An interview with Peter James

25 November 2014

By Pan Macmillan

We sat down with bestselling author Peter James to find his top five favourite crime novels and the first book he remembers falling in love with.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

The South of France. I spent all my childhood summers there – my parents had as flat near St Tropez. I hated school so I looked forward to the escape of these holidays all year. I love the warmth in the air, the smells, particularly of Thyme, the sounds of the cicadas at night, the colour of the sea, and the food! I’m a people person, and I have bene to a number of remote island and remote wildernesses, but I still come back to the South of France because it has a fantastic amount of style. It also has a seedy side, a dark side, (its most famous and most beautiful hotel, The Hotel Du Cap, was the HQ of the SS during WW2) and a truly raffish and decadent side, with the casinos and the incredible opulence. I love fast cars and the South of France is one of the few places where you can drive, say, an Aston Martin without looking ostentatious. And just a few kilometres across the hills behind the coast and you are into some of the most unspoilt, beautiful terrain in the world.

Tell us your top five crime novels of all time

Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (being interested in the supernatural this novel combined my interests in this field with crime)

The Con Man by Ed McBain – I read it when I was young and this was the crime novel that excited me more than any other novel I had previously read.

The Deep Blue Good-Bye by John D Macdonald. I fell in love with his work years back, after reading this, and devoured everything he wrote. Macdonald created the ultimate laconic character, Travis Mcgee, who lived on a houseboat on the Florida Keys and drove a Rolls Royce pick-up truck – and mostly got things back for people who had lost them, as well as sorting out their other problems. To me he is a much better writer than Chandler because his stories were better constructed.

Running Blind by Desmond Bagley. I can honestly say that the day I put this book down, was the day I decided to start writing my own novel. Somehow in reading this wonderful book, I realized that to captivate a reader you needed somehow to bring magic to the page – but it wasn’t elusive magic, it seemed to be spelled out for me in Bagley’s writing. I read everything he wrote and then I felt an epiphany, an “I could do this!” moment.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. They say he is the man and you just have to read him to understand why. Characters, characters, characters. He often doesn’t have a lot of tension in his stories but he doesn’t need to. His characters are so good you have them reading names out of the phone directory for three hundred pages and you’d still be hooked!

Who is your favourite fictional detective?

Sherlock Holmes. I was addicted from the first book I read. There was a scene in which Holmes deduced that a suspect lived in a house where the bathroom window, and therefore the light source was on the left (I think) of the washbasin, because the left side of his face was always better shaved. I was blown away by this detail. And I just love the whole complexity of the man.

What’s the first book you remember falling in love with?

Gosh there are so many! The first Sherlock Holmes I read, for sure, but the one book that totally blew me away, and still does is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It is so funny, yet so deep and thought provoking, and so, so beautiful. It really changed the way I look at the world. If I could read just one book before I was to be executed, it would be this book.

Which book do you wish you had written and why?

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. Brighton Rock does what in my view any great thriller should do – it grips you from the very first line: “Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours.” And then it smacks you right between the eyes in the very last line – one that surely must be among the darkest of all last lines in literature, when the wide-eyed, dim-witted, 16-year-old Rose clutching all that is left of her beloved Pinkie, a record he made on Brighton Pier, in which she thinks that he is telling her how much he loves her, but in fact is telling her that he hates her, heading off to play it for the first time…

Interestingly in the film adaptation of this novel, in my view that rare thing – an extremely faithful adaptation, starring Richard Attenborough as an awesomely convincing Pinkie, this ending was very cleverly changed to make it more visual. In the film, Rose enters the booth, starts playing the record and it gets stuck in a groove, repeating over and over, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you…” the audience left to speculate whether she will nudge the arm and then hear the hideous truth. “You think I’m making this recording to say I love you, but I’m not. I hate you…”

Philip Larkin famously wrote that novels have “a beginning, a muddle and an end.” Not Brighton Rock. Maybe because it is set in a place that I know intimately, warts and all, it has a particular resonance for me, but it grips me all the way through, not so much with its action suspense – which is plentiful – but in its so very real portrayal of human low-life. Like all Graham Greene novels, the true strength lies in his characters. Green has that rare ability to create, in a thumbnail sketch of just a couple of lines, characters you instantly know. And I think of all the characters he ever created, Pinkie is among the best. A brilliantly fleshed out and complex 17 year old boy gangster, streetwise yet curiously na├»ve, and riddled with confusion about Catholism – reflecting Greene’s most abiding theme throughout his canon of work. Pinkie is a character as vivid in my head today, as 40 years back when I first read this book.

Are there any writers that you think have influenced your work?

Yes many. I think in terms of style the writers I was most captivated by as a younger reader were Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. Today I would say one strong modern influence is Ian Rankin, particularly in the way he touches on social issues in his work – and I believe that great writing should have relevance to its times.

If you had three wishes, what would they be?

1. That I could wake up and find my next novel was already finished!

2. That I could drive and finish in the Le Mans 24 hour car race.

3. That I could meet and talk with a ghost.

Are there any books that you’re ashamed not to have read yet?

It is a scarily long list!!! I suppose top is Lord Of The Rings – I could never get into it as a child. A few years ago I took The Hobbit away on holiday and got bored with it. I watched the first film and found it numbingly boring. I thought to myself if one more bearded goblin walks past yet another CGI generated fake fantastic landscape and gets into yet another fight, I’m going to walk out. Instead, I fell asleep.

What is your favourite film?

I have three equal favourites that I could watch forever. The first is Casablanca I just love the characters, the dilemma, and the fantastic morality of the ending. I love The Third Man with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, the incredible setting of post-war Vienna, where my mother was from, the whole moral question of how far does friendship go, , and that music! And my perennial, Desert Island movie, would be Return of the Pink Panther. The funniest of all the Peter Sellers Clouseau movies, the one with the lines everyone quotes – “You have a licenze for your minkey…?" And a dozen others. Doesn’t matter how miserable you are, you will be lifted by this film.

And your favourite song?

Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair). It came out in about 1967 just at the whole hippie/free love thing was exploding. I was at Charterhouse, in my last days and I met this stunning Brazilian model, ten years older than me, and was smitten and then fell madly in love with her. I absconded from school for a weekend, which we spent in bed in a flat in Russell Square in Bloomsbury, and this became “our” song. I still go weak when I hear it!

If you could invite three fictional characters to a dinner party at your house, who would they be?

I think a wonderful combination would be to have Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson together with Hannibal Lecter. It would be an extraordinary meeting – and possibly eating – of minds!!!

What is your favourite time of day to write?

6pm – 9.30pm in the evening. I mix a massive vodka martini, always with four olives, put on either jazz or opera, turn off the phone and log off from my email and start blitzing.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

Normally about 6-7 months for the first draft than a couple of weeks to revise.

What is your favourite word?

I discovered the word palimpsest years ago and loved it. It is full of intrigue – even the way it is pronounced…

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