THE INTERVIEW: Bestselling author Peter James talks of his extraordinary relationship with Sussex Police
A female Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) will feature in Peter James’ tenth crime thriller of his ‘Dead’ series, featuring Roy Grace of Sussex CID.
But will she bear Katy Bourne’s name, the real Sussex PCC, first elected to the new £75,000 a year role last November?
And how will the woman in charge of Sussex Police be portrayed? What will she say and do?
Will the PCC be a force for good, democratic accountability and budgetary reform? Or merely a bureaucratic hindrance, or even worse, could she end up a name on mortuary toe tag? A fate Peter warns can happen to those who cross him.
However the author has already met Mrs Bourne and speaking in April, when he granted this paper the first interview on his ninth Roy Grace novel ‘Dead Man’s Time’ out tomorrow (Thursday June 6), he said he liked her enthusiasm and wanted to ask if she wants to play herself in the next book.
The pair are due to have lunch and discuss this. However, with Peter regularly invited on Sussex Police operations and even having a police car named after him, Mrs Bourne will no doubt also be keen to better understand how the author developed such a close relationship with the Sussex force?
It is a story he also told at our April meeting.
In light of the damage recently caused to the reputation of the police, and in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, with police nationwide pulling back from of informal relationships, especially with journalists, I asked whether he had experienced Sussex Police disengaging a little from his approaches.
“No not at all, probably the reverse I should think,” said Peter, speaking from his writing studio built in the grounds of his home in Woodmancote, West Sussex.
“I think at all levels the police say to me ‘you do such a good job for us’”, added the 61 year old, who is also the co-president of Sussex Crimestoppers, and a significant fundraiser for police charities.
That ‘good job’ is based on the thorough understanding Peter has of what is to be a police officer. It is an understanding premised on more than 30 years of interaction with Sussex Police, stretching back to when he first befriended a detective who came to investigate a burglary at his Brighton home.
Peter had just published his first book which the detective spotted while taking fingerprints. He suggested Peter give him a call should he need any help with research.
Before long Peter and his wife became friendly with the officer and his wife, and soon they were attending social events with many other officers present.
“So I started talking to other police officers, a homicide detective, a traffic cop, and just found them fascinating,” said Peter.
“They were interesting people. They were seeing parts of life that I’d never seen.
“And something that I have learnt over the years is that no one sees as much human life as a police officer in the course of a 30 year career.”
To illustrate his point Peter spoke of a time he shadowed a Brighton and Hove duty inspector on a twelve hour shift.
“They start 7am with a cot death – you’ve got this couple whose baby has died and they are devastated so they have to have pastoral care but at the same time they might have murdered it so it is a crime scene. So it’s just really difficult emotions going on.
“At 11am a Turkish student is hit by a bus in the middle of Brighton – paramedics think he is going to die, he doesn’t speak any English, they got to find a translator and shut down the centre of Brighton.
“Then at lunchtime we are called out after a seven year old girl has called the police saying mummy and daddy are killing each other. We get there, he’s got a cut lip, she’s got a busted nose and it’s because he wanted to barbecue the beef and she’d put it in the oven!
“And the day goes on... another two hours we could be on a bank raid or a homicide. They see every kind of slice of human life,” said Peter with admiration.
But this reality of modern policing is little understood outside of the often closed microcosm of the police world where officers tend to befriend other officers, associating mostly amongst themselves.
Meanwhile with bobbies on the beat a rarity, and most of the public only encountering a police officer when being caught for speeding, a lack of understanding has enveloped society.
But for Peter the curtain has been lifted on this closed world. He, along with many detectives, will find himself screaming at the television when an old detective in an overcoat solves the murder with the help of his amiable yet slightly dim sidekick.
“It doesn’t happen like that. You have a whole enquiry team of 40 to 60 people in a room meeting twice a day - that’s how it works,” said Peter.
And with a considerable dollop of artistic licence to ensure the frenetic pace of his thrillers is maintained, that’s how he writes it. And that’s why he is respected and given extraordinary access to Sussex Police, in turn presenting them to an audience of millions in more than 30 countries around the world.
But if you haven’t read a Peter James novel, don’t be put off by the ‘procedural accuracy’ I talk of here. His favourite review is probably more telling: “James inflicts maximum emotional torture.”
But despite the rattling good yarns he produces, it is the respect he reserves for the officers within the pages of his thrillers that stands him in such good stead with the force.
Peter said: “Every police officer almost without exception of those I have met has at some point in their career had their life on the line,” he said.
“2am confronted by some loony with a scimitar in the Laines of Brighton.
“Or they’ve had to walk up to an unknown car with an armed suspect in it in a deserted country lane.
“You have to actually be very brave to be a police officer and people forget that about them.”
By Theo Cronin | [email protected] | @theocronin