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Why novel writing isn't Dead Simple the Peter James way

As the 14 million-selling Dead Simple opens at Newcastle Theatre Royal, we meet the man who wrote the book

Author Peter James
Author Peter James

If you are one of the millions who have bought a copy of Dead Simple and look forward to seeing the play, you will be wondering.

In Peter James’s mega-selling novel, guaranteed to send a shiver down the stiffest spine, one of the main characters spends most of his time in a coffin – and he’s not dead!

But while a character in a coffin buried in a wood is high drama on the page, how will it play out on the stage where convention has it that people move about quite a bit.

For that we will have to wait and see.

But if done well, the play, with a cast including Tina Hobley (Chrissie Williams in Holby City) and Gray O’Brien (Coronation Street, Casualty and others), should have Theatre Royal audiences on the edge of their seats next week.

Incidentally, could a person survive in a coffin? Who better to ask than the man who wrote the book?

“It is survivable,” says the urbane Peter James whose mother was glove-maker to the Queen.

Alastair Muir A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

“I did a huge amount of research and have, myself, been put in a coffin. I went to a local undertaker’s in Brighton and they put me in, screwed the lid down and left me for 30 minutes.

“I remember turning up there and they’d all gone out to pick up bodies, leaving this old guy on his own. He said, ‘Are you sure?’

“He screwed the lid down and I remember thinking: what if he goes out and gets run over? I am very claustrophobic and it was the longest half-hour of my life... just horrendous.”

Peter proceeds to regale me with tales of scratch marks being found inside coffins and ‘dead’ bodies springing to life in the morgue.

All this is grist to the mill for a crime writer at the top of his game, a position Peter James has occupied for a long time (the awards list begins with a school poetry prize in 1967 and ends with this year’s fairly final sounding WH Smith Best Crime Author of All Time).

But I wonder if he sleeps easily at night.

With a laugh, he confirms that he does. But why waste such a question?

“I remember the first time I went to a postmortem. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.

“But almost every police officer that I’ve ever talked to in depth will remember something horrific and some of them will tell you they had nightmares about it for the rest of the lives.

Alastair Muir A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

“They see things most normal people will never see.

“I remember talking to a traffic cop in East Sussex who had been in a horrendous situation.

“A wife had gassed her two children and tried to frame the husband. This traffic cop was the first to respond to the call and had to try to resuscitate the kids but they were cold and blue.

“He then went home to bath his own kids and put them to bed.

“So, yes, I have had plenty of nightmares and I think it would be strange if I didn’t.”

Dead Simple was published in 2005 when Peter was already established as a writer who could craft a page-turner.

It was the novel which introduced Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a hard-bitten type of cop who finds solace in regular card-playing sessions with colleagues and risks the ire of his bosses by resorting to some unorthodox methods – such as the old hippy with the pendulum who assists in the case of the coffin man.

Roy Grace captured the public imagination, helped by the fact that Dead Simple has such a compelling plot (you can’t be presented with a man in a coffin and not want to find out what happens).

Another thing about Roy Grace is that his beloved wife, Sandy, is missing.

Peter explains: “When I was asked to create a new detective, I looked at the idea of a guy with a broken marriage or a drink problem. But the reality is that today in any modern UK police force any officer with a drink problem would be out of the force within 24 hours.

“I figured that what detectives do is solve puzzles. Every major crime is a puzzle with sometimes thousands of pieces.

Alastair Muir A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

“But I thought it’d be interesting to create a detective with a personal hell, a puzzle that he couldn’t solve.

“He’s been alone now for nine years. When Dead Simple came out I was inundated with emails from readers speculating what had happened to Sandy.

“I thought: I could have some fun here. It worked. I still have people getting in touch.”

As well as helping to promote the play, Peter has been travelling widely to publicise You Are Dead, the 11th Roy Grace novel. Sandy is still missing. Will the mystery ever be resolved?

“Yes,” says Peter cautiously. “In You Are Dead there’s quite a major step forward and I’m now writing the 12th.”

There will be closure, he promises. But maybe not just yet... not while the Roy Grace books are still flying off the shelves.

Peter James, on good terms for years with the police on his Sussex home patch, has fans all over the world.

“I’m like a rock star in Russia,” he asserts.

And they even seem to like him in Brighton, the south coast seaside town which his fiction portrays as a place of murder and misdemeanour.

“The tourist board put a Roy Grace novel in every hotel room in Brighton and in every taxi,” says Peter.

“It has always thrived on its criminal heritage. It was known as the crime capital of the UK long before Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock.”

Peter plots with the assiduousness of the young chess player he once was and sticks to short chapters, reasoning that if most people are like him, they read in bed and are put off by long ones.

Most of all, though, he puts his success – and that of any fiction – down to one thing.

“The key, I think, is the characters. I think people like Roy Grace.”

  • Dead Simple is at the Theatre Royal from May 26-30. For tickets, tel. 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk You Are Dead is in book shops now,published by Macmillan.

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