I want to start by asking you what is it like to live with Roy Grace for 17 years plus? Is he more than words on a page to you?
Well actually there are two Roy Graces. Well, there are now three of course, with John Simm. There’s the former Detective Chief Superintendent David Gaylor, who I modelled Grace on, not physically but career wise. We’ve worked together really closely on every book. We have a kind of ritual, we always meet at the same table in a pub outside Henfield, when I’m planning the books, and I kind of run stuff through him, and then I have my fictitious Roy Grace who I consider like a mate. You know, every time I start a new book I say “Hi Roy, how’re you doing? Hi Norman, who have you pissed off this month?” He’s always been like a real character, almost like a mate to me, and now we’ve got John Simm who looks so much like the Roy Grace of my imagination when I created him, so when John’s name was put forward by ITV, I thought “Perfect!”
I’ve actually just started the next Roy Grace, the 19th. I finished the 18th, which won’t be out till next September because we’re moving publication of the hard back to the autumn. I’ve started the 19th, and I’ve got John Simm so much in my head now (as I also have Richie Campbell as Glenn Branson, he is so like the fictitious Glenn that I modelled on a real cop I met back in the late 80s, Glenn Douglas) – so I’ve got those two real life people. I find it quite helpful because I’ve got to know them, John and I have become mates, Richie too, and I know their mannerisms. It’s really interesting having real life human faces to think about when I’m writing.
Do you feel under pressure with a long running series to keep your readers interested?
It’s a real problem, but in a way it’s a good problem, I guess. When I was a kid I was an avid reader, and a lot of the authors that I loved wrote loads of books, like Alistair MacLean. It seemed to me that the more successful they got the fatter the books got, and the less exciting, almost as if either they got lazy, or their editors got too nervous to say anything, or they got too arrogant to listen to their editors. So I decided right back then that if I was ever lucky enough to have any kind of success, the one thing I would try to do would be to raise the bar with each book. So every time I deliver a book and someone says “Oh yeah, that was my favourite of yours” I think “S***! How am I gonna write the next one?!”
How do you raise the bar?
First I try always to take a subject that fascinates me, that I want to learn about. I think good writing should examine the issues of the world we’re in, or entertain, but be fresh. The one I’ve just finished is about the world of art forgery. One of the world’s top art forgers, David Henty, lives in Saltdean. He’s been just brilliant. He’s in the book very thinly veiled as himself, totally at his own volition. It’s been fascinating to learn about that world.
The book’s about a couple who go to a car boot sale on a Sunday and buy a picture for £20 because they like the frame. It’s a horrible picture, it’s a bad portrait of an old lady. They get it home but they leave it in the sunlight, and some of the surface paint melts and they realise there’s something underneath. They take it to an Antiques Roadshow and the expert there says, “Well, this looks to me like a long lost Fragonard from 1770. If it’s genuine, it’s going to be worth millions.”
I’ve delved into the world of art forgery and you know, Dave Henty told me, and it’s in the book, exactly how he could fake a Fragonard so that even the top Fragonard expert couldn’t tell the difference, or pretty much any other Old Master. There are all kinds of clever tricks you know, things like buying an old canvas from the period, an old church canvas from France – you can pick them up for three or four thousand quid – old icons or a Madonna and Child. Start with that, so you’ve got the original canvas if anybody checks it. So I try really hard in the books to take something that I’m interested in and learning about, and try to be authentic. I had a lot of fun with that.
Now I’m writing about the world of puppy smuggling and illegal puppy farming, which during lockdown became a bigger business for a lot of the gangs than drugs. If you ordered a blue French bulldog “That’s £25,000 to you, lady”!
David Henty is in the book Death Comes Knocking that you co-wrote with Graham Bartlett of the Sussex Police, about policing Brighton, isn’t he?
Yes, he is, and you know what I loved about that? It was that Dave Henty had started life as a forger, he was quite good at drawing, but had a fatal flaw, as in the book, which was he couldn’t spell. Anyway, he bought a house in Wykeham Terrace just up from the Clock Tower and he’d got this massive operation with five of them there, printing and binding. They were raking it in, they had orders for 3000 forged passports at £1000 a pop for Hong Kong people trying to get out, he was minting passports, but Britannic Majesty was spelt wrong! And then his front door’s kicked in and it’s Graham Bartlett and four other coppers, and he’s inside for five years.
Graham contacted him when we were writing the book. He said to Graham “Come and have lunch and bring Peter” so we went to the house at Saltdean. The last time he’d seen Graham was when he kicked his front door in and completely f***** up his life, but he said “Great to see you again, come on in!” The other guy forging the passports with Henty was Cliff Wakefield, so Graham asked about him and Henty said, “Well, he’s in Belmarsh now, he’s gonna call us at 2 o’clock to say hi.” I mean, that’s real old-school cops and villains!
Do you think it’s also the case that the unfolding Roy Grace story moves the series forward, because his personal story is so compelling that readers come back each time to find out what’s going to happen to him next?
Yes, it’s like I accidentally created an ongoing soap opera! But I like that. Without wanting to give away any spoilers I think occasionally, to keep the series fresh, what I have to do is sometimes kill a major character, because if readers believe that nobody is ever going to come to any harm, they’re not ever going to feel scared for somebody when they’re in peril, they’re going to think “Oh, it’ll be all right.”
It is something I’ve learned over the years, that there’s a kind of boundary that you can’t cross. I had a cat scalded in one of my early novels way back before I wrote Grace and it really upset cat lovers. I mean, you could pour boiling water over a baby and nobody would care, but harm an animal and everyone is up in arms. There’s a fine line between showing brutality because you’re trying to portray just how horrible a villain is, and doing something almost for just the pleasure of writing something gross. I’ve tried over the years to really tone that down. I don’t want people having a horrific time reading one of the books, but I want them to understand that there are horrible people out in the world who do horrible things.
I do think that part of the joy of reading crime fiction is that it gives us a vicarious sense of danger and thrill. But in this dark and uncertain world, it gives us the knowledge that at the end Roy Grace, or whoever the hero or heroine is, will have locked up the bad guys, at least most of them, and restored some kind of order so that as you close the book, having finished it, you’re thinking “Yeah, actually the world’s not too bad”.
Do you think that reading crime fiction is a safe way to explore fears and dangers, knowing you’re going to be safe at the end because it’s not you who’s at risk?
That’s a factor, definitely, I do think that’s the case. I have a terror of heights, so for example when I’m writing I might have Roy hanging over Beachy Head – I let him do that for me, that way I get the buzz without the terror! I think we read crime fiction for a number of reasons. I think what you’ve just identified is very much one of them. I think another is that at a different level we love being thrilled – the first thing somebody says to a new baby is “boo!” That is something deep rooted in us, we do enjoy it.
But I think at a much deeper level good crime fiction also taps into the way we are genetically programmed to survive. If you’re driving and you see a bad car accident on the other side of the motorway, everybody slows down. I don’t think people slow down because they’re ghouls, I think people slow down to think “What happened there? What can I learn from that?” almost subconsciously, to make sure they never get in that position. And I think it’s exactly the same with a crime novel, we read about somebody getting murdered, and subconsciously you’re thinking, “What can I learn from that? How can I make sure I never get in that position, or my loved ones never get in that position?” So I think that is going on too, at a very deep level.
When you’re writing the books, do you plot meticulously and know the ending before you start writing?
No. Every writer has a different way, but for me what works is a combination of plotting and surprise. I take the view that if I don’t surprise myself, I won’t surprise my readers, but at the same time I need to have a basic structure. So the way I plan a book is that I always know the ending I want to get to, but it might change when I get to it, if I think of something better or another twist that I can add to turn on the agony for my readers! I plan about the first hundred pages in quite a lot of detail, so I know where that’s going. I know some of the key high points of the story, so I know roughly where I want to get to, but I love it when at round about page 100, the book starts to take on a life of its own, when the characters are all established, and then quite often I introduce something I hadn’t planned.
To give an example, I think it was in Not Dead Enough, which is the third Roy Grace, I was with the police in Brighton and we were driving inland from the seafront on the London Road – I’m going back to about 2004/5. There was a row of rather beat-up looking camper vans all parked along there and I said to the officer “Do you know, I’ve seen those there day after day for weeks. If I parked there for an hour, I’d be ticketed and after four I’d be towed.” And he said “They’re all basically small time drug runners, we let them stay there because we can keep an eye on them”. So these were the bottom end of the drugs trade, they’re the ones that the big dealers use to distribute the drugs on the streets. That fascinated me, I thought “What would one of those people be like? What kind of a human being?” Then I went with some surveillance officers and we watched the place, and there was this one character who became quite significant in Not Dead Enough called Skunk, he just popped into my head at about page 100. I hadn’t had any intention of creating this character and he suddenly became quite a significant part in the book. I love it when something spontaneous like that happens.
Do you always know with more major characters how their story will unfold, like Sandy for example, or Bruno, or even Cassian Pewe?
With Sandy, what happened was I was asked by my publishers back in 2002 if I would consider trying to create a new detective character. I had a two book deal and I thought I might do something different. I thought there is a classic cliché of the detective with a broken marriage and a drink problem, and the reality is, in today’s police force, no cop with a drink problem’s going to last 24 hours. I thought that what good detectives do is solve puzzles, and that it would be interesting to create a character who had a personal puzzle of his own that he could not solve, and that’s why Roy has got this wife who’s been missing for nine years. I thought “I’ll introduce the mystery in book one and I’ll get the explanation in book two”. Then Dead Simple came out and I started getting inundated with emails from people speculating what might have happened to Sandy and I thought “You know what? I could have some fun with this!” That’s why I kept it going for so long.
I particularly like the way that you interweave Grace’s personal story with each crime investigation.
Well, luckily these days half of our social life, my wife and I, is with police, I guess it has been for a long time now, because I’ve just always gravitated towards them, because I actually find them both fascinating and immensely human people. So I see that home side of them, which I think most people don’t. There was a great quote by the head of the Met: “Wearing a uniform does not protect you from trauma.” They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that includes all emergency service workers.
You mentioned trauma – a police officer who’s attended a horrific car accident or a murder must often experience something like post traumatic stress, and then have to go home with that experience in their head.
Yes, exactly. I’m very friendly with a traffic officer. In East Sussex about ten years ago there was a case of a horrible divorce, a couple had two small children aged two and four. The wife gassed the two children, put them in the boot of the car and tried to frame her husband. It’s almost unimaginably horrible. This friend of mine was literally first on the scene and spent half an hour desperately trying to resuscitate the kids before the ambulance got there, and obviously they were long dead. Then he went home off shift and had to bath and put to bed his own kids. That’s something that I think people forget, that officers go to a horrific accident where someone’s lying in the road with his head off, or a domestic abuse victim, or just the sheer misery of a couple who’ve been swindled out of their life savings, and then they go back to their lives and relationships.
We talked earlier about the stereotype of the dysfunctional, hard drinking loner, but presumably there are police who, like Grace, can maintain good relationships and still work at the top of their game?
Oh many, yes, absolutely, I know a number of very happy marriages. We are very good friends with one couple where he’s always just been a police constable and she became Chief Superintendent. I know two or three couples where there’s a kind of traditional role reversal on this. But I would say the police is not a great career to go into for stable marriages, there’s quite a high rate of divorce, but there’s also a great number of extremely happy and strong marriages.
But it is tough. I was out for dinner with some friends and the guy had a similar role to Roy Grace at one time. I asked his wife “What’s it like being married to Steve?” and she said “It’s a bloody nightmare!” She said “A month ago it was our wedding anniversary, so we were driving through the centre of Brighton to dinner, and we’re going to leave the car and take a taxi home. Steve suddenly spots a villain he’s been looking for for two years, so he just pulls up at the kerbside and says ‘Take the car, go to the restaurant, order me a gin and tonic, I’ll see you there’ and he hares off and chases the guy for two miles through Brighton, rugby tackles him and I’m sitting in the restaurant at 11:00 o’clock and he’s still booking him in.” A lot of officers cannot switch off.
Do you ever think about ending the Grace series?
Right now I have absolutely no plans to end it, I’ve just signed a new contract with my publishers for another five books and at the moment ITV are incredibly enthusiastic and planning long term.
I know that Conan Doyle got so fed up with Sherlock Holmes he killed him off, but then he couldn’t find anything else that was as successful so he had to bring him back, so yes, that does happen, but I really love them. For the themes that I want to explore, where it wouldn’t work in the confines of a detective novel, I write my standalones, and I do a standalone roughly every three years. Most of what I want to learn about I can do within the Roy Grace books.
What I love about the Grace series is that just a few weeks or months have passed between each book. I think that has a really immersive effect on a reader – is that why you chose to do that?
Very much so, yes. Ian Rankin moved Rebus on a year with each book, and then he hit the buffers of 60 at retirement age. Luckily for Ian the Scottish Police raised the retirement age to 65, so it gave Rebus another 5 years, but now he is retired. I didn’t want to do that with Roy Grace, and also I wanted to show Roy’s new love of Cleo. A year in a relationship is a massive time from first date to living together. I wanted to show that relationship slowly developing against the background of the missing Sandy story, so I thought “Well, I will take author’s licence and play with time”. Luckily Roy is only 43 now after 19 books!
Each book starts a short while after the other, one or two start the next day, but I’ll move them on a year at a time as much as I can. I’m having a slight struggle at the moment with what I do about positioning Covid. The latest one I finished is set in September 2019, but the new one I’ve just started, I’m still trying to make my mind up, because Covid date stamps things.
So you have to perform a juggling act with real time and fictional time?
I think it’s really important to keep the books current but without losing that ongoing continuity. It is a juggling act. I try to avoid things that will clearly date it, but I had to deal with the Olympics, and in Dead Man’s Footsteps, I wrote about the guy who faked his disappearance at 9/11, which I wrote five or six years after 9/11 had happened. But now with ITV making the series it’s 20 years on, so we’ve had to update that and change it from 9/11 to something else, to keep it contemporary.
You portray Grace having to switch his focus back and forth between the warm, loving world of his private life and the dangerous, dark world of his working life – is it a similar process for you as a writer, having to switch back and forth between those two worlds?
Yes, and I enjoy the challenge of that. I think that with somebody like Roy, a detective investigating murder, there are not many jobs that carry more responsibility, because not only have you got to try to catch the killer to provide closure for the family but also, the longer you don’t catch the killer the longer that killer is out there and could kill again, so there’s an incredible responsibility that comes with that work. But at the same time he has a family. And chickens! That reflects me a bit. We have lots of animals and I find them very grounding. I remember waking up the morning of the Manchester bombing a few years back, and the world felt a very dark place, and then going out and hand-feeding the alpacas carrots and slices of apple – they don’t know all this s*** that’s going on in the world, so it brings you down to earth, it’s wonderfully grounding.
I really enjoy your portrayal of Roy Grace’s twice daily briefings with his team on a major investigation, the democratic way he runs them, with everyone from the lowliest officer upwards feeling free to speak up, give their opinion and theorise.
I’m glad you like that, because I get really angry when I see on television Senior Investigating Officers portrayed as bolshie, angry bullies. In my experience homicide detectives are emotionally intelligent people who do listen to their team.
How have you developed such a close relationship with Sussex Police? They must trust you completely.
I think it’s a relationship built up over many, many years. I got burgled back in 1982. My first two books had just been published (they were very bad spy thrillers) and a young detective came to take fingerprints, a guy called Mike Harris, and he said if you want any help with research give me a call. He was married to a detective. My then wife (who was a lawyer) and I became friends with them and they invited us to a barbecue one day. There were a dozen of their friends and they were all cops in different disciplines, homicide, traffic, response, neighbourhood policing, and just talking to these people I thought, “Nobody sees more of human life in a 30 year career than you guys do”.
When they realised that I was genuinely interested, not just out to get a story to flog to the paper, they invited me to come and spend a day with them in a response car and see what they do, and it kind of went on from there. Then I started putting police characters into my books and they liked the way I portrayed them, they felt that I was showing the world what it really meant to be a police officer. And that was how it all began.
Over the years I’ve worked quite closely with them, quite a number of the books I’ve written have come out of suggestions by the police. They asked if I would write a book about organ trafficking, so that’s what led to me writing Dead Tomorrow. More recently, for example, with Dead At First Sight, Sussex Police approached me and said people in Sussex had been scammed out of over £5 million in the previous two years through internet romance fraudsters. They said they would be willing to show me their files, obviously without names, to show me the extent of the issue, and that if I would consider writing a Roy Grace book about it that would help maybe raise awareness of it, and highlight it.
And Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, when he was head of the Met, wrote to me about seven years ago, when they’d just created the Super Recognisers*. He asked me if I would like to go out and spend a day at Scotland Yard with the Super Recogniser team because he’d love it if I put it in my books, to help raise awareness to other police forces about it.
And presumably bring it to the attention of readers who might want to volunteer to be Super Recognisers?
Yes, I was delighted that at least five or six people subsequently wrote to me and said that they had become Super Recognisers for the police after reading about it, so that’s wonderful.
So they trust you to convey what their work is really like, and also to get important issues across to the public?
They do. I always let them see what I’ve written before it goes to final print. They’ll tell me things in confidence and say “Don’t write that” and I won’t. I’ve never broken that trust.
I try to give them something back as well, so I’ve donated a couple of police cars to Sussex Police, and also supported campaigns for them, and I’m co-patron, with the Chief Constable, of the Sussex Police Charitable Trust, which helps police officers who suffer trauma or hardship.
I genuinely think that the police get a bad press these days, some of them feel that they’re constantly under attack. But I genuinely believe that most police officers are extremely good, decent people who do this job because it’s one of the few jobs where you can actually make a difference to the world. And I think police are a major part of the glue that holds civilisation together.
* In his book Need You Dead, Peter James introduces the new field of Super Recognisers:
… the average human being can recognise 23 per cent of faces that they’ve seen previously … But a tiny percentage of the population, now known as Super Recognisers, can achieve up to 90 per cent … with consistent accuracy, from just one single feature. An earlobe. A nose. A chin.
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