Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dining with a “Dead” Man

London’s crime/thriller literary scene is rather civilized, with launch parties, bookstore signings, and the famous literary lunches during which reviewers have a chance to meet with writers, editors, agents, and publishers and talk about books and the writing life. My busy schedule makes it tough to “do lunch” very often, but every once in a while I’m able to accept an invitation--as I did last Wednesday, when I had the delightful opportunity to meet Peter James, the British film producer and author of Dead Simple, which was released earlier this year in the States.

We met for lunch at The Wolseley, a renowned local restaurant located next door to The Ritz in Piccadilly. Also joining us were Crime Time editor Barry Forshaw, novelist and literary critic Mark Timlin, and Carla McKay, a regular reviewer for Karen Meek’s Euro Crime Web site as well as The Daily Mail. Once we were seated, Peter ordered some wine, while I stuck to an icy beer, and we toasted his latest thriller, Looking Good Dead, which has just been released in paperback in the UK. Then we shifted our conversation to the return of Thomas Harris and the release last week of Hannibal Rising. Mark and I were both enthusiastic about this fourth outing for Dr. Lecter, while we knew that Barry and Carla were lukewarm on the subject, at best. But like civilized people, we came to agreement on the opinion that Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988) represent the twin pinnacles of Harris’ work. (It’s interesting, by the way, that Peter James references The Silence of the Lambs in his latest detective thriller.)

I already knew some about Peter because of his early work in the horror genre, which had won him designation as “the British Stephen King.” I used to be heavily involved in that genre, and enjoyed some of Peter’s horror novels, such as Host, Possession, and Prophecy. But he’s not one to be constrained by genre boundaries; Peter has published thrillers as well as horror, and Dead Simple is the first entry in a police procedural series featuring Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton, England, constabulary. (The second entry, of course, is Looking Good Dead, which was at No. 2 in the UK paperback bestseller charts this week and will be released in the States next February by Carroll & Graf.) Over lunch, I talked with Peter about Grace and about Brighton, his south-coastal hometown. What he told me echoed something he’s written on his Web site:
“Roy Grace is a new, and very different detective, based in Brighton, in England--a city that is the favoured place to live in the UK for first division criminals (I was told this by a former Chief Constable). Grace’s own experience and personal loss--his wife, Sandy, has been missing for nine years--leaves him open-minded to all methods of police work in order to find the truth about the cases he investigates--and to try to find out what happened to his wife. He uses everything available, from high tech to old-fashioned police slog, from forensics [to] pathology analysis, and because of his own interest in the paranormal, [he’s] open to input from mediums and clairvoyants. I’m deeply fascinated by the many facets of police work, and particularly how it is changing with the times, and my research for the Grace novels takes me through almost all of it.”
We also talked, though, about his personal history. It seems Peter is the son of Cornelia James, glove manufacturer to the Queen. Educated at Charterhouse and then at film school, he began his career in North America working as a screenwriter and film producer (his projects included the award-winning 1974 horror flick Dead of Night) before returning to England. Until recently he was managing director of one of the largest UK film companies, Movision Entertainment, and has recently produced numerous films, including The Merchant of Venice, which starred Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes; Head in the Clouds, featuring Penelope Cruz and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron; and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, headlined by Robert DeNiro, Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, and Gabriel Byrne. In addition, Peter co-created the hit Channel 4 series Bedsitcom, which was nominated for a Rose d’Or Award.

He has written a dozen international bestsellers, which have been translated into 27 languages. Dead Simple sold more than 70,000 copies in hardback, and another 169,000 copies in paperback. Looking Good Dead sold in excess of 35,000 copies in its first month of publication and went straight onto the Sunday London Times bestseller list at No. 8. TV rights to both Dead Simple and Looking Good Dead have already been sold to Company Pictures. A two-part TV drama series is planned, with Peter writing the screenplay.

All of Peter James’s novels reflect his deep interests in criminology, medicine, science, and the paranormal. They are also meticulously researched, which for Dead Simple and Looking Good Dead meant that he had to spend several days at the Brighton and Hove mortuary, and many more days out on patrol and as a fly on the wall with several divisions of the Sussex Police. Peter has also studied the criminal mind by visiting Broadmoor Hospital, a maximum-security facility, and he works closely with the Brighton police murder squad to get authentic insight into how investigations are carried out.

A great believer in technology, Peter watched his BlackBerry blip all through lunch. Yet he could hardly have been more gracious in answering my questions, even discussing the recent murders of several prostitutes in the east coast town of Ipswich, which has people talking about a modern-day “Ripper” on the loose. I found him to be a most delightful lunch companion--both modest and erudite, and he certainly knows his wine, as he does the crime genre.

If you haven’t read the Superintendent Roy Grace novels yet, you’re in for a treat.

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