… for bestselling crime novelist Peter James, who has swapped Sussex by the sea for Jersey in the ocean. His new book, ‘I’ll follow you’ was published in October and has a Jersey setting. He talked to Alasdair Crosby.
IN Peter James’ office, there is a prominent notice: ‘Careful, or you might end up in my novel.’
‘I collect faces, names and characters,’ he said. ‘Also, if someone irritates me, I put their name on a toe tag in a mortuary. A writer in a Sussex magazine once wrote an article mentioning my detective character, Roy Grace, in which she said: “I think we’ve all had enough of Roy Grace as a central character…” In my next book, I had the magazine being used as cat litter and I had her being dissected at the mortuary.’
But paying to have your name as a character in of his books is a clever idea to raise money for charity – and Peter James is a supporter and patron of many charities. Last year the High Sherriff of Sussex paid £6,000 to be a dead body in one of his books.
Among the local charities and branches he now supports are Jersey Crimestoppers, the NSPCC, Shelter (he was one of the ‘Jersey 12’ who supported the charity by paying to spend a night in prison) and he has donated one of his racing cars to Jersey Police to be marked up in Police colours; it can be seen out and about, as a way of engaging youngsters in such matters as road safety. He is also currently in contact with the Jersey Greyhound Rescue Trust.
This last charity is a natural choice for him, in view of his own love for animals – a love that he shares with his wife, Lara. In particular he loves dogs: ‘If you murdered somebody, afterwards the dog would just jump up and lick you. The cat would look at you and know you’d done it. Never trust a man who doesn’t like dogs. Trump is the first U.S president in 100 years not to have a dog…what does that say about him?
‘If you murdered somebody, the dog would still jump up and lick you. The cat would look at you and know you’d done it.’
They brought their three dogs with them when they moved to Jersey: Oscar, a rescued Labrador, Wally, a young golden retriever and Spooky, a friendly labradoodle.
Oscar, he said, was a natural midwife: ‘He came in to the office in our Sussex home one day with an egg in its mouth. First of all he nudged me, and then went over to Lara. I said to her: “The egg has probably been there for the last four months. For God’s sake don’t let it beak.” To our surprise (because he was keen on eggs), he opened his mouth for her to take it.’ She said “The egg is making a tapping noise.” We wrapped the egg in an incubation blanket and a few days later out popped this little ducking. It lived with us at home for five months – then it began to stink, so it moved to the hen house. Later it survived a fox attack; now it has moved to Jersey with us.’
There are also two Burmese cats, Mrs Wu and Willie. But the animal family is more extensive than just dogs and cats. In Sussex they had four alpacas: Boris, Al Pacino, Fortescue, Jean-Luc and Keith. Sadly they can’t bring them to Jersey because they are of the ‘camelid’ species, and are potential TB carriers – they will be re-homed ‘somewhere really nice’.
They have also had to leave two emus in Sussex; they were advised that the journey to bring them to Jersey would stress them too much.
Luckier were the 14 laying hens flying higher than your average hen when they were brought to Jersey by private plane. Then there are pygmy goats, ‘educational’ rabbits that go to schools quite a lot, guinea fowl… and if there are any more members of their animal family who have been left out, the error is regretted.
‘I feature animals in my books a lot,’ Peter said ‘and Lara has been studying for a diploma in galen myotherapy – canine massage that helps dogs with muscular problems. ’
But the domestic menagerie is a very different world from his crime writing subjects. He said he had always wanted, from the age of seven, to write books, make films and race cars.
‘I wrote my first novel at 18 – luckily, it never got published! Then I wrote two more before going to live in Canada, where it was easier to get a job in TV than in England. I was working for a daily show for pre-school children. One day the producer came and said: “The writer’s sick. I’ve just read your CV. You won the poetry prize at Charterhouse school… can you write today’s show? “
‘I wrote the script and they were really happy with it. I did that for a year and a half.’
He went on to write and produce films – but still hadn’t got round to writing that novel. One day he read an article saying that there was a shortage of spy thrillers since Ian Fleming had died. So he wrote one himself, ‘kind of tongue in cheek’. To his amazement it got published – but it didn’t sell: only 1,800 copies, 1,500 of which went to libraries. A second book sold even worse: ‘I was really disappointed and thought that obviously I hadn’t got what it took to make a living as a writer.’
Then he met a friend at a party – Elizabeth Buchan, herself a successful writer. She asked him why he was writing spy novels when he knew nothing about spying and was up against the likes of John Le Carré. People who read novels, she said, didn’t just want to read a story; they wanted to learn something as well.
A week later got burgled. As a result, a friendly young detective on the case came to his house, saw his books and told him that if ever he needed to do research into policing, to give him a call. Later, as the friendship developed, he was invited to a barbecue hosted by the detective and his wife (another detective) A dozen of his host’s friends were there from the various branches of Sussex Police: ‘Just talking to them, I thought that nobody in a 30-year career could ever see more of human life than a policeman.’
‘When they realised I was genuinely interested, over the next decade I was frequently invited to observe their operations. ‘In a nice way, I became part of the furniture of Sussex Police. Then I met a rising young detective, Dave Gaylor, who helped me enormously in my writing.
‘I was writing a psychological thriller titled Denial – he knew so much and kept on asking my pertinent questions such as “Why is your detective doing this? He should be doing that…” I thought “Wow, this guy has got a really creative brain.”’
In the end Dave became Detective Chief Superintendent and Head of the Major Crime department for the Sussex force. In 2002 Peter’s publishers asked him if he had ever thought of creating a detective as a central character.
‘So I asked him: “Would you like to be a fictional character?” He loved it! He was the inspiration for Roy Grace. We sat down together in a pub and worked out the plot of the first book, Dead Simple. He has long retired but he has become my best friend, the best man at our wedding, and my crime consultant – he has always refused to charge a cent – he just helps because he loves doing it.
‘That relationship helps the authenticity of my writing. Over the years he has introduced me to literally dozens and dozens of police forces around the UK, France, Germany and America.’
His latest book, ‘I’ll follow you’ is set in Jersey and features another of his interests: running – he and Lara train regularly; Lara is a veteran of 13 marathons. The plot is based on a real life, unsettling incident in which Lara realised that a fellow jogger was actually following her and had found out where she lived via a competitive running app on her phone.
Did he intend to stay in Jersey for the long-term? ‘Certainly, I just love the Island atmosphere. It is like England was 50 years ago. We have sold our homes in London and Sussex. I cannot see us ever leaving.’
See www.peterjames.com. Signed copies of his latest book are available at Waterstone’s.