Peter James: "Nobody with a drink problem is going to last 24 hours in the modern police force"
If you want to know how to write a bestselling crime novel, ask the expert. The author currently on top of the bloody heap in Britain, arguably, is Peter James. He bagged the number one slots in both hardback and paperback charts earlier this month with Not Dead Yet and Perfect People.
A keen amateur racing driver, scion of a Royal glove maker, former film producer and author of a series of “not very good” spy thrillers, Brighton-based James turned his writing fortunes around by inventing DI Roy Grace. He’s now shifted 11 million copies and is, as James puts it, “an overnight success, 25 years in the making”.
But DI Grace isn’t necessarily what you might expect. Unlike many a fictional ‘tec, he doesn’t drink. Nor does he have a problem with authority. And as far as his love life goes, he’s actually pretty sorted, thanks very much.
“I felt there was a stereotype,” James said. “The reality is that nobody with a drink problem is going to last 24 hours in the modern police force. It just would not happen.”
James’ approach was to reflect current police methods and structures as honestly as possible. He feels it is this realism his readers respond to.
Early in his writing career a burglary at his house led to him meeting and becoming friends with a Sussex police detective. James soon knew several officers and detectives. Now he acts as a Sussex police researcher, representing the force at international homicide conferences.
“Those are great,” he says. “You get to take part in three to five-hour workshops by homicide detectives. They show you all the details of major crimes. What homicide detectives do more than anything else is solve puzzles.
“Every major crime is a huge puzzle with hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces that need to be fitted together.
“But so many detective novels and crime series on TV fall apart because it is just not how it happens. Morse is a classic example. Two detectives solving a major homicide? It would be a team of 30 or 40 people. Often you see on television the scene of crime guys there in the white suits and then the senior detective comes in and tramples all over it in his brogues.
“The reality is that the first person at a crime scene is a uniformed policeman and his priority is to seal it off. He is entitled to not let anyone through, not even the chief constable. And if you get those kinds of details right the reader feels instinctively that they are in safe hands.”
James also believes that you have to find some way to make the reader immediately like the hero and care about what happens to him.
“A friend of mine wrote the original questions for Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” he recalls. “He used to say it wasn’t a quiz show at all – but a drama. Because you had to care about the person in the chair and whether or not they won.”
The last element James highlights is pace. The Grace novels, in common with books by the likes of Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver and James Patterson, rattle along like steam trains, the narrative packaged up into brief chapters finishing on cliff-hangers.
“Writing moves with the times. Two hundred years ago you could write long chapters and let people get slowly absorbed,” he says.
“Now you have to grab people in a few lines. And if you think about it, most people read in bed, at night, tired. If they think, I’ll read one more chapter, then see it’s 43 pages, they’ll say, ‘Forget it’. But if it is only a couple of pages they’ll read it – and then the next one, and the next.”