Peter James admits he harbours a secret wish to rewrite Agatha Christie, to take his readers through to that moment where Poirot assembles everyone in the library and then collars the killer.
“I would love to have someone turn round to him and say: OK, fatso, so where is the forensic evidence?”
The point is that Poirot and Brighton-based Peter move in very different worlds. In Peter’s world, as he says, technology is like a steamroller. You either get flattened – or you make sure you are up there driving it.
And so it is with Peter’s best-known creation, Brighton’s very own detective Roy Grace.
The 11th Roy Grace book You Are Dead has just been published by Pan Macmillan. It presents Grace with his toughest series of crimes yet as he is forced to tackle a serial killer.
The last time that Jamie Ball heard from his fiancée Logan Somerville was a terrified call from her mobile. She was convinced somebody was watching her in a dank underground car park. He heard her scream, then the phone went dead.
In another part of Brighton workmen digging up a park uncover the remains of a woman in her early twenties who has been dead for 30 years. The two events seem unconnected until yet another beautiful young woman with long brown hair goes missing and yet another body surfaces from the past…
As part of Peter’s research for You Are Dead, he studied a wide number of serial killers, both in the UK and abroad, trying to establish what common denominators there were. Harold Shipman, the family doctor convicted of 15 murders, was one. US citizen, Dennis Rader, self-styled BTK – Bind Torture Kill – who killed ten people between 1974 and 2001, was another.
Grim research… but it looks set to make You Are Dead another Peter James best-seller on the back of millions of Roy Grace books already sold.
“I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is the character,” Peter says. “I always think back to the great books of my own past, and I can’t remember much about the stories, but I can always remember vividly the characters.
“I think the point is that people like Roy Grace. I have always jokingly said if I ever had a member of my family murdered, I would want someone like Roy Grace to be investigating it! If you look at the really well-loved fictional detectives, they all have a warmth about them. There are a lot of detectives that are weird or odd, but Grace is quite an ordinary, decent, caring human being.
“There is the on-going thing about (his missing first wife) Sandy, but he is someone that is also always his own man. He has not afraid to stand up to his bosses and in some cases, he is quite a maverick. He is also not greedily ambitious. A lot of officers get to the point where they don’t want to be promoted further because they would stop being so actively involved in the investigations.”
And this is the man Peter puts into his mysteries.
“I played a lot of chess when I was younger, and I do sometimes liken plotting to playing a game of chess against oneself. I use a fairly simple graph when I start off. I do it to mark the high points, the big surprises. What is really important when you are writing a novel is to think about where you are going to put what I call the ‘gosh wow!’ moments that are going to surprise the readers.”
And perhaps also surprise Peter?
“Yes, if you don’t sometimes surprise yourself, you are not going to surprise your readers all the time. I do like ideas that just pop into my head ten seconds ago with the help of a vodka martini. Often I plan the ending of the book, and then I realise there is another something I can add in.”
Peter is also enjoying increasing success with Roy Grace on stage, first with the play The Perfect Murder (an adaptation of a Roy Grace short story) and then Dead Simple, the first in the series of Roy Grace novels. The next stage play, for January 2017, will be Not Dead Enough, number three in the series.
As Peter says, it won’t be a question of simply going through the books one by one. Book two would offer just too many difficulties to make it onto the stage successfully.
In the meantime, Peter is working on his 12th Grace novel in which he is promising a “massive resolution” to the ongoing missing Sandy mystery, but he’s certainly promising something its equal to replace it: “I am planning to put Sandy to bed, but at the same time something else is going to rise from the ashes.
“I think about 90 per cent of my readers still like the Sandy mystery, but in the 12th book I do think it will be time to bring it to some kind of resolution.”
As yet, he’s 140 pages into it: as yet, it’s still untitled. All the Grace books so far have just been two or three or four words, one of them the word ‘dead’: “It is getting harder and harder to think of titles!”
Also bubbling up nicely – though he can’t announce it formally yet – is the prospect of Grace hitting our TV screens.
“If I could have anyone to play Grace, I would want Dominic West. He is a wonderful actor. He has got just the right amount of gravitas and warmth. But he certainly hasn’t been formally approached…”