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The name's James, Peter James (Meanjin)

Chris Flynn June 07

At the Picador party I was fortunate enough to attend in Sydney recently as part of the writer’s festival, my eyes zeroed in on two of Pan Macmillan’s literary stars—Tara Moss, who seemed to be somewhere in the region of nine feet tall in real life, and debonair British crime writer Peter James, whose Roy Grace detective novels I was converted to a few years back, along with eleven million other people.

It’s always exciting meeting writers you admire, doubly so when they turn out to be several shades of awesome. James is one of the most interesting and honest authors in the business, renowned for his exacting research, forthright opinions and penchant for stunts that would have Roger Moore raising an impressed eyebrow. Though I didn’t know it at the time of our boozy conversation, he later sent me a link to the terrifying stunt he pulled for the release of his novel Dead Man’s Grip in 2011, in which a sunken Transit van was hoisted by crane from Shoreham Harbour, the doors opening to reveal the author himself trapped inside. (It was a re-enactment of a scene from the novel)

James told me of his recent visit to a Brighton prison, where he had asked the governor permission to interview the most notorious burglar in custody, and gotten along extremely well with the fellow. All this in order to capture the precise details of a forthcoming character. This level of research is typical of James’s approach to writing, which is encapsulated by three main concepts he frequently espouses—engrossing characters, an intriguing plot and exhaustive research. He is well known to Police forces around the world, accompanying officers on raids and spending an almost unhealthy amount of time with honest-to-Betsy psychopaths and other sundry criminals.

The payoff is clear for all to see in his novels, which have an amount of detail that makes you wonder if James himself wouldn’t be well suited to opening his own private detective agency. As it is, he already has the rakish air of Commander Bond about him. He has a racing driver’s licence and has owned several classic Aston Martin cars, not to mention a World War Two bomber that is now housed in the Imperial War Museum.

As if all this is not unlikely enough, it turns out James used to be a movie producer as well, working with Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron and Al Pacino. Hanging out with Hollywood royalty gave him an early insight into the world of celebrity that he is now experiencing himself, and as he explains on his wonderfully readable blog, this does have its downside.

The latest Roy Grace novel, Not Dead Yet, is about a celebrity stalker who is prepared to go to gruesome lengths to pester Gaia Lafayette, a Madonna-esque star who is in Brighton to film an historical drama she thinks might be the next King’s Speech. James of course spent time with the Los Angeles Police Department’s stalker unit and a Madonna obsessive, though as he points out on his blog, this one was a little close to home.

James has had his own stalker for some time now, and documents the disturbing email exchange they have had in worrying detail. Unusually for someone so successful, James has an open relationship with his readers, who interact with him freely both in the comments section of his blog posts and directly via his personal email, which he lists openly on his site and in the colophon of his books. This may have cost him his privacy and made it easier for a clearly unhinged fan to bother him repeatedly, but it is also highly refreshing to come across a best-selling author who embraces social media and enjoys a constant engagement with his audience. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he has been vociferous on the subject of literary snobbery towards crime writing, wisely pointing out that if Shakespeare and Dickens were penning novels today, half of their oeuvre would be classified as crime fiction.

If you want to lose a fortnight in a very pleasant manner, James has several years of amusing and fascinating blog posts or you could throw yourself into the whirlpool that is the Roy Grace series, the eighth of which is Not Dead Yet, the complex tapestry of characters rendering this book akin to a season of The Wire, as written by Graham Greene.

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