After publishing the latest book in his much-loved Roy Grace series, Suzanne Baum chats to crime novelist Peter James and finds his personal life is as fascinating as the characters he creates…
He’s just published You Are Dead; the 11th book in the Roy Grace series that follows the saga of a Brighton-based detective.
“My work has involved meeting criminals so I’ve been in a number of situations where I have been terrified,” James tells me. “I have been intimidated by some gangs I’ve met when I’ve been out with police at a crime scene or a raid, but this depth of research has given my novels a dimension of reality that readers can feel.”
The author, who spends his time between Notting Hill and Sussex, became interested in crime writing after reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.
“All I thought after finishing the book was that I wanted to write a crime thriller set in Brighton which was 10 percent as good as that book,” recalls James. “Then, in 1981, my house was burgled and a detective who saw my first book drafts and said if I wanted to do some research I should give him a call.”
Little did James realise that the police force would become such a huge part of his life. In fact, roll on 35 years and the police have been so valuable to his formidable career that he counts many of them among his friends and readers, of course.
“I have received so much support from the police over the years, they’ve helped me with my research and put up with my questions, and I hope I’ve portrayed their lives truthfully,” he says.
“Roy Grace might be fictional but his narratives have been shaped by real- life experiences which I’ve witnessed in person and second-hand. Every cop I’ve met has a story to tell and every cop you will ever meet has, at some time, had his or her life on the line.”
James has a colourful background. His mother, Cornelia James, worked as a glove maker to the Queen and during school holidays James helped in the family business. “I have met most of members of the Royal family. When I was a kid I often helped to roll and mark up the fabric for their gloves.”
However, despite running a successful business, James’ mother had other concerns about her family’s welfare. “I didn¹t know I was Jewish until I was 13 as my mother was a refugee from Austria and kept her Judaism hidden,” reveals James. “After the war there was a lot of anti-Semitic feeling in Britain and being a Jewish woman in business she felt she was at a great disadvantage.”
James recalls going to school and other children pointing to him and chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew”!
“I didn’t know anything about Judaism growing up but started to take an interest when I went to stay with my uncle in Canada.”
Proud of his heritage, James points out he is yet to touch on Judaism in his work. However, this may change in a new book he is working on a thriller about religion due to be published in 2017. “Like myself, Roy Grace is open-minded about religion. I believe it does have a certain resonance within the crime genre.”
With his books translated into 36 languages and many of them topping the bestsellers list, James spends a lot of time touring the world.
“Reaching my ambition of making it onto the bestsellers list and exceeding it by reaching number one was an amazing feeling,” he acknowledges.
“However, I’m not an overnight success; it has taken me some 30 years to get here. I am very happy with my life right now and wouldn’t change it for a thing.”
You Are Dead by Peter James is published by Pan Macmillan in hardback, priced £20