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Author Peter James And Sidekick Track Seaside Crime

Aug 6, 2012
Originally published on August 8, 2012 10:39 am

Any tour of Brighton, England, has to begin at the Royal Pavilion, according to crime writer Peter James. Built by a king for his mistress 200 years ago, its Taj Mahal-like spires are the city's best-known landmark.

James' latest novel, Not Dead Yet, features — spoiler alert! — a pivotal scene in the pavilion's dining room, with its one-and-a-half ton crystal chandelier. Without giving too much away — the book won't be released in the U.S. until November – let's just say it might have something to do with the aforementioned chandelier.

"King George the Fourth was scared to sit under it because he was always worried it might come crashing down. And guess what happens in the book," James says with a laugh.

James lists his interests as criminology, science and the paranormal. He has worked in Hollywood, drives fast cars and has a house just outside Brighton and an apartment in London.

Finding His Collaborator

In contrast, the tall, smiling man beside him seems to blend into the scenery. He's former detective chief superintendent Dave Gaylor. And despite their different styles the two men are friends and, they would say, collaborators.

James had been hanging out with local cops since the 1980s, picking their brains for his crime novels.

"And one day one of them says to me, 'Oh, there's a homicide detective you ought to meet. Young guy. Dave Gaylor. You'll find him interesting,' " James recalls.

When James visited Gaylor's office, it was total chaos.

"It was full of blue and green crates, bulging with manila folders. I said: 'Are you moving?' And he looked at me with this sardonic smile, and said, 'No, these are my dead friends,'" James says.

Gaylor picks up the tale.

"Peter arrived on a midweek morning and asked if he could be like a fly on the wall," Gaylor says. "He's a fly that I've not been able to get rid of ever since."

In that first meeting, superintendent Gaylor explained that he'd been handed all the unsolved murders in the county of Sussex. Then he asked James what he was working on.

"So I started telling him and he said: 'Hang on a second. Wouldn't your character have done this, and wouldn't he have used an outside inquiry team to do that?' And I thought: 'Wow, this guy's got real bandwidth,' " James says.

A Fictional Cop Is Born

And that's how the fictional Roy Grace was born. A homicide cop for whom detection is like three-dimensional chess. And though the character's private life is fiction, many of his cases are based on Gaylor's own experiences in Brighton, a city with a genteel appearance, but which has one of Britain's worst murder rates and a long history of organized crime.

From the Royal Pavilion, it's on to The Lanes, a medieval maze of twisting, pedestrian alleyways that was once a den of thieves and pickpockets, James says.

"Brighton began as a smugglers village, so [it has] a long criminal antecedent," he says. "Then it became like a spa, a place to take the salt water."

And in 1841, the railroad came.

"And all the villains in London, which was not a good place to be, thought, 'Oh, I'll move to the seaside. Much nicer.' And they brought prostitution, cockfighting, illegal gambling, protection racketeering ... and they transformed the city. And you hear the gulls all the time," James says, "I think the gulls are like a part of the kind of music of Brighton."

Then he asks his friend, "Have you ever roasted a gull, Dave?"

"Not yet," Gaylor replies.

A Rich Criminal History

Today The Lanes are a dense concentration of antique stores and bistros catering to Brighton's moneyed mix of university students and retirees, its vibrant gay community and young professionals of all persuasions. Here and there, though, there are hints of Brighton's more colorful side.

"This guy, thinly veiled, is appearing in my next book," James says as he introduces Derek Laward, a jeweler in Brighton.

"Derek's been helping on research on the new book I'm writing right now, [and I've been] picking his brains a little bit about the dark side of Brighton," he says.

Laward responds: "That's right. The darker side of Brighton."

Asked if he's had experience with Brighton's darker side, Laward says with a laugh, "Yes, you could say that. Somewhere along the line."

James and Gaylor continue their tour by heading uphill into a neighborhood of low Edwardian row houses and small shops called Pavilion Gardens. It looks respectable enough, but the men say the area is home to fourth- and fifth-generation crime families and has an active drug trade.

"If Roy Grace wants to find an old villain, this is where he'd start looking," James says. "Look, we're actually about to meet a police officer, Sean McDonald, who actually I play poker with."

How is he at bluffing?

"Doesn't give much away," James says.

"No, doesn't give much away. I think that's what helps in the books, doesn't it, as well?" says the policeman.

Attention To Detail

Something else that helps the books is a meticulous attention to forensic and procedural detail. James still goes out with Brighton police officers regularly. The science is changing so fast it has transformed detective work, James says, and he wants cops who read his novels to know he's on top of that.

Another Brighton landmark, the English Channel chews at a pebbly beach. There's a panoramic view of the city's rain-swept seafront with its elegant, cream-colored houses and expensive hotels.

To James and Gaylor, these are crime scenes, real and imagined. The imagined can illuminate the real, James says, and can help us better understand ourselves and each other. He says this is why he writes crime novels.

"I'm fascinated in human nature, why people do the things they do," James says. "And I don't think anybody sees more of human nature in the course of, say, a 30-year career, than a police officer at any rank and any level."

James writes a book a year. He hands one in, wakes up the next day and starts on the next one. With Gaylor's help, of course.

"We can sit and chat for an hour. Then he has to go away for nine months and write the book. So as far as I'm concerned, you know, I've got it made," Gaylor says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this summer on MORNING EDITION, we're investigating "Crime in the City," profiling mystery writers in the cities they write about. And today, we go to the English seaside resort of Brighton, the hometown of author Peter James - who's written dozens of crime novels set there.

James' most popular series features police detective Roy Grace - inspired by a real-life, retired homicide cop. Reporter Vicki Barker caught up with the author and his partner in crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

PETER JAMES: That building with the dome there, the onion dome, that was the Royal Mews and...

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Any tour of Brighton, Peter James says, has to begin at the Royal Pavilion. Built by a king for his mistress 200 years ago, its Taj Mahal-like spires are the city's best-known landmark. James' 2005 novel, "Dead Simple," climaxes in the pavilion's dining room, with its one and a half ton, crystal chandelier. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This scene did not occur in "Dead Simple."]

JAMES: King George the Fourth actually was scared to sit under it because he was always worried it might come crashing down. And guess what happens in the book? (LAUGHTER)

BARKER: Peter James lists his interests as criminology, science and the paranormal. He's worked in Hollywood; drives fast cars; has a house just outside Brighton, and a London flat. The tall, smiling man beside him seems to blend into the scenery. He's former Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gaylor. And despite their different styles, the two men are friends and, they would say, collaborators.

James had been hanging out with local cops since the 1980s, picking their brains for his crime novels.

JAMES: And one day, one of them says to me, oh - they said - detective, a homicide detective you ought to meet. Young guy - Dave Gaylor; you'll find him interesting.

BARKER: Gaylor's office, James says, was total chaos.

JAMES: It was full of blue and green crates, bulging with manila folders. I said, are you moving? And he looked at me - very sardonic smile - and he said, no, these are my dead friends.

DAVE GAYLOR: Peter arrived on a midweek morning, and asked if he could be like a fly on the wall. He's a fly that I've not been able to get rid of ever since.

BARKER: In that first meeting, Superintendent Gaylor explained that he'd been handed all the unsolved murders in the county of Sussex. Then he asked James what he was working on.

JAMES: So I started telling him and he said, hang on a second; wouldn't your character have done this, and wouldn't he have used an outside inquiry team to do that? And I thought, wow, this guy's got real bandwidth.

BARKER: And so Roy Grace was born, a homicide cop for whom detection is like three-dimensional chess. And though the character's private life is fiction, many of his cases are based on Gaylor's own experiences in Brighton, which despite its genteel appearance has one of Britain's worst murder rates, and a long history of organized crime...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)

BARKER: ...and interruption.

GAYLOR: Some of the people from the pavilion.

BARKER: Robert Yates, head of fund-raising, has recognized James. The writer got full access to the pavilion - chandelier and all - while researching "Dead Simple. "

JAMES: How's everything?

ROBERT YATES: Yeah, good - busy.

JAMES: Any horrified tourists looking around at the chandelier or...

YATES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

YATES: We could have said it was all Peter James' fault, couldn't we?

(LAUGHTER)

BARKER: From the regency time capsule of the Royal Pavilion, it's on to The Lanes, a medieval maze of twisting, pedestrianized alleyways once a den of thieves and pickpockets, James says.

JAMES: Brighton began as a smugglers' village, so a long criminal antecedent. Then it became like a spa, a place to take the salt water.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BARKER: Then in 1841, the railroad came.

JAMES: And all the villains in London - which was not a good place to be - thought, oh, I'll come to seaside; much nicer. They brought prostitution, cock-fighting, illegal gambling, protection racketeering - and transformed the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SEAGULL)

JAMES: And you hear the gulls all the time. I think the gulls are like a part of the - kind of music of Brighton.

Do you ever - roasted a gull, Dave?

GAYLOR: Not yet, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BARKER: Today, The Lanes are a dense concentration of antique stores and bistros catering to Brighton's moneyed mix of university students and retirees; its vibrant gay community, and young professionals of all persuasions. Here and there, though, hints of Brighton's more colorful side.

JAMES: This guy, thinly veiled, is appearing in my next book.

DEREK LAWARD: Yo, tailor.

JAMES: Yeah, how are you?

LAWARD: Yeah, I'm good. Yourself?

JAMES: Yeah, pretty good.

LAWARD: I'm starting - I'm halfway through it, and it's magnificent.

JAMES: Oh, thank you...

LAWARD: Very good.

JAMES: Yeah, I'm being interviewed for a radio show in America...

BARKER: James introduces Brighton-born jeweler Derek Laward.

JAMES: Derek has been helping on research, on the new book I'm writing right now. I'm picking his brains a little bit about - yes - darker side of Brighton?

(LAUGHTER)

LAWARD: Yes, that's right - the darker side of Brighton.

BARKER: Which you've had a bit of experience with?

LAWARD: Yes, you could say that. Somewhere along the line.

(LAUGHTER)

BARKER: Now the novelist and the ex-detective head uphill, into a neighborhood of low Edwardian row houses and small shops, called Pavilion Gardens. It looks respectable enough. But the men say the area, and the nearby housing projects, are home to fourth- and fifth-generation crime families and an active drug trade.

JAMES: Roy Grace wants to find an old villain, this is where he'd start looking. Look, look, look, we're just about to meet a police officer, Sean McDonald, who actually, I play poker with.

BARKER: More introductions. James has clearly become a Brighton landmark, as recognizable to the locals as the pavilion itself.

JAMES: We're doing a tour of Roy Grace's Brighton. So I said look, here's a real, live cop.

SEAN MCDONALD: But only for two more days.

JAMES: Yeah.

MCDONALD: Yes, Fri - Sunday, I retire. (LAUGHTER)

BARKER: McDonald says the poker will have to wait a while.

How is he at bluffing?

MCDONALD: Pretty good, actually, yeah.

GAYLOR: Doesn't give much away.

MCDONALD: No, he doesn't give much away. I think that's what helps in the books - doesn't it? - as well.

BARKER: Something else that helps the books is a meticulous attention to forensic and procedural detail. James still goes out with Brighton police officers, regularly. The science is changing so fast, it's transformed detective work, James says. And he wants cops who read his novels to know he's on top of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

BARKER: Another Brighton landmark - its Victorian Pier. Below, the English Channel chews at a pebbly beach. There's a panoramic view of the city's rain-swept seafront, with its elegant, cream-colored houses, and expensive hotels. To James and Gaylor, crime scenes, real and imagined. The imagined can illuminate the real, James says; can help us better understand ourselves, and each other. He says it's why he writes crime novels.

JAMES: I am fascinated in human nature - you know, why people do the things that they do. And I don't think anybody sees more of human nature in the course of, say, a 30-year career, than a police officer at any rank, at any level.

BARKER: James writes a book a year - hands one in; wakes up the next day and starts on the next one, with Gaylor's help, of course.

GAYLOR: We can sit and chat for an hour. Then he has to go away for nine months and write the book. So as far as I'm concerned, you know, I've got it made, really.

BARKER: New, U.S. editions of two novels in the Roy Grace series, "Not Dead Yet" and "Dead Man's Grip," are out this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Brighton, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You can read some of Peter James' work at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.