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Peter James's top 10 books about Brighton (The Guardian)

Published Wednesday 13 May 2015 12.13 BST

From Julie Burchill to Jane Austen, the crime novelist picks his favourite fiction featuring a city ‘perpetually helping police with their inquiries’

Noël Coward once described Brighton thus: “Ah, dear Brighton, piers, queers and racketeers.” And Keith Waterhouse said: “Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”

A smuggling village in the middle ages, Brighton evolved into a racy spa town patronised by King George IV. He commissioned its most spectacular building, the Royal Pavilion, to impress his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. It must surely be the world’s grandest bespoke venue for illicit liaisons.

Brighton has a long criminal history, dating back far before 1932 when, following the discovery of a series of dismembered bodies in railway lockers, it was dubbed the murder capital of Europe.

Three past chief constables of Sussex police each confirmed to me that Brighton is one of the favoured places in the UK for first-division criminals to live. It has a major seaport on either side, and at the western edge of the city lies Shoreham airport; there are miles of unguarded coastline. Plus there are lots of escape routes: all the Channel ports, and Eurotunnel. Gatwick airport is just 25 minutes away. London is 50 mins by train. It also has the largest number of antiques shops in the UK – perfect for fencing stolen goods and laundering cash.

The city has an affluent young middle-class population, two universities, and a huge number of nightclubs, providing a big market for recreational drugs. It has a large transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains and easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. And of course it is a fabulous city to live in – and to write about.

It is surprising therefore that so few people have written about it over the centuries – something I’m now trying hard to redress! But here is a selection of books wholly or partially set in and around this amazing, beautiful, vibrant place.

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Although Brighton is not directly described in the novel, it plays a key role in the plot. Austen herself clearly had a poor view of the place, as shown in a 1799 letter to her sister Cassandra: “Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.” And here, from the book: “In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp – its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”

2. The Clayhanger family novels by Arnold Bennett

Bennett has long been one of my favourite writers – and the book of his I love best is The Card, set mostly in the Potteries. Bennett lived for a time in Rottingdean, a village immediately adjoining Brighton, and began writing this trilogy in Brighton’s Royal Albion hotel in 1910. In the second part of the trilogy, Hilda runs a boarding house in Preston Street.

3. The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton

Born just outside the city and educated in it, Hamilton wrote a great deal about Brighton. Many agree his finest work was in his last novels, written in the 1920s – The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant, all featuring the memorable psychopath Ernest Ralph Gorse. Graham Greene hailed The West Pier as “the best book written about Brighton”, with JB Priestley describing his fictional landscape as “a kind of No Man’s Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding-houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet”.

4. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

This book, written in 1937, is hands down not just the best book ever written about Brighton, but in my view one of the top five crime novels of all time. It has surely one of the most arresting opening sentences ever: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” The detective is no longer the key character, it’s the villain himself – Pinky, a 17-year-old killer in charge of a bunch of middle-aged misfits, and a devout Catholic terrified of eternal damnation. There is no cosy puzzle to be solved, no happy ending. You put the book down with your emotions floored, your imagination soaring.

5. Murder on the Brighton Express by Edward Marston

Marston is a wonderful writer of historical detective fiction, and this investigation of a rail crash, set in 1854, is a gem of period detail. The opening of the London-Brighton railway line in 1846 transformed Brighton and Hove – in both good and bad ways. It has been a symbol of the place ever since.

6. The Brighton Trilogy by Peter Guttridge

An on-off resident of the area, Guttridge is best known for his comic crime fiction. But this lovingly written trilogy explores Brighton’s criminal past and present through serious, engaging fiction.

7. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

Cave lives in Brighton and this dark and gripping novel has some wonderful depictions of the city’s seamy side. Bunny Munro makes a living selling beauty products door-to-door to lonely housewives – and bedding them. In between he cruises Brighton in a bright yellow Punto, leering out of his window or fantasising about Kylie Minogue’s hotpants.

8. Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi

A clever, seamy and savage story of revenge by Bella, a former sex-worker living in Brighton, who begins murdering abusers. Her death toll is seven by the end of the story. Yet another strong and well written novel on Brighton’s dark side.

9. Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill

And now for something almost completely different. Burchill is almost Brighton royalty, so strong are her ties with the city. Sugar Rush was her first YA novel, and charts the journey of Kim Lewis, forced to leave her posh high school and move to a Brighton comprehensive. It is a no holds barred, but beautifully written, account of teenage trials and tribulations.

10. Brighton Rock Picture Book: The making of the Boulting Brothers film 1946-8 by Maire McQueeney

Few have done more for literature in Brighton in recent decades than McQueeney – who began by holding literature classes for commuters on the London-Brighton railway line. I think this film of Brighton Rock (not to be confused with the dreadful 2010 version) is one of the very best screen adaptations ever. McQueeney has created a wonderful tribute to it – and to Brighton.

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'How I came face to face with evil': Crime writer Peter James on what it's like to meet a serial killer (Mail Online)

Published: 22:20, 9 May 2015

There’s a very good reason why stories by hit thriller writer Peter James chill the blood so effectively. He bases them on the REAL killers he meets in prison. Here he describes his most disturbing encounters... and explains why his latest monstrous creation is drawn from four of the most sinister serial killers in history.

Giving a talk in a women’s prison recently, there was one bright inmate asking me very informed questions about literature.

I was curious to know what crime she had committed.

At the end I approached her and broke the ice by asking how much longer she had to serve. ‘Nine-and-a-half more years – and it’s just not fair!’ she replied indignantly.

‘A woman did exactly the same as me in London and she’s only got six more years!’

I asked her what had brought her in here and she replied, ‘I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag.’

She continued: ‘She went in to hospital to die, and I embezzled her bank account. But the bloody woman didn’t die and was sent home.

'I realised she’d find out so I had to poison her, and then I realised my husband would find out and I had to poison him too.

'It’s just not fair, how long I got!’ she ranted.

Her mother-in-law had died and her husband had permanent brain damage. Yet all she cared about was the length of her sentence…

I recently met another murderer, as part of the research for my latest novel, You Are Dead, this time in a pub. His family ran a social club near Brighton.

One night, in 1985, he bludgeoned his father, stepmother and ten-year-old stepbrother to death with a baseball bat, making it look like a burglary gone wrong, so that he would inherit.

He served 23 years in prison, has found God and is now writing and painting. Did he regret what he’d done?

He told me: ‘What happened is between me, my dad, stepmum, stepbrother and God.’

The impression I got was all he regretted was being caught.

Creating credible villains is vital to me, and I learn so much from meeting people like this.

The absence of empathy and guilt is one very common denominator – and I frequently portray just how relaxed my own fictitious murderers are.

When someone kills another human, they cross a moral Rubicon. Those who are capable of living with that are the truly dangerous ones, because they may strike again at any time, without losing a night’s sleep.

For that reason, I always find it strange and discomforting to be in the presence of a killer, yet at the same time, utterly intriguing.

I’m wondering what the similarities are between us, and the differences. Are there any circumstances in which I could do what they have done?

Why is it we are we so fascinated by murder? I believe for two reasons.

First, murder is the ultimate crime – because there is no possible restitution.

When a killer takes someone’s life, that life can never be returned. Victims are destroyed, and the lives of their loved ones blighted for ever.

One such victim who deeply moved me was Trish Bernal, whose beautiful daughter, Claire, was shot dead in the London department store Harvey Nichols, in 2009, by her former boyfriend, Michael Pech, a security guard at the store.

They had only dated for a short while, but Pech simply could not accept the relationship was over.

Trish wanted to help prevent other vulnerable people enduring the hell and ultimate fate Claire suffered, by giving me details about the personality of Pech, the background and traits of obsession that he showed, though she made no stipulations about how the material was to be used.

Her insights helped me to create one of my most convincing and scary villains, Bryce Laurent in Want You Dead.

Second, each of us is actually capable of murder – and many of us have at some moment in our lives contemplated it – but fortunately, most of us not too seriously.

We all have the requisite tools – our bare hands, kitchen knives, wire, hammers, cabinets full of drugs. And for disposal of a body, we possess saws, bin-liners, shovels and vehicles.

Yet for all of that, the murder rate in the UK is a relatively small 650 a year, when compared to over 12,000 in the U.S. Why is it so low here?

I believe it’s because most of us have a conscience, and could not live with the knowledge of having killed. We can understand the motives of many murderers.

A ruthless armed robber who shoots out of greed; the terrorist who kills out of warped ideology; the professional hit man who kills for a fee; the husband who buries his wife beneath the kitchen floor because it’s quicker and cheaper than a divorce. The lover who kills in a fit of jealous rage. But what about the serial killer?

These are the ones who intrigue and chill us all the most.

The person who kills for sheer pleasure or satisfaction, the gratification derived from the act, driven by a mindset that is sometimes beyond comprehension, sometimes alien – and always repugnant to decent human beings.

As part of my research for You Are Dead, I studied a wide number of serial killers around the world, trying to establish what common denominators, if any, there were.

One who has long fascinated me, was Dennis Rader, self-styled BTK – Bind Torture Kill - who between 1974 and 1991 killed ten people in and around Wichita, Kansas. He liked to stalk, tie up and torture his victims before eventually despatching them.

Outwardly Rader was a seemingly ordinary family man – he was a church warden, scout leader and local government compliance officer. I saw the police videos of his interviews. In one, after he had confessed, the officer asked him why he did it?

‘It was erotic,’ he replied, chillingly. ‘It turned me on to tie them up.’

The officer asked him if he couldn’t simply have tied his wife up.

‘Oh sure, I used to do that but it got boring,’ he answered, totally matter-of-factly.

Our cultural fascination with serial killers is in part because so many of them are smart, cunning, personable and absolute chameleons – blending in to their environment, killing and escaping undetected for years and sometimes decades.

They both terrify and intrigue us because they could be living next door to any of us – or even be a close friend.

Ted Bundy, one of the true household names among serial killers, fits exactly that mould.

Good-looking, charming, highly intelligent and charismatic, he studied law and worked for the Republican party.

Born in 1946, he was executed in 1989, having confessed to murdering more than 35 young women.

After a troubled middle-class upbringing, he was dumped by his first love, a teenager with long brown hair and a centre parting.

Some months later he saw a similar-looking girl hitch-hiking, gave her a lift, then raped and strangled her.

‘That made me feel good,’ he confessed years later on Death Row.

He then went on a spree that was to last over a decade before his capture in 1975 and subsequent escape, and a further spree, before being recaptured in 1978.

There were occasions when he raped and killed two different women on the same day.

As with Rader, I saw tapes of the police interviews with Bundy.

One of the most chilling moments, and which I have used elements of in You Are Dead, was Bundy explaining to an FBI agent what he liked to do to his victims: ‘I would put my lips over hers and suck out her very last breath. That way she would never leave me, and I would possess her for ever.’

Clearly the moral codes of Bundy, Rader, Fred West, Harold Shipman and the rest are way outside the boundaries all decent people exist within. But are these people evil, or can excuses for their behaviour be found and explained through mental illness?

A while ago I was invited to spend a day at Broadmoor.

The criterion to be an inmate is to be violently, criminally insane. Few things have remained with me more indelibly than that visit.

There were a number of very scary moments, and much of the day filled with incredible darkness yet there were some surprising moments of light, too.

I asked the chaplain if he believed evil existed.

He said: ‘Every inmate fits into one of two categories – schizophrenics or psychopaths.

'Schizophrenics are born with a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to delusions.

'Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is one. He heard voices from God telling him to go and kill prostitutes.

‘Schizophrenia can be treated with medication, and a percentage of schizophrenics can, in time, be released and live normal lives, provided they remain on their medication permanently.

'But psychopaths are very different.’

Much research has been done on psychopathy.

Essentially, a psychopath is born hard-wired different to the majority of us – they have a lack of empathy.

Evidence of this can present at a very early age – such as stealing his or her best friend’s favourite toy, with no guilt.

How that child develops is going to be in some considerable part down to the parenting. Brought up in a kind, loving, nurturing family, that child can grow up to become a captain of industry, a top politician and often, as we have seen, the leader of a nation.

Many psychopaths are highly intelligent and personable people.

In his book, Our Own Worst Enemy, psychologist Norman F Dixon wrote: ‘To be born a psychopath is the best possible qualification to get you to the top in life.

'Unfortunately it is the worst qualification to then keep you there.’

Robert Maxwell, Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, are just a few among the vast A-list of utterly ruthless people who used their cunning to get to the top, but then through their hubris, were unable to sustain it.

The psychopathic child brought up in a dysfunctional family or by an abusive parent is a potentially dangerous person.

One classic example is Adolf Hitler – his bullying father forbidding him to become a painter may have been a trigger for the warped path his life then took.

There is a long list of multiple or serial killers who have a dark childhood history, but equally there are many serial killers who just don’t fit this mould.

In order to create my central villain for You Are Dead, I eventually singled out four names who had the character traits I needed – including having operated for many years without being caught.

They just blended into society discreetly, quietly, keeping beneath the radar.

What particularly fascinated me about these four was how, outwardly, they seemed very respectable men. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. Harold Shipman. Dennis Nilsen. These men came from a catalogue, hundreds of pages long, of murderers who have taken three or more lives at different times – the definition of a serial killer.

Shipman, a well-loved family doctor, from a caring family, is believed to have murdered over 215 people, making him our nation’s worst-ever serial killer. I used elements of his charm, his meekness and the trust he instilled in people.

Nilsen was in the Army, then a police officer, then executive officer for a job centre. He had a massive ego and deep insecurity, exactly as my killer does.

Just like Bundy, my villain is attracted to women in a certain age range and with a specific hairstyle.

Like Rader, my villain has a sadistic streak.

And like my villain, all four got away with their killings over many years. Each nearly got away with it completely.

Serial killers are smart, that’s how they avoid detection for so long. It never surprises me after one is finally arrested, to see the neighbour being interviewed on TV.

‘He was such a nice man...’

Peter James’s latest novel, ‘You Are Dead,’ is published by Pan Macmillan on May 21 and the paperback of ‘A Twist of the Knife’ on June 4.

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More funerals and a wedding (The Argus)

First published Friday 20 February 2015

by Duncan Hall

Duncan Hall speaks to Sussex-based author Peter James about the stage adaptation of his novel Dead Simple.

A STAG night prank gone wrong announced Brighton’s most famous detective to the wider world, and launched a series of books which has now sold in excess of 14 million copies.

Having made an appearance on stage as a young man in an adaptation of Peter James’s novella The Perfect Murder, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is returning to Theatre Royal Brighton in a form his fans may more readily recognise – the workaholic CID man with an interest in the occult and an unsolved mystery at the heart of his private life.

Dead Simple begins with future groom Michael Harrison being buried in a coffin somewhere in Ashdown Forest by his stag night buddies – only for the joke to turn sour when his pals are wiped out in a road accident.

His best man and business partner Mark Warren helped plan the prank, but missed out on the stag night itself after a delayed flight.

Rather than do the decent thing and dig his buddy out he decides to take advantage of the situation – feigning ignorance when Harrison’s beautiful fiancée Ashley calls in the police.

When Grace is handed the investigation he is prepared to use his own unorthodox methods to assist in the search and find out the truth behind Harrison’s disappearance.

It may be ten years since James first introduced the world to Grace, but the Sussex-based author hasn’t tired of his creation, as he prepares to release his 11th Roy Grace novel, You Are Dead, on Thursday, May 21.

“I’ve got no plans to push him over Beachy Head at the moment,” says James, who lives near Henfield. “Every time I start a new book it’s like sitting down with old mates.”

The same team behind The Perfect Murder – director Ian Talbot and writer Shaun McKenna – has adapted Dead Simple. And this homecoming run has already proved so popular an extra matinee performance has been added.

Playing the unfortunate Michael is former EastEnder Jamie Lomas, with Holby City’s Tina Hobley as his intended and Emmerdale’s Rik Makarem as the conniving Mark.

Taking the lead role is Gray O’Brien, who featured as Cockney wideboy taxi driver Don Kirk in The Perfect Murder, but is best known for his villainous role as Coronation Street’s ruthless businessman turned murderer Tony Gordon.

It was partly reactions from theatre audiences of The Perfect Murder which saw O’Brien land the coveted role.

“A lot of fans in the question and answer sessions after the performances said he would be a wonderful Roy Grace,” says James. “Towards the end of the run he approached me and said if there was a chance to play Grace on stage he would like to be considered. He’s doing a really good job.”

James encouraged him to spend time with Sussex’s finest in preparation for the role – hooking O’Brien up with the original inspiration for Grace, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gaylor, and organising work shadowing with several detectives working from Grace’s offices in Sussex House.

“I wanted him to get a sense of how they talk and act,” says James.

“The police have a different way of talking and standing, particularly when they are interviewing or questioning somebody.

“I think one of the qualifications for being a police officer which people don’t realise is you have to be bloody brave, with quite a strong personality. To be able to walk up to a stranger to stop and search them, or go through a door not knowing what’s on the other side takes bravery.

“No police officer ever knows what is around the corner.

“I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands of police officers, both here in Sussex and in countries around the world, and the question I always ask is whether at any point in their career they had their life on the line. Every copper has, although they often don’t think about it at the time.”

Policing is still one of the few careers where everyone starts at the bottom.

“People like [Chief Constable] Giles York and [Chief Superintendent] Nev Kemp all began as beat coppers – they have all been out on patrol, have got into bundles, and arrested people with their own hands. They know what it’s like to be a police officer out there.”

When it came to the portrayal of Brighton’s most famous copper on stage James had his say after seeing him for the first time in a dress rehearsal.

“O’Brien’s clothes made him look more like a pantomime clown,” says James. “They had him wearing cream shoes!

“I took him and the director aside and explained how Grace is a sharply dressed guy. I got him a whole new wardrobe so he looked smart. Major crimes detectives are sharply dressed – they never know when they are going to have to talk to somebody in authority, or to the family of somebody who has just died.”

He admits he wasn’t tempted to adapt his own novel.

“I prefer to invent and do new things,” he says. “It’s such a different process – I felt it would be better to let somebody who understands how it works do it. Shaun has adapted Lord Of The Rings and many other books prior to this – I don’t think I would have done as good a job as he has.”

There have been elements from the original novel which have been dropped – not least the first appearance of Grace’s future squeeze mortician Cleo Morey, who is set to appear in the next Roy Grace adaptation.

“Dead Simple ran to about 120,000 words,” says James. “A playscript is only 20,000, so that’s how much which has had to be taken out!”

Some plot points have also required creative thinking on McKenna’s part – not least the cross-county car chase which closed the original novel.

“We have changed the whole ending,” admits James. “It’s great for people who have read the book as there are quite a few different twists in the play.”

The stage design, by Michael Taylor who created the West End and touring versions of Graham Linehan’s take on The Ladykillers, combines a seafront flat with a mobile home and the glass-sided underground coffin space where the unfortunate Lomas spends the first act.

As part of his research for the original book James was locked into a coffin by a family firm of undertakers for 30 minutes – an experience he isn’t keen to repeat.

He told the Coventry Telegraph last month: “I arrived at 2am and there was this doddery old grandfather in his 80s.

“I’m claustrophobic and spent the whole 30 minutes trying to think calm thoughts. But I couldn’t help thinking ‘What if he drops dead?’ or ‘What if he forgets I‘m inside?’”

Research is one of the major differences between James’s career as a crime writer, and his previous passion as a horror novelist.

He is releasing his first ghost story in 20 years in October.

“You can be much more free with a ghost story,” he says. “In crime fiction it has to be right.

“You Are Dead is about Brighton’s first serial killer in 20 years. It starts with a dead body being found at Hove Lagoon, outside Norman Cook’s Big Beach Cafe during renovation work.

“It would be a major crime scene, but even with something like that there is so much research I have to do – what happens if a workman digging up an asphalt path finds skeletal remains, which police teams would be involved? Every step down the road needs detailed research.

“Doing the research I have learned so much about human nature. It’s part of my fascination with the police – nobody sees more of human nature in a 30-year career. A psychiatrist sees a lot, but not firsthand in one day.”

A day he spent shadowing Brighton and Hove’s duty inspector perhaps explains why Grace appears to be such a workaholic.

“It started at 7am with a cot death, in a situation where police have to give pastoral care and sympathy but be mindful it could be a potential crime scene,” he says.

“At 9am we got called to a case of domestic abuse, with a woman beaten up by a live-in boyfriend. At 11am an international student was hit by a bus and had to be helped as she couldn’t speak much English. And at 12.30pm we went to see an elderly couple who had their entire life savings taken by a guy who came to read the meter. It just went on...”

In the last ten years he has seen a lot of changes in the way the police work, particularly in terms of the high-tech equipment they use – something he has tried to incorporate in the stage version of Dead Simple.

“I don’t think any other organisation changes as fast as the police,” he says.

“I remember eight or nine years ago going to their morning meeting – or morning prayers – at the John Street Police Station where the divisional inspectors go through everything which has happened in the last 24 hours.

“I remember Chief Superintendent Kevin Moore turned to me and said it was the first time since records began that there hadn’t been an overnight burglary in the city of Brighton And Hove. The old style night-time creeper is gone – they can make more money as drug dealers or internet fraudsters. Criminals don’t need to be out late at night, and it is harder to sell stuff. I have seen the high tech crime unit expand and expand.

“Government budget changes have had an horrific impact. The police are a major part of the glue which holds civilised life together – and the budget cuts and border changes are reducing their operational abilities.”

James is already in talks with producers about future plays – with plans to either adapt another Roy Grace novel, or bring his forthcoming ghost story to the stage.

And there is good news on the long-mooted small screen debut of Grace.

“The television adaptation is moving forward slowly, but in the right direction,” says James – who says part of the reason for the delay is due to the BBC wanting to change a fundamental element of the story.

“They wanted to relocate the story to Scotland if you can believe it! That got a firm Foxtrot Oscar from me.

“It could end up being in production by the end of the year – I certainly think it’s going to happen for sure.”

James is looking forward to bringing his home city to a wider audience – and show the city how it is today.

“In the 1950s and 1960s Brighton was dirty, seedy and nasty,” he says. “There were quite a few gangster families around, and the young ones would hang out in the pubs and throw their weight around.

“When I was at [public school] Charterhouse I would tell people I was from Sussex rather than admit to Brighton. Now, although I live outside the city, I tell people I’m from Brighton – it has become a civilised place, and I think we owe part of that to a very good policing policy.

“There is relatively little knife or gun crime, we don’t have a lot of those problems. It has come through its dark heritage with a positive energy.”

He’s very much looking forward to Dead Simple coming to Brighton.

“My parents had regular seats at the Theatre Royal Brighton,” he says. “Every Thursday night they would be there three rows back from the stage. I would sit there and dream that one day something I wrote would be performed on there.

“When I went on stage after The Perfect Murder to say a few words I nearly cried – it was such a moment. To be recognised in your own home is a lovely feeling.”

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