Lara, near Brighton and in London’s Notting Hill. They have three dogs, five alpacas, three emus plus hens and Indian runner ducks. Peter has written 30 novels, including 13 in the international superselling DS Roy Grace series.
My mum, Cornelia James, was the Queen’s glove maker. She was a refugee from Vienna, studying fashion design before the war. Afterwards, in 1945, there were no brightly coloured clothes available so she dyed a range of gloves in 100 shades. Vogue called her the “Colour Queen of england”. Hardy Amies asked her to make Princess elizabeth’s going-away gloves in 1947. that shot her to stardom. when mum’s business took off, my father, a chartered accountant, joined up with her. My sister, Genevieve, and her husband run the business today. As a child I was embarrassed having a mother who was such a well-known figure. My parents travelled constantly and we had a live-in cook, a maid and a full-time nanny. i wished i could be like other kids; it was a lonely childhood. i found solace in reading. Later, i became immensely proud of her and we became good mates for the last 20 years of her life.
Right from the earliest I can remember, I wanted to do three things: write books, make films and race cars. Books were a big influence on me, and i was obsessed with cars from the age of two, when i fell out of my dad’s car. I started entering writing competitions when I was about seven. i won several prizes during my school years and then, at 19, i wrote my first novel, which, luckily, didn’t get published. neither did the next two!
After film school I went to Toronto and got a job as a runner on a daily programme for children. i ended up writing for them. that was my real starting point. then i got involved in producing horror films – until i wrote and produced a comedy that did so badly, i decided to turn back to novels!
I wrote a spy thriller called Dead Letter Drop. That got me an agent and, to my amazement, a publisher. then i met the novelist elizabeth
Buchan, who said if i wanted to be successful, i should write about something i felt passionately about. i went away chastened.
When my wife and I got burgled, a young detective came to the house. He saw my early books and offered to help me with research. we became friends, and i got to know his colleagues and found them absolutely fascinating. nobody sees more of human life in a 30-year career than a police officer.
I started writing psychological thrillers such as Twilight and Possession. In so doing, I was spending more and more time with the police. i was introduced to dave Gaylor, a homicide detective who has worked with me ever since on all the roy Grace thrillers. each time, i get a new moleskin notebook, we go to a particular table at a local pub and sit down to talk through the plot. i go away and write the first 100 pages, he reads them and tells me how roy Grace would think and act in real life.
Although there’s a lot of me in Roy Grace, I don’t know that I would be brave enough to be a policeman. i ask every copper i meet if they’ve ever had to put their life on the line during their career. i can count on the fingers of one hand the number who have said “no”.
My 13th Roy Grace novel, Need You Dead, is about a woman hairdresser in an abusive marriage. Her secret lover has promised they will start a new life together. But a chance photograph on a client’s mobile changes all that. when her body is found in a bath in a flat on Hove seafront, dS roy Grace is called in to investigate and that’s when it all kicks off.
One of its inspirations came from listening in to a police call handler in San Francisco. A call came in from a terrified woman saying her ex was trying to break into the house. She was locked in the bedroom, but we could hear the hammering. She was screaming, then we heard the door being kicked in and “blam, blam, blam” – she was shot dead. After that, i wanted to write something around such a moment of terror.
Another was going with the police to visit a woman who had been assaulted by her live-in lover. She said that she couldn’t leave him because he was the only one who knew how to look after the tropical fish! when we were leaving, the female officer told me what a terrifying number of people are broken by their partner in a domestic-abuse situation. they have no sense of self-worth and feel that if they end the relationship, they’ll be on their own for the rest of their lives, so they’ll put up with anything just to stay.
All the Roy Grace books are set in Brighton. When I was a kid growing up there, it was a seedy, slightly dangerous place. that has a lot going for it if you’re a crime writer. it’s the only place in the uK where a serving chief constable was murdered in office. three chief constables have told me that it’s the favourite place to live in the uK for first division criminals, and in 1932 it was called the crime capital of the uK and the murder capital of europe.
The most frightening thing I’ve done in the name of research was being nailed up in a coffin. i asked a local funeral director if he could put me in a coffin, screw the lid down and leave me there for 30 minutes so i would really have the sense of being trapped. i heard the screws go in and i lay there thinking, “what if he goes out to get a coffee and gets hit by a car?” that was the longest 30 minutes of my life. My biggest relaxation is my mad passion for motor racing. i own three classic race cars and compete in about half a dozen classic car motor races a year. doing any other sport, i still think about the book i’m working on but when i’m racing, doing 130 miles an hour down the Hangar Straight at Silverstone, i have to concentrate on what i’m doing. then i come back from a weekend’s motor racing completely refreshed.
Lara and I first met on a ski lift in Courchevel. Some months later, she invited me to a skiing reunion. we were both newly single and that was it. we got married two years later in 2015, with celebrations in France and england. My long-time collaborator dave Gaylor was my best man.
I have always loved animals.
As a child I had all kinds of pets, and Lara shares my love of animals. we decided to build up a menagerie of animals that interested us. they are a very convenient substitute for children because we can actually park them and somebody can look after them if we go away!
The most romantic thing I’ve done was to surprise Lara on her birthday with her favourite car – a classic
80s Mercedes 500SL – an open-top two-seater. i put it in the garage with a huge ribbon all around it and a bouquet of flowers on the bonnet. when i opened the garage door, she cried.
need You dead (Macmillan) is out now. w&h