Peter James on a TV adaption of his Roy Grace series and some favourite Sussex places
PUBLISHED: 11:18 15 June 2015 | UPDATED: 11:18 15 June 2015
The 11th book in Peter James' hugely popular Roy Grace detective series is published this month. The author and new Sussex Life columnist tells Jenny Mark-Bell that he won't be killing off his famous creation any time soon, and that the time is now right for a BBC adaptation of the series
In February, WHSmiths readers voted Sussex author Peter James their favourite crime writer of all time, beating giants of the genre including Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie.
Five novels featuring his hero, Detective Chief Superintendent Roy Grace, went straight into the bestseller lists at number one. In the autumn of 2012, Not Dead Yet toppled the 50 Shades Of Grey trilogy from the number one paperback fiction slot, ending its 25-week domination of the chart. He has sold more than 14 million copies in 36 languages.
A popular stage adaptation of Peter’s novel Dead Simple is currently touring provincial theatres, and the 11th novel featuring Roy Grace is out now.
After years of negotiation, it looks like a television adaptation is in the offing. “It hasn’t happened for so long because I have been so adamant,” Peter admits. “I have had three books filmed in the past and I really hated the adaptations. Roy Grace is so important to me.”
And it was important to Peter to keep some creative control: “Ten years ago the BBC seriously wanted to move Roy Grace to Scotland, because they had the budget to make it in Aberdeen.”
Then, four years ago, ITV suggested making Roy Grace a woman. Now Peter says production could begin by the end of this year. “One of the actors at the top of my wish list for Roy Grace has always been Dominic West. I really like him and he would be my number one choice right now. He has that warmth and gravitas about him.”
The public appetite for Roy Grace is undimmed, but I wonder whether his creator still enjoys spending time with him, or whether he is tempted to make like another Sussex crime writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and kill him off. Agatha Christie also famously tired of Hercule Poirot, calling him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. Not so, apparently, for Peter and Roy Grace: “I still love writing him, I love the research and I just love learning about human nature.
“The hardest thing in the world is to create a character that people like and connect to. Conan Doyle kept going back to Holmes because he could never come up with someone that people liked better.”
Cops and robbers
Of course it probably helps that the real-life inspiration for Roy Grace, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gaylor, is one of Peter’s best friends. They met 20 years ago: “When I walked into his office it was a tip, covered in bulging folders and crates of manila folders. He rather movingly told me, ‘these are my dead friends – I’m a homicide detective but I am also the last chance for all of the unsolved murders in the county. Each of these crates contains the principal case file, and I am the last chance each of the victims has for justice and for closure’. I loved that really human image.”
So when publishers Macmillan asked if he’d ever thought of a detective series, Peter asked Dave how he would like to be a fictional cop. Ever since he has been a creative bellwether, assisting in the planning stages and points of police procedure, and facilitating Peter’s meetings with detectives for research, not just in Sussex but in the Met and around the world, including New York and Australia. Peter has ensured, too, that Dave will be a contracted advisor on the television series: he points to the second series of Broadchurch as an example of poor research hobbling viewers’ enjoyment of a police drama.
In the books, Brighton’s as big a character as any. Peter has spent decades seeing his hometown through the eyes of those who probably know it best – its police. He still spends time with them on a regular basis. Other writers, including Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton, have been similarly seduced by its seamy underbelly. But why?
“Brighton’s reputation for crime is historic. It was a smuggling village originally, and the Pavilion was built by George IV as probably the world’s most expensive ‘shag pad’. In 1841 when they built the railway line the second rate villains all poured down to Brighton where there were rich pickings to be had. They brought down cockfighting and all kinds of illegal gambling, protection racketeering, prostitution…and they stayed.
“If you were a villain and you wanted to design the perfect environment, Brighton would be it. You’ve got major sea ports on both sides, miles of unguarded coastline, so it’s perfect for bringing in drugs, people smuggling, exporting stolen goods.
There’s a big recreational drug trade. And Brighton’s got something which all villains want, which is loads of escape routes. You’ve got a fast road network, 50-minute train to London, Gatwick airport… all that and it’s a lovely place to live. It’s the favourite place in Britain to live for first division criminals: three previous Chief Constables told me that.”
Writing wrong ‘uns
An extremely prolific writer, Peter works best between six and 10 at night: “stiff drink, music…and then I’m in the zone. I look forward to it, it’s my treat time. I have got two different writing playlists. There are certain groups, like Van Morrison, The Kinks, Passenger I like a lot…some jazz.
The Beatles for some reason I can’t write to, it’s too intrusive. During the last third of a book I write to opera arias – the really rousing ones, like Faust. It just lifts me. But I do think so many people get precious about writing, saying they need everything to be just so: all the great French writers wrote in cafés and JK Rowling has too. I kind of tune out: I could sit at a bus stop and write.”
Before he started writing full-time Peter worked in film and television as a producer and writer (perhaps his most famous credit being The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino). This experience seems to have informed his writing “I remember working on a sitcom for ABC Television, a pilot for something that didn’t end up happening, and I was told that you have to have a gag every 15 seconds because half the audience is channel-surfing. If you get them with a gag they will wait for the next one. I don’t have a gag every 15 seconds but I tend to write very short chapters.”
A ghost novel, set in a fictional village between Henfield and Plumpton in East Sussex, comes out in October.
The House on Cold Hill features “a couple with a 12-year-old daughter who move into this great big wreck of a Georgian house with this dark history to it. Very creepy things start to happen…” Last year he wrote a collection of short stories, A Twist of the Knife, which comes out in paperback this month, while two years ago he published A Perfect People, about designer babies, which had been 12 years in the writing.
For local readers, part of the charm of the Roy Grace novels lies in spotting familiar places, businesses, or people. Peter has a splendid coat made for him by Brighton tailor Gresham Blake, who was delighted to have a mention in one of the books. The bespoke coat’s lining is emblazoned with pages from the novel. The new book,
You Are Dead, opens at Hove Lagoon. “Norman Cook asked me, because Zoë [Ball, his wife] is a big fan, ‘couldn’t you do a killing in the lagoon?’ So you’ve got workmen digging up an asphalt path outside his Big Beach Café.”
There is a frisson to be had in exploring this insalubrious parallel universe, but it can be a very dark place – one where, necessarily, the author spends a great deal of his time. Does he ever feel himself being subsumed? “No, I think by nature I am fairly optimistic, and I think humanity wouldn’t have survived as long as it has if there hadn’t been a greater force for good than for evil in the world.”
My Favourite Sussex...
• Shop - Gresham Blake: it’s just a treasure trove of great stuff.
• Restaurant - Food is my big passion and my favourite restaurant is English’s, which I love because it is Old Brighton. It has moved with the times without being ruined by them. The staff are lovely and the food is brilliant.
• View - The top of Devil’s Dyke is spectacular and Beachy Head is amazing. There are views as beautiful in other parts of England, but I defy anybody to say there are any that are more beautiful.
• Visitor attraction - I would take visitors to Brighton Pavilion and on the undercliff walk to Rottingdean, as well as under the Arches. I love going to the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton, which is fabulous, with an old working flour mill and hall house.
• Peter James: balancing my busy schedule, travelling the world and my favourite Sussex seafood restaurant - Our new columnist, crime novelist Peter James, will be keeping us up-to-date on his restaurant preferences, travel recommendations, and everything relating to his famous detective, Roy Grace