‘If I was unlucky enough to have one of my family murdered, he’s the man I’d want running the investigation’: Peter James on DSI Roy Grace
Roy Grace is the eponymous detective on the case in Peter James’s bestselling crime fiction series. Here Peter tells us all about the real-life inspiration behind his hero.
With DSI Roy Grace on the case, Brighton’s criminals don’t stand a chance. Peter James’s much-loved detective has been solving crimes since his first case in 2005’s Dead Simple, but the one mystery he hasn’t yet been able to solve is that of his missing wife Sandy. We spoke to Peter about this thread which runs through the series, the real-life detective who inspired his books and the other fictional crime-fighters Roy Grace has teamed up with.
Can’t get enough crime fiction? Don’t miss the best crime fiction books of 2020.
Are there any real people that inspired DSI Roy Grace? If so, who, and what elements of their personality inspired you?
I was approached in 2002 by my publisher, Pan Macmillan, to create a new fictional detective. Years earlier, in 1995, I had been introduced to a young Detective Inspector called David Gaylor, a rising star in Sussex CID. I went into his office and found it full of plastic crates bulging with manila folders. He explained to me that in addition to his current homicide investigation work, he had been tasked with reopening cold cases and applying new forensic developments to them.
He said something that really touched me: “Each of these crates contains the principal case files of an unsolved murder: I am the last chance each of the victims has for justice, and I am the last chance each of their families have for closure.”
I loved the deeply human aspects of this man. During his work he saw the most terrible sights imaginable (and unimaginable) during his work, yet he retained a calm gentle humanity – and this aspect is one of the key characteristics of almost every homicide detective I have met: They are calm, kind and very caring people. In very many cases they develop a close relationship with the victim’s loved ones, and solving the crime becomes personal to them. It is the reason why so often, even years after they have from the force, that many detectives still continue to work away on any case they could not solve during their career. FBI founder J Edgar Hoover, said: “No greater honour will ever be bestowed on an officer, nor a more profound duty imposed on him, than when he or she is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being.”
At this first encounter with DI David Gaylor, he asked me about the novel I was then working on, and immediately started coming up with creative suggestions involving the policing aspects – and other aspects too. I realized that to be a good homicide investigator you had to have not only a very analytical mind, but also a very creative one. This is because the solving of every major crime is a massive puzzle, usually with a key bit missing. From that day onwards, I would discuss the plots of my next novels in advance with him. So when Pan Macmillan asked me about creating this new fictional detective, David had risen to become Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, in charge of Major Crime Reviews. I asked him how he would feel about becoming a fictional character – and he loved the idea! He now reads every hundred pages as I am writing, and gives me his view on how a real detective in Roy Grace’s position would think.
What do you think separates DSI Roy Grace from other detectives?
Like my real-life Roy Grace, I like his very human side. But also I find it interesting that his job is to solve mysteries, and yet he has his own mystery that he can’t solve. I feel like he’s my mate, and that he’d be good fun to spend an evening with, but more seriously, if ever I was unlucky enough to have one of my family murdered, he’s the man I’d want running the investigation.
Do you know how many books you would like to write in the Roy Grace series as yet?
I have no definite number in mind at all – I will continue writing them so long as my fans are enjoying them. I have the next three in the series already outlined.
When you first started writing the DSI Roy Grace series, did you know where Grace's journey would end, or do you let this take shape as you write each book?
When I was asked if I was interested in creating a new fictional detective I was given a two-book contract. I didn’t know if the books would be successful or not, so in Dead Simple I planned to set up the mystery of Roy Grace’s missing wife Sandy, and then solve it in the second book Looking Good Dead. I was completely taken by surprise with the enthusiastic response by my readers to the Sandy mystery and was deluged with speculations as to what might have happened to her. Once my publishers asked me to continue the series within weeks of Dead Simple being published, I thought it would be fun to keep the Sandy missing wife back story ongoing.
Which other fictional detective would you like to see Roy Grace team up with?
Actually, I have already had Roy Grace team up with a couple! I have written a story called ‘In the Nick of Time’ with Ian Rankin in an anthology called Face Off. We had Grace and Rebus working on a case together and it was hugely enjoyable writing it.
The whole concept of Face Off, asking crime and thriller writers to have their central detective characters collaborate with another fictitious detective was both brilliant and highly daunting. Also, although Ian Rankin and I are both British, the laws and police procedures in Scotland, where his character John Rebus operates, are different to those in England, where my character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace operates. But right from the get-go, the collaboration was a really joyful experience.
I’ve known him for some years and always found him to be a delightful, friendly, generous-spirited guy, and all of this came through in spades during our time working together on this. Ian has a huge amount of knowledge about music, and it was his idea to hang the story around a cold case, and a rock and roll era, connecting our two cities of Brighton and Edinburgh. We met over a pint – or three – of beer in Scotland to kick it around, Ian started the ball rolling by writing a couple of pages which he sent to me, then I continued while he went off on tour to the US. We wrote the story in quite a short time period, with no arguments whatsoever. It was a strange feeling writing some of the scenes in which I had his central characters act and speak – I felt as if I was treading on sacred ground! I think the only real challenge was the amount of alcohol consumption the whole collaboration required.
Val McDermid and I also co-wrote a short story called ‘Footloose’ with Grace and Tony Hill, for an anthology called Match Up which was fun.
Photo credit: © James Clarke