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'All our lives are informed by crime'

Peter James Britain’s No. 1 detective writer on his craft. A few years ago, as part of his close interactions with the police, British crime fiction writer Peter James met detective superintendent David Gaylor. Antara Das writes.

books Updated: Mar 04, 2011 21:20 IST
Antara Das

A few years ago, as part of his close interactions with the police, British crime fiction writer Peter James met detective superintendent David Gaylor. "These are my dead friends," Gaylor had said, pointing at the boxes filled with manila folders in his office. He had then explained that each folder was the principal case file from an unsolved murder, being re-examined with advanced forensic technology. "I am the last chance these victims have for justice and their families for closure," Gaylor had said.

Gaylor inspired 62-year-old James to create the fictional detective Roy Grace around nine years ago, the protagonist of the 'dead' series of bestsellers: Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Not Dead Enough, Dead Man's Footsteps and Dead Tomorrow (titles that can't be copied, says James, in case you are wondering).

As Grace potters around Brighton - where James grew up and now lives - unravelling crime, Gaylor keeps track of him, reading the manuscript and advising James on how a detective's mind operates. "Though Brighton is a big seaside resort, it always had a dark underbelly," says James, here in Delhi as part of a week-long trip to India.

"It has a perfect criminal environment - miles of unguarded coastline, a small airport with no customs or immigration, lots of escape routes and a large number of antique shops where you can get rid of stolen material," he adds. A lovely place, as the Roy Grace covers with their depiction of the piers and promenades would attest to, but "with an edge to it".

James's close involvement with police procedurals inspires many of the plots, including Dead Like You, the sixth Roy Grace novel that also topped the Sunday Times bestseller list in 2011. It came about after James attended a three-hour presentation on the Shoe Man of Rotherham, Yorkshire at a police conference in the US.

Between 1983 and 1987, the Shoe Man had stalked and raped a series of women returning alone late at night, targeting only those who wore expensive stilettos and taking away the women's shoes after the rape. Sixteen years after that trail had gone cold, the police accidentally stumbled upon his identity. That insight into human nature is what makes a detective's work so fascinating, where you get to see "how ordinary, how normal some of the worst criminals are".

Having just assumed charge of the Britain's Crime Writers Association (that hands out an annual literary award called the Daggers), James has his work cut out: to beat the snobbery of literary novels and rescue crime writing from being treated as inferior. "All our lives are informed by crime, whether we are speeding, dodging taxes, or trying to avoid a parking fee," James says. "We are all capable of anything; what we are not capable of is living with the consequences."