Crime writers get a bad rep, believes award-winning British novelist and film producer Peter James. He explains that crime fiction allows us to identify the human condition, and the genre has gained popularity because we’re all naturally curious about this topic.
James’s new novel, Dead Man’s Grip, offers plenty of insight into the human condition. Set in Brighton in the UK, it’s about a woman whose life is turned upside down when she’s involved in a car accident, which results in a young man being killed; the woman is found to be over the drink-drive limit from the night before. The dead man is identified and the police discover that his mother is the daughter of the New York Mafia; she then goes about avenging her son’s death. We caught up with the novelist for a look behind the scenes of crime fiction writing.
You’ve learned a lot about police work over the years with help from Sussex Police in the UK. How did you first earn their trust? Do you have a police background? No, I have no police background at all. I was lucky enough to be burgled, if you can call it lucky, about 20 years ago and the detective who came to take fingerprints looked down at one of my early novels and asked if that was me – was I an author? He gave me his card and told me to call him if I needed research help. I slowly and steadily networked and gained their trust, and they liked what I wrote about the police and the accurate way I portrayed them. After some years I found police officers were phoning me to tell me about something interesting they were doing, such as going on a raid, or to a crime scene, and asking if I’d like to go with them.
Have you ever been in any potentially dangerous situations while you’re out with the police researching a book? I’ve been in a number of situations where I’ve been scared. A year ago I was on patrol in a rough housing estate in Brighton with a young sergeant and a rookie constable – a young Indian woman. It was 10pm and we saw a group of 10 youths walking along, swigging from open bottles and cans. It’s a criminal offence to have an open bottle or can of alcohol on the streets of Brighton. They pulled over and climbed out the car and I followed them, wearing a fluorescent jacket marked ‘Police Observer,’ and stood some distance back with my notebook as the officers confronted them. As the gang advanced, some of them pulling out knives, I began to wonder whether to get back into the car or run for my life. But I knew that if I was to keep any respect I had to stand my ground and help the two officers. Then the ringleader came straight towards me, jabbed a finger at me and demanded to know who I was. Quick as a flash, the sergeant replied, ‘He’s with the FBI.’ This had an instant effect – they all backed off and turned into pussycats, meekly handing over their drinks and their weapons.
How did you find the subject matter for your new book? Many of my novels are drawn from real life. However, the reverse is true with Dead Man’s Grip. It wasn’t until after I’d written the book that I discovered that something very similar had happened in real life. About 25 years ago, the young son of John Gotti, the Capo of the NY mafia, was knocked off his bicycle and killed by a drunk driver. His mother insisted on revenge and two weeks later the driver disappeared, The police know he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, but his body was never found.
What fascinates you about crime writing? I’m eternally fascinated by the human condition, by the world in which we live and, in particular, why people do the things they do. In 30 years of spending large amounts of time in close proximity to the police in the UK, as well as many other countries, I’ve come to realise that the police are the glue that holds civilised society together. The police see it all: the squalid violence of sink estates; the grim tragedy of people dying in front of them at a road accident; attending a cot death with distraught parents, who need comfort but have to be treated as murder suspects; trying to arrest an armed and violent criminal; and arriving at the scene of a horrendous and twisted killing. One aspect that particularly fascinates me is just how many of the worst violent criminals are outwardly innocuous people. The UK’s worst serial killer, Harold Shipman, was a much-loved family doctor who just had a penchant for killing his patients, and murdered up to 350 of them.
Knowing what you know about life, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? Be interested in people, even someone you think at first acquaintance might be mind-numbingly boring. Everyone has a story to tell, and you can learn something of interest and of value from every person you encounter. Dead Man’s Grip is available in stores from May 26.