Peter James will feature Camilla in his next murder novel
He has a large, minimalist desk and has talked about the importance of a dedicated writing space in keeping him motivated.
In fact, it couldn’t be more unlike that of his most famous fan, the Duchess of Cornwall, who was photographed during lockdown working from her delightfully cluttered, homely study at Birkhall in Aberdeenshire.
Nick-nacks, photographs and letters jostled for space on her slightly battered desk with a jumble of pens, papers and cards. But it was Camilla’s so-called “shelfie” – the image of her packed book shelves – that garnered most attention.
For among the hardbacks on display were several of Peter’s distinctive and bestselling thrillers, featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace.
‘It would be a tremendous advertisement for any author, especially one who dreamed of writing since childhood and says his father’s gift of a typewriter when he was 17 was among the most important of his life.
Camilla copy new That said, having sold more than 20 million novels – every sends one of the Roy Grace books has been a number one bestseller – Peter is hardly a literary newcomer. And, as we shall see, the author, whose new thriller, I Follow You, is out next week, fully intends to repay the royal favour.
However, the Duchess, 73, went even further in heaping praise. On her summer reading list last month, among books by Wilkie Collins, Victoria Hislop and Edna O’Brien, she praised Peter’s Roy Grace series, urging readers: “I would highly recommend you give it a try.” It turns out the pair have met several times and enjoy a warm correspondence.
The Duchess of Cornwall is Mr James’ most famous fan
“I was chair of the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2015 and she and Prince Charles came to an event. I think that was when she told me first she’d enjoyed my books,” explains Peter, who shares his time between Jersey and Brighton, where his Roy Grace series is set.
He laughs: “So often you meet someone in public and they say they like your books and you don’t know if they’re just being polite or not. But she definitely reads them. I’ve always found her absolutely charming and very warm and friendly.
“I send her a signed copy of each new book. She writes back a handwritten letter, generally two pages. Three years ago, I sent her a standalone I wrote called Absolute Proof. She said she’d really enjoyed it on a flight to Australia for a royal tour and she was trying to get her husband to read it.”
Peter, 72, who first met the Duchess in 2004 at the Royal film première of The Merchant of Venice on which he was an executive producer, continues: “Suddenly in lockdown, there was a photograph of her with a row of my books behind her. Then she came out with the reading list and I thought, ‘Wow, what an incredibly nice, kind thing.’ Public reading lists are often full of books you might buy to impress people but never actually read more than a few pages.
“But every now and then a public figure says something about a book and it flies.The James Bond book, From Russia with Love, wasn’t selling at all in America until John F Kennedy shared his 10 favourite books and, in between War and Peace and something else highly worthy, was From Russia With Love.”
Now Peter is planning to immortalise Camilla in his 17th Roy Grace thriller, due out next spring. “One of Roy’s team is going to get a bravery award and I’m going to have Camilla present it. She doesn’t know that yet,” he says.
Mr James first met the Camilla in 2004 at the Royal film première of The Merchant of Venice
It is not the first time a real person has featured in the novels. Peter raises about £100,000 every year by auctioning off names for his charities, including the Sussex Police Charitable Trust, of which he is co-patron. For a tidy donation, you can lend your own name to a cop or a killer.
“I had someone once who wanted to be a dead body,” he chuckles. “It was Denise Patterson, then High Sheriff of East Sussex, who is married to the writer Jack Higgins. I think she paid £6,000 for the pleasure.”
Like millions of other fans, the Duchess will no doubt be eagerly awaiting ITV’s adaptation of the first two Roy Grace novels, Dead Simple and Looking Good Dead, starring John Simm as the titular detective. They began filming on location earlier this month in Brighton where the series is set. The former Worthing tax offices have been turned into studios and producers are remaining loyal to Peter’s plots and settings.
“John was always my first choice because he looks like I had imagined Roy. My character’s got this kind of warmth about him and John has that in spades,” explains Peter.
“We were due to have lunch the week of lockdown but we’ve had a number of Skype conversations. He emailed me today, because they’re filming the first book, and Roy’s about to go on a date nine years after his wife went missing. John asked, ‘Would I be wearing my wedding ring on that date?’ “It’s a great question. I suggested he maybe take it off at the last minute and put it in his pocket. But he’s reading all the books and really immersing himself in Roy Grace.”
Also on set advising producers is retired DSI David Gaylor, who became the inspiration for Roy Grace. They first met at Hove always choice to Grace.
“At that time he was a DI, a homicide detective also in charge of cold cases. We just clicked,” recalls Peter. “He asked what I was writing, it was a psychological thriller called Denial and he said, ‘I don’t think your character would have done that.’ “He made some suggestions and I subsequently realised his creativity made him a good homicide detective. Unlike the depiction so often on TV of bolshie, grumpy loners, really good detectives are kind, patient, empathetic people. “They also have odd dual personality traits. The other half of their personality is incredibly anal. In all major crimes hundreds if not thousands of tiny pieces are put together. But so often a crime is solved by luck or sheer blue sky thinking.
“David has both of these traits and that was clearly recognised by Sussex Police. He shot up to become Detective Chief my first Superintendent and head of major crime by 2002, and we’d become really good friends.”
play Roy has the kind of about him’ ” When Peter’s publishers asked if he’d thought of creating a detective as a central character, he asked David if he’d like to be turned into a fictional cop?His friend jumped at the chance and the pair have subsequently worked on every one of the Roy Grace books. David reads the drafts closely, every 150 pages, and advises how Roy and other officers would work.
Now retired, he was even best man when Peter married his second wife, Lara, 41, in 2015, two years after they met on a ski lift in Courchevel.
His new book, I Follow You, was inspired by her. A keen marathon runner, she discovered via the running app Strava that a man she had once waved at during a training run had begun using the same route at similar times. “It was really quite creepy,” she recalled. “I thought this could be really dangerous if that guy was awful or a stalker. It wouldn’t take much before you could look up someone’s patterns of when they run, where they live.”
She told Peter about this follower, and they discussed whether there could be the potential for a thriller set around someone using an app like this to stalk their victim.
“From that came the idea to write I Follow You about a highly respected gynaecologist who almost runs over a friend’s fiancée,” explains Peter.
“He looks up and she reminds him incredibly of this girl he had a mad crush on when he was 16 who dumped him. He wonders if this could be her 30 years later and becomes obsessed.”
Mr James plans to immortalise Camilla in his 17th Roy Grace thriller
Needless to say, it’s another stonking story from the master of the craft.
Royalty runs in Peter’s family. His late mother Cornelia was the Queen’s glove maker and the firm that bears her name, managed today by Peter’s sister Genevieve, still holds a Royal Warrant. However, joining the family firm held no interest.
“I always wanted to write novels. I started in the film and TV business, I just didn’t think I’d make a living as an author. I wrote three books in my late teens, which luckily never got published but they got me an agent. Then in my 20s, while I was working in TV, there was an article in The Times that said there was a shortage of spy thrillers.
“To my amazement, I got published. To my bigger amazement, it didn’t sell. I poured my heart out to a friend and she said, ‘Darling, what on earth are you doing writing spy thrillers? You’ll never succeed unless you’re writing about something you’re passionate about and can research’.”
Two weeks later, his Brighton home was burgled and a young detective came to take fingerprints. “He saw my books and said, ‘If you ever want research or help with the police, give me a call’.”
From that inauspicious beginning was born a friendship and the start of Peter’s close working relationship with Sussex Police.
“When they realised I was genuinely interested, Sussex Police started inviting me to spend time with them. Over the course of the next 10 years, I slowly became part of the furniture. It’s been fantastic.”
It is a relationship other writers (and journalists) would kill for, especially given the regrettable distancing of relations between press and police in recent years.
Peter jokes: “When the previous Chief Constable but one, Martin Richards, took over at Sussex Police about 10 or 12 years ago, he said to me, ‘I’ve learnt more about my force from reading your books than I have talking to my officers’.”
I Follow You by Peter James (Macmillan, £20) is published on Thursday. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk