Article published on February 22, 2016.
When we had the chance to interview Peter James, I was lucky enough to find that Jayne Townsend, nb reviewer and resident of Brighton, was an ardent fan of the man’s work and would love to put our questions to him, face to face. Fitting two busy schedules together took some juggling but came the day when our new cub reporter ventured up the road, armed with notepad, camera and recording app on her phone. Over to Jayne:
I arrived at Peter James’s House just as the radio announcer gave us the sad news that Harper Lee had passed away at the age of 89. Turning off the road, I stopped at the white gate as instructed and pressed the intercom and Linda Buckley, Peter’s assistant, answered and buzzed me in. The Old Rectory is easily seen from the road of this Sussex village just north of Brighton, the city he knows particularly well and where Roy Grace (Peter’s famous detective) is based. Many of Peter’s books are set in and around Sussex, incorporating real life local characters like Norman Cook (AKA Fatboy Slim), Gresham Blake (the tailor) or lifelong friend Chris Gebbie.
As I got out of the car I glanced at the upper floor of the house, just in case there was a ghostly face at the window but, unlike two of Peter’s former houses, this one is not haunted… The inspiration for House on Cold Hill (pbk 16th June) is a house near Ditchling which he and his former wife shared with the ghost of a grey lady.
Linda (who often features in his Roy Grace books as a Family Liaison Officer) showed me into the garage, explaining that this was where all the work happened. Peter is a bit of a “petrol head”, and loves to race cars at Goodwood. “The Garage” however is not quite the same as most cluttered homes for bikes and lawnmowers – being the size of a 3 bed house, and purpose built by Peter when he bought the house 4 years ago. Upstairs are the offices where I was introduced to Spooks the dog and his wife, Lara, who looks after Peter’s social media and website.
The walls are lined with book covers, awards and other memorabilia. There is a collection of crime scene items on the floor, and a mannequin affectionately known as Roy Grace. Pride of place, by the entrance door, is the clocking-in machine from the original Cornelia James glove factory. Peter’s mother founded this business which has a royal warrant to make gloves for the Queen. Their gloves have also graced the hands of the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Anne, Taylor Swift & Madonna. Proud of his heritage, Cornelia James gloves or scarves always make an appearance in Peter’s novels. He also keeps tabs on all his main characters using the cards in the clocking-in machine.
Connections to the Royal Family don’t stop there, either, only yesterday he met Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in Harrogate at the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival for which Peter is the Programming Director, of which more later.
By the time I was ushered into Peter’s office I felt very much at home, and had already gathered some great background information about the man himself.
Jayne Townsend I’ve read all of the Roy Grace books including the most recent You Are Dead, and House on Cold Hill and am now reading some of the earlier novels, Atom Bomb Angel [about the nuclear power industry] – what book/s have you read and enjoyed recently?
Peter James I’m embarrassed about some of my earlier books, but most proud of the Roy Grace series. I get sent about 10-15 books per week from up and coming authors (as well as retired police officers). I usually only read about 5% of a book – you can usually tell after a couple of chapters whether a book grips you or not. The books I’ve enjoyed recently are:
I Let You Go – Claire Mackintosh
The Killer Next Door – Alex Marwood
Double Indemnity – James M Cain
Alex – Pierre Lemaitre
These are amongst the books “I wish I’d written” [which has to be the greatest accolade from a successful author.]
JT You have a new Roy Grace book out in May – do you write every day?
PJ Yes, though there is no such thing as a typical week. I try to write 6 days a week and have Sundays off. I’m most productive with a Vodka Martini, some music and a cigar and write between 6pm and 10pm, this comes from when I was combining writing with working as a film producer. I like to get up early and after breakfast and feeding the animals [2 dogs (Spooks & Oscar), 7 hens, 20 ducks, 5 Alpacas, a baby shark, Cosmo the Psycho Cat and Colin the Gerbil!] I will often review what I’ve written the evening before.
JT Your books are so well researched. Do you do it all yourself?
PJ Yes, I do all my own police research, recently spending 5 hours at Scotland Yard learning about face recognition. Last week I took my wife Lara for a romantic Valentine’s Day outing which we spent in the back of a Met police car, following around and observing the work of the officers during their full shift. We attended an illegal rave and a violent robbery. I like to steep myself in police culture, all in the name of research.
JT I understand that you were shut in a coffin for half an hour when writing Dead Simple. Is this true?
PJ Yes I arranged with a local undertaker to be put into a coffin and have the lid screwed down, I’m claustrophobic, but wanted to experience what it would be like. I asked a coroner friend how much air there would be in an average coffin and was told 3-4 hours, but much less (45 mins) if you panic and hyperventilate. The lid was placed on top and I could hear the screws being turned. The undertaker was a guy of about 85 and I suddenly thought, what if he has a heart attack and drops dead, whilst I’m in here?
JT House on Cold Hill is a modern ghost story – a family move into what they think is their dream house, a house they can’t quite afford, but which they are now tied to. You write from your own experiences and I understand that you had a similar encounter with a ghost when you moved into a new house?
PJ It’s true, it was a house near Ditchling and I experienced the floating particles and the image of a grey lady, I didn’t mention it to my wife and she didn’t mention it to me straight away. I get a feeling about places, there are some where I couldn’t live. There are two kinds of ghost – dumb ghosts and smart ghosts. A dumb ghost is where the energy is released and embedded into the surroundings; we’re all made of carbon and so are the floors and walls of a building and they absorb the energy. There is a Grey Lady at Cambridge, Trinity College, I think, who is seen to float through a room. When the floor needed to be replaced, due to rot, they raised the floor level and now the Grey Lady appears to be cut off – but still continues to visit. Then there are smart ghosts who want to take revenge (like Hamlet’s father) these are much rarer.
Another house we lived in at Beddingham (near Lewes) was haunted, I later found out it was built on a grave from the Battle of Lewes. The house was half a mile from the nearest neighbours, yet there was often a very strong smell of cigar smoke and the doorbell would ring when no one was there. Once when I was away, my wife phoned me saying she felt someone get into bed beside her. This was also corroborated by Linda who had worked in the house and heard babies crying. When she checked, the house was empty, she was alone.
JT Is there a little bit of you in your characters? Particularly Roy Grace and your earlier character Max Flynn (the MI5 agent)?
PJ Oh yes – certainly a lot of me in Roy Grace.
JT When will we get to see him on the small or large screen?
PJ It’s definitely being spoken about, so hopefully within the next couple of years we should be going into production.
JT You are friends, I believe, with Lee Child? What advice did you give him when Tom Cruise suggested playing Jack Reacher? Who would you like to play Roy Grace?
PJ Lee got a lot of flack from fans about the choice of Tom Cruise for the role of Jack Reacher. A film or TV deal really does sell books, a film will be watched by millions of viewers. It’s very important to get it right; Lee and I both have the same philosophy – we like to be kind to our fans. I have seen so many dreadful adaptations of good books.
[No, Grace hasn’t yet been cast yet, Peter wants to ensure this is well thought out and said there were a couple of candidates that would be good in the part. I for one will be looking out for the series – I can’t wait.]
JT You have been the Programming Director for this year’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival. How has that been?
PJ I was at a meeting in Harrogate yesterday with Prince Charles & Camilla, not the first time I have met them as they came to the Royal Premiere of Merchant of Venice, their first official engagement. I shook hands with Camilla then and asked her if she was still smoking, she said, “How naughty, was I looking for someone to have a crafty cigarette with behind the bike sheds?” I reminded her of this when we met yesterday. She told me she is reading You are Dead currently and loving it.
JT Settings for your books are often around Sussex, and particularly Brighton. I particularly enjoyed Not Dead Yet which you based around and in some of the back-of-house areas in Brighton Pavilion. Are there any buildings or parts of Brighton you would like to explore?
PJ I’m always looking for secret parts of Brighton if you know of any.
JT I work at Sussex University – you have mentioned it in your books but would you be interested in using it as a future location? And how does one get immortalised in one of your books?
PJ Sussex University has already been used in one of my books, Host, about a supercomputer that takes over. This book was the first to be published on 2 floppy discs and is in the Science Museum.
As for appearing in my books, I use Police Officers as themselves, some ask me to use their real names. [Linda, Peter’s PA, features as a Family Liaison Officer in many of the books.] If anyone pisses me off, they are likely to end up in the mortuary on a toe tag or on a fridge door… A particularly bad reviewer was dissected on the mortuary slab, and a magazine once featured lining the cat litter tray. Following a famous spat with Martin Amis, I had a bet of £100 to charity with Ian Rankin, and this resulted in the character Amis Smallbone featuring in Not Dead Yet.
I also like to think I’ve made a difference to the community. I was invited to meet the Chief Exec at Royal Sussex County after letting rip about the hospital in my books – and I was given a tour around the hospital.
[On that note I’d better watch out! – I hope he likes my review! If not my name is Elizabeth Brotherton.]
Jayne Townsend, 19th February 2016
Many thanks to Jayne and Peter for their time and interest.
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