We recently caught up with Peter James to chat snake venom, Sherlock Holmes and the real-life supernatural. Peter is one of the UK’s most treasured crime novelists, whose Roy Grace detective novels have sold over 18 million copies worldwide, including 11 consecutive Sunday Times No 1s, and is published in 37 territories. Peter’s latest Roy Grace novel Need You Dead will be out in May. He is the foreword writer for The Crime Book.
Anywhere I am, every day.
MacBook Pro, cocktail shaker, cigar humidor.
Snake venom administered through a fang charm necklace.
I was always writing stuff from the age of seven! But I never believed anyone would ever want to read anything I wrote. Then when I was fifteen I won my school poetry prize and that gave me a little bit of confidence. I actually always wanted to write crime novels, ever since I discovered Conan Doyle as a 12-year-old boy.
I can still vividly remember the first Holmes short story I read, in which Holmes revealed to an astonished Watson, that he could tell on which side of the bathroom a suspect had his window – and therefore light source – as he always shaved the right-hand side of his face more tidily than the left! Immediately, I knew that one day I wanted to write a character myself that had such a great eye for detail.
When I began writing, I thought there were so many great crime writers, there could not possibly be room for another one! In 1977 I read an article in the Times that said there was a shortage of spy thrillers, so I thought I would try and write one. I did, and it was published but it was not very good! After two more I then wrote a supernatural thriller, Possession, which became a huge success, but my publishers then wanted me to continue with supernatural thrillers. Finally I started writing those crime novels I had always yearned to write.
I think nothing I’ve ever heard, including all the Ponzi schemes that have taken hundreds of millions from investors, match up to the sheer gall of the man – Victor Lusting - who sold the Eiffel Tower to some of the world’s biggest scrap metal dealers!
There is no single answer, but the following three thoughts give some explanation: First, people who read are, by their very nature, intelligent. I think readers don’t just want to be entertained, but they want to read books that make them think, and which challenge them intellectually. Every detective story is a ‘puzzle’ to some extent because every major crime is a puzzle too, and what detectives do more than anything else is solve puzzles. Readers love to try to get one step ahead of the detective, so it’s the job of good detective thriller writers to keep the twists and turns coming to surprise their readers.
At another level, people love to read to understand more about human nature. In my view there’s no better medium for this than a well-written, well-researched crime thriller. No one sees human life in a broader perspective than a police officer during the course of a thirty-year career. In a single day an officer could find him or herself at a scene of domestic violence, faced with the grim tragedy of people dying in front of them at a road accident, or attending a cot death, where the distraught parents in their hour of desperate need have to be comforted but also treated as murder suspects.
At another, much deeper, subconscious level, I have a third theory that we love to read crime fiction because of the survival instincts programmed into our genes. I think it comes from the same part of our DNA that causes us to rubberneck at terrible car accidents. It’s not that we’re gloating about the fate of the victims, it’s to see what we can learn about how that accident happened, and make sure we avoid it happening to ourselves.
I’d love to drive him around Brighton and get him to show me the city through his eyes. I’d ask him to tell me about any moments in his career when he has been genuinely scared for his life. I’d have fish and chips with him on the Brighton Pier for lunch, and in the evening have a vodka martini with him in the Hotel Du Vin, then go to dinner at his favourite restaurant, English’s, and hear more of his stories over a nice bottle of white wine. I’d like to ask him questions about those early days after his wife Sandy had disappeared. And I would love to know what he really feels about religion.
Yes! I’ve always had an open on mind on the supernatural and I’ve met countless normal, rational people who have had something happen, at some point in their lives, for which they have no rational explanation.
I’ve actually lived in two haunted homes. The House On Cold Hill is very much inspired by the historic house in Sussex, once a monastery, that my former wife and I bought in and I lived in for a decade – which turned out to be very seriously haunted. Whilst I have never actually seen a ghost, there were things that happened at that house I really couldn’t explain.
I saw on many occasions, in an anteroom to the kitchen, tiny pinpricks of white light floating in the air. A medium who I used a lot during my writing of my early supernatural thrillers, including Possession, visited my house and she told me I was slightly psychic, and that is why I saw these pinpricks, and that while I was not actually seeing the entire apparition, I was picking up on some of its energy.
This medium and several others described, vividly, a lady in grey silk crinoline, her hair up in a bun and with a very angry face. It matched the description given to me by an elderly man, who used to housesit for the previous owners. He had used this anteroom as a snug and had been sitting in there one winter evening around 1984, when his woman had come out of one wall, glided across the floor, flicked the edge of her dress against his face, stinging his flesh, and vanished into the oak paneling behind him.
Four years after we had had this room “cleared”, and in 1993 had my latest novel, Host, on display on a wooden chest in this room. One morning the book burst into flames! If my wife and I hadn’t been home that day the house would have probably burned down.