An interview with Peter James, author of You Are Dead

PeterJamesPlease welcome Peter James to the blog! You Are Dead (Detective Superintendent Roy Grace) just came out in Oct. in the US, and Peter kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!

Pssst: Books 4-9 of the series are only $4.99 on Kindle right now.
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a little about You Are Dead?


A young Brighton woman arriving home from work phones her boyfriend, to tell him she has just driven into their underground car park and can see a man acting strangely. Her boyfriend tells her to drive straight back out but before he finishes speaking she screams and the phone goes dead. He calls the police and rushes home himself – and she has vanished.

That same afternoon, workmen digging up a park in another part of the city, unearth the remains of a woman in her early twenties, who has been dead for thirty years. At first, to Roy Grace and his team, these two events seem totally unconnected. But then another young woman in Brighton goes missing – and yet another body from the past surfaces. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace has the chilling realization that there is a connection between the past and the present. Does Brighton have its first serial killer in over eighty years? A monster who has resurfaced after lying low for three decades?

Why do you think readers will root for DS Roy Grace? What makes him a compelling character?

I think it really helps that Roy Grace is based very closely on a real life former detective called Dave Gaylor (although they do not look the same physically). I first made Dave when he was an inspector, many years ago. I walked into his office which was covered in large blue boxes. I asked him if he was moving and he replied, “No, these are my dead friends.” He then explained he was in charge of cold cases and each box contained the key files on a murder investigation. He said that he was the last chance each of the victims had of justice, and the last chance each of the families had for closure. I loved this very human image, and have used it as part of Roy’s character.

In creating Roy Grace I thought very hard about what it is that detectives really do, and I realized that more than anything else, what they do is to solve puzzles. I thought it would be intriguing to create a detective who had a puzzle of his own that he could not solve – which is how the riddle of Roy’s missing wife, Sandy, came about. I think his inability to solve the mystery is part of what does make him so human.

The third aspect to Roy is his interest in the paranormal, which is in part a PJ touch (!) but in part based on reality. Many police officers will turn to the paranormal as another avenue when all else fails (this happened in Portugal in the terrible Madeleine McCann case). But also I wanted Roy Grace to be my own mouthpiece as well, for my views on all kinds of things, and I use him effectively for this!

Probably the most important thing is that I like Roy Grace himself and feel connected to him in a far stronger way than with any previous character. And I really like him – he’s like my invisible best friend! I do think that the most important thing of all in a novel are the characters. All people read novels to find out what happens to characters they get to know and like and care about.

Did you do any specific research for the book?

In my research to create my central villain for this novel, I met a number of convicted killers both in and out of prison. I eventually singled out four names. These came from a catalogue, hundreds of pages long, of murderers who have taken three or more lives at different times – the actual definition of a serial killer. Ted Bundy. Dennis Rader. Harold Shipman. Dennis Nilsen. What fascinated me about these was how, outwardly they seemed very respectable men. Shipman was a well-loved family doctor. Nilsen was in the army, then a police officer, then Executive Officer for a Jobcentre. All four of these got away with their killings over many years. Each of them very nearly got away with it completely.

You Are Dead is the 11th book in the DS Roy Grace series. What are the challenges and the rewards in writing an ongoing series?

I really love writing a series and don’t find it restricting. I typically write my Roy Grace novels from three different perspectives: That of the offender, that of the victim and that of the police – Roy Grace and his team. I love writing all three perspectives equally – with Roy and his team it is great for me to meet up with them again – I feel I’m returning to my family! It is very strange, actually, because I have come to view Roy Grace as a very close friend. I don’t go so far as to talk to him, but I feel I know him – and that I am often thinking like him. Every Roy Grace novel is a standalone, and they can be read in any order, although going through from the beginning of the series readers will get more out of the running threads. The challenges are largely around keeping consistency and moving the story of each of the characters forward. I also try really hard to raise the bar with each book.

You have a background in television, but have you always wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was a small child I wanted to be a writer and to make films. I wanted to entertain people but at the same time I wanted through these media to examine the world and society in which we live. But I never thought I had any talent…. My first break was when I was seventeen I won a national short story competition run by the BBC and had to read my story out on air. I loved doing that and it made me realize that much though the printed books is the bedrock of novels, there are all kinds of other media where the written and spoken word can be used to wonderful effect. After all long before printing was invented, stories were told and passed on orally. Now in my work today, I find the crime novel is the best genre through which I can explore the world in which we live. And because of my years of experience in making films and television I intend eventually bring my Roy Grace novels to the television screen myself, hopefully assuring the integrity of the books this way.

What’s one of the first things you remember writing?

When I was 16 I sent a true story to Private Eye magazine, who printed it and paid me the princely sum of ten shillings (about ten pounds in today’s money): It was the story of an American inventor, called Reuben Tice, who decided more people would eat prunes if they weren’t wrinkled. So he built a steam pressure machine to de-wrinkle them – and was killed when the machine exploded and he was struck on the head by the lid.

Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

I wanted to write suspense crime novels from the age of 11, when I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. I was blown away by the powers of observation of this amazing detective and decided that one day I would try to create a detective who was as clever as Holmes. I am fascinated by human nature, why we do the things that we do and I think the best way to observe the world is through the eyes of the police. During a career in the police force the average officer will see almost every facet of the human condition – from violence to tragedy to comedy. From wealth to poverty. From good people to totally evil people.

In addition, I find the law and the whole criminal world fascinating. There is no question in my mind that the police are the glue that holds civilised life together.

What authors have inspired you the most?

In my mid-teens I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and I was totally blown away by it – probably even more so because it was set in my home town. I promised myself that one day I would try to write a crime novel set in Brighton that was just half as good as this one.

What I love most about this timeless novel is that it is both a thriller and a crime novel, although police play only a tiny part. The story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the villains and two women who believe they can redeem them. Greene has a way of describing characters in just a few lines that makes you feel you know them inside out, and his sense of “place” is almost palpable. The book has one of the most grabbing opening lines ever written, and one of the very best last lines, clever, tantalizing and very, very “noir”. Greene captures so vividly the dark underbelly of Brighton, a relevant now as when it was first published in 1937, and the characters are wonderful, deeply human, deeply flawed and tragic. What lifts this even further is the way that Greene uses this novel to explore the big themes of religious faith, love and honour, without ever letting the pace slacken, for even one line.

Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?

I read avidly and widely and my biggest regret is that being a writer ironically means I never get to read as much as I want. The reason is I don’t like to read fiction while I am in the first draft writing process – which is around 7 months of each year – as it is too easy to pick up someone else’s style. But then I read huge amounts of non-fiction, some for research and some for pleasure. I recently really enjoyed I Let You Go by Claire Macintosh. I was first sent it as a proof, asking for a quote, and I was utterly gripped. It is wonderfully written, with credible and interesting characters, and has one of the most astonishing twists I’ve ever read, turning the story completely on hits head halfway through. It was one of those rare books I put down thinking, “Gosh, wish I’d written this!”

I’ve learned a lot from some of the great classical writers – in particular Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene, as I mentioned previously. I’ve never been comfortable with “genre” boundaries. In my view, great writing is great writing whether it is labelled “thriller”, “crime”, “general fiction”, “horror” or anything else. There are some fine UK crime writers, whose work I really like, including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Brian McGillivray, Anne Cleeves, Stuart McBride and many others, but I tend to read more US writers. I used to love John D Macdonald’s funky Travis McGee series, I was a great fan of Stephen King’s early novels, in particular Carrie and The Shining, and I think Ira Levin wrote two of the greatest, darkest books ever written, Rosemary’s Baby and The Boys From Brazil. I like James Ellroy, and I love Elmore Leonard – he just writes the most fabulous characters. Two of my favourite crime novels of the past decade or so are Silence Of The Lambs and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer.

Also recently I have been reading Patricia Highsmith, a very recent discovery for me. I have seen Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, but had never read her novels. She is such a brilliant writer.

What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m currently working hard to finish Roy Grace 12, it’s called Love You Dead. I have the stage play of my novella, ‘The Perfect Murder’, coming back on tour early next year so we are casting for that. It will star Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace and has had two hugely successful nationwide tours already. I hope also to share some good news about Roy Grace on TV soon!

Keep up with Peter: Website | Twitter

About You Are Dead:
In Peter James’ You Are Dead, the last words Jamie Ball hears from his fiancée, Logan Somervile, are in a terrified mobile phone call from her. She has just driven into the underground car park beneath the apartment block where they live in Brighton, and seen a man acting strangely. Then she screams and the phone goes dead. The police are on the scene within minutes, but Logan has vanished, leaving behind her neatly parked car and cell phone.

That same afternoon, workmen digging up an old asphalt path in a park in another part of the city, unearth the remains of a young woman in her early twenties, who has probably been dead for 30 years.

At first, to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace and his Major Crime Team, these two events seem totally unconnected. But then another young woman in Brighton goes missing and another body from the past surfaces. At the same time a strange man visits an eminent London psychiatrist, claiming to have a piece of information on the missing woman, Logan, that turns out, at first, to be wrong-or so it seems. It is only later Roy Grace makes the chilling realization that this one thing is the key to both the past and the present-and now, beyond any doubt, he knows that Brighton has its first ever serial killer.

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