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Bestselling crime writer Peter James shares stalker memories

Top crime writer Peter James is heading to Tyneside this week to give two talks about his new novel, Want You Dead

Crime writer Peter James
Crime writer Peter James

Bestselling crime writer Peter James is heading to the North East this week to give two talks about his new novel, Want You Dead.

He could be forgiven for scanning his audiences in Gateshead and Newcastle rather anxiously before launching into details of his inspiration and research.

For it was in Newcastle, he says, that he had an encounter that set in motion an increasingly sinister chain of events.

In passing, when explaining the background to the 10th in his series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, he says: “I had a stalker myself for 11 years.”

The revelation is more dramatic for the soft-spoken, matter-of-fact manner of its delivery – hallmark of a born story-teller, perhaps.

But when asked to elaborate, he swears this was for real.

“It started in Newcastle. I do a lot of talks in libraries and book shops and I was doing one at a Waterstone’s in the city.

“There was a woman in the audience who kept smiling at me as if she knew me. A week later I was in Bristol and there was a woman there who did the same thing.

“I realised it was the same woman. I saw her again a couple of weeks later in Ipswich. Each time she bought and asked me to sign a copy of the same book.”

Then he received an email. His ardent fan said she liked his T-shirt and the way he smiled.

“I sent her an email saying thankyou and she sent another. I replied. After about half-an-hour I stopped because I thought it was getting silly.”

A while later another email arrived. “Peter,” it said, “I hope you’re not in a coma or something.”

Soon she was appearing at every talk he gave, always buying a book to be signed.

“About five weeks into this she sent me a jpg image of what looked to me like a serial killer wall. There were photos of me coming out of restaurants and even one of me in the garden. There was a lighted candle at each end.

“I took it to the police and they said, ‘Well, there’s not a lot we can do until she kills you’.”

Peter James gets on very well with the police so this may have been said tongue-in-cheek.

But the disconcerting encounters went on. There would be periods when she didn’t appear but then, suddenly, a woman at a signing session slammed a book down angrily in front of him and then stormed off in a huff.

It was her. She had changed her appearance and was annoyed that Peter hadn’t recognised her.

She appeared again, this time telling him: “I have decided to forgive you.”

Two-and-a-half years ago he decided to share his experiences as a stalker’s prey in an interview for a Sunday newspaper – ‘outing’ his tormentor, as he puts it.

He tells me he hasn’t been bothered by her since but is keeping his wits about him.

Peter James was born in Brighton 65 years ago and that is probably the only dullish thing about him. He’s a fascinating man with enough incident in his life to fuel a series or two of bestsellers.

His mother, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, became glovemaker to the Queen. He is a film producer (The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino was one of his) and scriptwriter. He loves fast cars. He is patron of Neighbourhood Watch nationwide.

As a novelist he has achieved incredible success with his Roy Grace novels which have sold more than 14m copies around the world and been translated into 36 languages.

It is a proud boast that in the autumn of 2012 his last novel, Not Dead Yet, knocked the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy off the top of the paperback fiction chart.

“I’ve got a nice reputation as the guy who gets it right,” he says.

This has not come about by accident or without a lot of hard work. “Always, as a writer, I’ve been fascinated by human behaviour – why people do what they do,” he explains.

“My first ever novel, back in 1981, was a spy thriller. I wanted to be a writer and I thought there was a shortage of spy thrillers so I wrote one. Then we got burgled and a young detective came to take finger prints. He saw a copy of the book and said if I ever wanted help with research, I should give him a call.”

It was a life-changing encounter. Peter became friendly with the detective and met other police officers. “I met them all, homicide detectives, traffic officers, neighbourhood police teams. I found them fascinating people and I still do.”

Peter has worked closely with Sussex Police over the years, accompanying them on patrol and observing every aspect of what they do.

Arguably the ultimate accolade is that the police read his books, recognising Roy Grace as a plausible representative of their world – a world that must sometimes seem dark and grisly.

Like so much of Peter’s work, Want You Dead was inspired by true stories. It starts when a young single woman, Red Westwood, meets a smooth-talking guy, Bryce Laurent, via an online dating agency.

He seems to be just what she was looking for but the relationship turns sour when Laurent starts to display psychopathic tendencies.

Peter says he was inspired by a couple of true stories, including the case of Alison Hewitt, a Brighton-based trainee doctor who was stalked by Canadian Al Amin Dhalla until he was convicted of charges including attempted arson, harassment, theft and having an offensive weapon.

“I spent a year talking to psychologists and victims of domestic abuse through various charities,” says Peter.

With the mass of facts he accrues, he could be a celebrated writer of non-fiction but it doesn’t appeal.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” he acknowledges. “There’s nothing I write that could ever get close to the real harm that happens in the world.”

That said, fiction allows him to give free rein to his imagination, evoking atmosphere and emotion. In that regard, he’s a master of his trade.

On Wednesday (June 18) Peter will talk at Gateshead Central Library at 2pm (buy tickets in advance on 0191 433 8420) and Waterstone’s, Newcastle, at 6.30pm (0191 261 7757). Want You Dead is published by Pan Macmillan at £20.

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