Tuesday, August 17, 2010

9mm interview: Peter James

Welcome to the latest instalment in Crime Watch's ongoing series of quickfire author interviews; 9mm - 9 MurderMystery questions put to a variety of New Zealand and international crime, thriller, and mystery authors.

For the 31st instalment in the 9mm series, Crime Watch is featuring award-winning British crime writer Peter James, who will be visiting our fair shores in a couple of weeks time (including an event at Takapuna Library today fortnight). James is the author of the Roy Grace series - the latest of which, DEAD LIKE YOU jumped straight to #1 on the UK Sunday Times bestseller list on its first week of publication earlier this year.

You can read more about Peter James here.

But for now, the film producer, car enthusiast, and bestselling crime writer stares down the barrel of 9mm.

The Crime Watch 9mm Author Interview: Peter James
Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Sherlock Holmes. It’s a very corny answer, but actually I think he is still the most enduring to me of all the fictional characters ever created. Because he was sort of the pioneer of forensics, and also he’s a character that wouldn’t’ work in today’s context.

They’ve tried to modernise Sherlock Holmes in a recent television series, and to mine I just don’t think it works, because he’s from a previous time when there weren’t really detectives in the police force. There were coppers, who weren’t trained detectives in the way they are today, and the whole infrastructure with the CID and the FBI, and so he was the unique character, and in the unique position to operate with the police and enhance what they did. And I just think he was such a wonderful character, despite the fact he was completely eccentric, and smoked his dope.

And I guess two things started me writing crime fiction. The first was when I was about 10 I read my first Sherlock Holmes story, and there was this wonderful line in it where Watson said ‘Gosh Holmes, how did you deduce that?’, and Holmes said ‘I knew we were looking for a man who’s bathroom window was on the left-hand side of his washbasin’. And Watson said ‘But how Holmes?’, and Holmes said, ‘Well Watson, did you never notice that he was always better shaved on the left-hand side of his face, because of the light’... and as a ten-year-old I was just blown away by that, and thought ‘one day I want to create a detective who’s got powers of observation like that’.

2) What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why? Um, I guess it was a Famous Five; Five on a Treasure Island, by Enid Blyton, and I was always a curious kid. And I wrote a letter to her, and I said ‘I’ve just read Five on a Treasure Island, and seven days on that island, and not one of them went to the toilet in all that time’, and I was really worried about that. And she wrote a very sweet letter back saying that they had gone to the toilet, but she didn’t think little boys and girls were interested in her putting those bits in (chuckling).

3) Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I always wanted to write crime, but I thought that to be an English crime writer you had to stick to very rigid rules and conventions, that you had to begin with a kind of body in a library in a country house. And that’s what you had to do - and I didn’t want to do that.

And I started, and I actually wrote three very bad spy thrillers, which got published but didn’t do at all well. And then in fact, I came to crime very obliquely. My fourth published book was a supernatural book called POSSESSION, which I wrote after the son of a very good friend was killed in a car smash, and they started going to a medium. And originally they wanted me to write a book about their experience of going to a medium, non-fiction. And I spent like two years kind of following them, and learning a lot about it, and I thought there wasn’t really a story in that for me, but it gave me an idea of combining crime and I was always interested in the paranormal, and it gave me an idea which was that a lot of people if they lose a loved one they go to a medium to try and get sort of comfort.

But I thought, what if a mother lost her son in a car accident, went to a medium to try and get comfort, and discovered through the medium that her son had murdered his girlfriend? And I wrote a novel called POSSESSION and that came out in 1987, about five years after my last spy novel... it kind of went straight to Number 1, and went into 23 languages, and my publishers wanted me to write more of that sort of thing.

At that time horror was very much in ascendance, with Stephen King, Peter Straub... and so I kind of wrote a whole series of fairly spooky novels with a supernatural theme, but then I kind of wanted to move away from that into more conventional thrillers. I wrote several thrillers which had police officers in, and then it was in about 2001 that MacMillan approached my agent, and said had I ever thought of writing a crime novel, and I said ‘well actually it’s what I’d always wanted to do’. And at that time I’d already had several years developing relationships with the police. I knew a lot of police officers.

4) Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I have a passion for motor racing, so much to my publisher and agent’s horror I drive in motor races several times a year. I think my agent would rather I took up something like knitting or bowls. So that’s my sort of big passion. And I’m very keen on sport - I play a lot of tennis and I run every day, and I like food and wine. They’re big passions.

5) What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Brighton has quite a famous tour of its sewers. But I actually think visitors to Brighton ... one of my favourite things to do in the city is a walk, where you actually walk under the cliffs, at low tide you can just walk out to the rock pools with this dramatic backdrop of the cliffs. And you’ve got the kind of rock pools, and you’ve also got the remains of this crazy railway that used to run - the track was underwater and the train was on stilts. So it was called a Daddy-Long-Legs, and it ran from about 1890 to about 1900 and then a storm brought it down. It’s just the weirdest place - you’ve got the cliffs, these rocks, and these rusty old rails there, and it’s just a magical part of Brighton.

6) If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?What a great question. Shit, um... um... Harrison Ford? I’ve always felt he’s one of the most rounded and grounded actors. I think he always has an underlying decency about him that kind of comes through when he’s playing characters.

Someone did once describe me as like an older Ben Elton, and I wasn’t too impressed with that (chuckling).

7) Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
I think my most favourite is DEAD SIMPLE, which is the first of the Roy Grace books. It was just the kind of book that wrote itself. And it is still the sort of book that I get several emails a week from people saying it’s the book that’s got them back into reading. And for me that’s an incredible feeling because reading is probably the thing I most fell in love with doing from the earliest childhood, and it’s still to me the greatest pleasure, and it’s what informed me about the world more than anything else, more than anything I learned at school, through the pages of books. I think it was an American writer who said that reading books gives you a second life.

8) What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I think the celebration was when I got my first book accepted, and I went out with my then-wife, and we went completely nuts and had an extremely alcoholic dinner and had lobster and got completely wrecked. And I think by contrast one of the most dismal days of my life was the day the book got published, because you rush into the bookshop, and it’s not there!

It’s now finally in the last few years, it’s different for me. But for a long time when I was an unknown author you’d run around all the bookshops and you’d get really angry, and think ‘fuck I’m doing all this promotion, and there’s no book on the shelf’.

9) What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Oh yeah, this is easy. The launch of DEAD SIMPLE in Germany, I had to do a signing lying in a coffin, in a coffin warehouse. It was my German publisher’s idea, so who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour (chuckling).

I was in this coffin surrounded by candles, in a coffin warehouse... I had to sort of sit up and sign the book and then lie back down again... about 150 [books signed]... my stomach muscles were in great shape.

Thank you Peter James. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with Crime Watch.


So what do you think of this 9mm interview? Have you read any of Peter James’s Roy Grace novels? Or his earlier spy thriller and supernatural horror? What do you think? Will you be going to any of his New Zealand or Australian events? I'd love to read your comments. Please share your thoughts.


  1. This is a great interview. I met Peter James in Romania a few years ago when he was researching his last book and there were a bunch of us giving him local info, and recently a couple of people said to me "you know you're mentioned in Peter James's new book" and I thought "What? Why on Earth would he thank me?" and so I read the book and plucked up the courage to write to the great man and I said "thanks for the thanks but I don't remember saying anything useful to you." To my suprise he wrote back rather quickly and said "you did" and I thought this was really cool because most authors I've come across (and my mother set up a small Scottish publisher called Canongate so I met loads) really don't seem to have time for ordinary people; they can really make you feel irrelevant. But Peter James is different. He's a Dude. And I've been following him on Twitter and I really can't believe how he has time to write, email, or even sleep as he seems to be on the road continually. Maybe he never sleeps

  2. A really good interview, Craig! I learned a lot of new stuff about Mr James and I'm glad he thinks 'Dead Simple' is his favourite - it's a great intro to Roy Grace!

  3. I really enjoyed this interview, thanks Peter and Craig.

    I think it's going to be hard for any other writer to top the coffin for weirdest experience!

  4. So you were one of the lucky ones to have written and got a reply from the great Enid Blyton. Unfortunately, some of us like myself got to learn of Enid Blyton, one-and-a-half years after her demise. Regardless, we devoured her books like vultures as children. This explains why I decided to write and publish a book on her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage.blogspot.com, www.bbotw.com).
    Stephen Isabirye

  5. Peter is indeed a wonderful person. We use to have a regular email contact until his partner told me he gets hundreds of emails a day and endeavours to answer them all! I now only email when he is coming to visit!. It was a great night in Takapuna too.