Henfield-based crime novelist Peter James has just released his latest murder mystery.
The writer, whose Roy Grace detective stories have sold over 15 million copies worldwide, has titled his latest Brighton-set thriller You Are Dead.
The story begins when a woman goes missing after making a panicked phone call to her fiancé. She was in an underground car park and was convinced that she was being watched.
Then, in a different part of Brighton, workers digging up a park discover the remains of a young woman who has been dead for 30 years. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two events until another woman goes missing and another body from the past is found. It looks like there’s a serial killer on the loose.
Peter James explains why he wrote a thriller that explores events in the past as well as the present.
“I think one of the really interesting things about serial killers is that they often span an enormous period of time,” he says. “They tend to be smart, they often take time between killings and you do get them spanning 10, 20 or 30 years...and sometimes even longer.”
Serial killers will claim one victim and lie low, Peter says. Then they’ll target someone else once their appetite grows.
For this novel Peter looked into the crimes of some of the world’s worst serial killers.
The cases he looked at included Harold Shipman, the British doctor given 15 life sentences for murder; Dennis Rader, the American ‘Bind Torture Kill’ criminal who killed ten people; and Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989 after confessing to the murders of 30 women in the US.
“Every single mass murderer fits into one or two categories,” says Peter. “They’re either schizophrenic or they’re psychopaths.”
Peter explains the difference. Schizophrenics can have voices instructing them to kill (like the Yorkshire Ripper), but they can be treated, whereas psychopaths are apparently born without empathy and don’t change.
“Psychopaths can go one of two paths in life,” says Peter. “If they have a kind of nurturing background, they can often become extremely successful people in business or in politics.”
“And then there’s the child who is warped,” Peter continues. “A sociopath child who got abused as a child, who has bullying parents, can go the other way and become totally warped. Someone like Adolf Hitler is a classic example. His bullying father wouldn’t let him be a painter, which is really what he wanted to do and he just went well off the rails.”
However, not all killers had a rough upbringing.
“With Harold Shipman the motive was less clear in that he seemed to have, I think, an okay childhood,” says Peter.
Although, Peter goes on to explain that Shipman’s mother died of lung cancer when he was a teenager, which may have been disturbing for him.
Regardless, one of the scariest things about people like Harold Shipman is how respectable they appeared to be. It’s always a surprise when their crimes are revealed.
Peter observes: “There’s a reporter interviewing the next door neighbour and it’s invariably a sweet little old lady who says ‘oh, he was such a nice man, you know? He used to feed my cat when I was away’.
“It’s precisely that ability to blend in. I mean, Bundy had it in abundance.”
“He was incredibly charismatic,” says Peter. “Even at his murder trial, the defence witnesses were having problems because he was so good looking. He was so charismatic they thought he must be a lawyer for the prosecution.”
“The vast majority of them are not tattooed, skin-headed monsters,” adds Peter. “They could literally be anybody you see on the street.”
It’s a worrying enough thought but Peter introduces another troubling notion about serial killers – they lack a clear and logical reason for their actions.
A bank robber could shoot somebody dead so he can escape with his loot. A husband could kill his wife because it’s cheaper than a divorce. But the serial killer is different.
“What’s fascinating to me, and I think for most people, is that a serial killer’s doing it for pleasure. That there isn’t a cash motive.”
It’s morbidly interesting, but there are other, relatively lighter elements that make Peter’s thrillers so popular.
The efficient Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, for example, has definitely helped Peter’s books find a large readership. When asked what’s so appealing about Grace, Peter explains that he wanted to get away from the cliché of the detective with a drink problem and broken marriage.
“I’ve been going out with police for the past 25 years,” says Peter. “I’ve always had a great relationship with Sussex Police. Anybody today with a drink problem in any police force in the UK would not last 24 hours.
“I wanted to create someone who was sort of sympathetic but incredibly efficient. The one thing that I noticed in all the homicide detectives that I’ve ever watched and shadowed and talked to is that they are quite a unique combination of being very methodical people but at the same time very much out-of-the-box thinkers.”
These different qualities work well in a homicide investigation, something Peter describes as a huge puzzle consisting of hundreds of pieces.
The Brighton setting of Peter’s books is appealing too. But why is this seemingly pleasant seaside town such a good location for a gritty crime series?
“If you were to design your perfect criminal environment as a villain, you’d design Brighton,” Peter laughs. “The reason I’m saying that is that you’ve got everything that villains want, which is escape routes. You know, you’ve got Gatwick airport 25 minutes up the road, a 50-minute train to London, a fast road network, The Channel Tunnel, all the European ports. You’ve got a major sea port on both sides and miles of unguarded coastline.”
Brighton’s become a very glamorous city too, says Peter.
“I think any glamorous place attracts villains as well as the good people and I think it’s actually not a bad thing,” he laughs. “To me as a crime writer it’s brilliant.”
“If you think about any city in the world that is kind of lively and fun, that you’d want to go to, they have a strong, vibrant criminal underbelly,” he adds.
“With most vibrant cities, it sort of comes hand-in-hand with the territory.”
You Are Dead is published in hardback on May 21 (Pan Macmillan).