As his latest Roy Grace novel went into paperback, topping the bestseller charts within three days of its release, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak to Peter about writing, research and killer first lines.
In your latest Roy Grace novel, Dead Man’s Time, you entwine the events of a double-murder committed in Brooklyn in 1922 with a vicious robbery in modern-day Brighton – what was the inspiration for the story?
The historical murders in my book were based on a real-life killing. A cop friend in New York, Pat Lanigan, who works for the Mafia-busting team in the city, told me a story about three years ago about his family history. At the beginning of the last century the Irish and the Italians had these massive gang turf wars in New York. The Irish were the White Hand Gang and the Italians were the Black Hand Gang. Pat’s Great Uncle, Dinny Meehan, was head of the White Hand Gang, and in 1920 he and his wife were shot in bed in front of their four-year-old son, who went on to become a famous basketball player.
I was fascinated by the story, and have always been interested in that period of history, as featured in the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs Of New York, and wanted to write a novel which used elements of it.
You’re renowned for the extraordinary amount of research about police procedure you do for your novels – how important is it that everything is authentic for you?
I’ve always been like that. If I go to a party I’m the one who sits watching everybody else, studying how they behave. Wherever I’m travelling in the world I’m always on the lookout for research for the two or three stories that I have in my head, always thinking two or three books ahead.
In 1981 I was burgled and the detective who came to my house saw that I’d just published a book – my first, Dead Letter Drop – and asked if I wanted any help with research. I got to know him well and, as a result met other cops and asked them about their work. I realized, as someone who wanted to write about human nature, why people do the things that they do, in particular the bad things, that nobody sees more of human life than a cop – sometimes even going in a single day’s work, from domestic abuse to cot deaths to murder. Everything.
When I was a young writer I would write the story and then give it to my police contacts to read. I remember one time I’d finished a book and a homicide detective pointed out something that would have meant a major change to the story. I thought about leaving it, but I couldn’t. I don’t think you can kid your readers that something is authentic when it isn’t. However, in the real world Roy Grace, as a Detective Superintendent, would be more deskbound, perhaps, and not so active. I take slight poetic licence with what his role would be in real life.
In a novel, there needs to be an inseparable trinity of character and research and plot. It is vital to have your readers care about your characters, and part of that process is to make them believable. I use psychologists – I have one on a permanent retainer to help me – and run my characters, their backgrounds and all that they do by them. For my next book Want You Dead I’m working with a psychologist who specializes in domestic abuse victims – I think it’s that if you’re dealing with sensitive subjects, you have even more of a responsibility to get things right.
When I was asked by Macmillan in 2001 to create a cop for a series it seemed to me that every fictional cop had a broken marriage and a drink problem – and in reality, no cop with a drink problem is going to last 24-hours in today’s British Police force! What detectives like to do more than anything is solve problems and I thought it would be interesting to have a cop who has a personal problem that he can’t solve.
When we first meet Roy Grace he is coming up to his 39th birthday, and we learn that 9 years earlier, his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, has vanished off the face of the earth. Although functioning as an effective homicide detective, Roy has been looking for her ever since, and dogged by the puzzle he has not yet been able to solve. Did she run off with a lover? Get abducted and murdered? Have an accident?
I’d intended for the Sandy story to run for three or four books but readers told me how much they enjoyed it and were eager for it to continue. Sandy’s story will end at some point, and I have an ending in mind.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn as a writer?
I wrote a novel in 1993 called Alchemist, a thriller about the pharmaceutical industry, but when I got to the end it didn’t flow, and it took me two-and-a-half years to rewrite. It was like a tapestry, from which I removed one thread and it all fell apart. It was after that book that I began to plan my books carefully. I got it right eventually, but it was a hard lesson. A book that should have taken eight months took three years.
So how important is planning for you before you write a book?
Planning is important, but so is spontaneity. I used to play a lot of chess when I was a kid. My Grandfather, who was an amateur Chess champion, taught me. I think writing a book is almost like playing chess against yourself. You’re always thinking 20 moves ahead. But often I’ll get halfway through a book and a better ending will occur to me. I love that feeling of satisfaction you get when something unexpected happens – you didn’t see a plot development coming – and the ending comes together. If you don’t surprise yourself as a writer, you won’t surprise the reader.
What have you discovered on your journey as a writer?
The most important thing is to write about characters that you care about. As a writer you need to love all your characters, the villains included. If you think about the greatest and most successful books in the genre, you care about the characters. In Silence of the Lambs, for example, you grow to like the hideous Hannibal Lecter, and you even care a little for Buffalo Bill because he must be a little human, because he loves his dog! Frankenstein’s Monster didn’t want to be created, there’s pathos there. Endearing characters – that’s what people connect to. In all of literature it’s said there are only seven stories, but it’s the characters that makes them different, and it’s the characters that you remember.
What’s the best advice you can give to a new writer?
Read. What I did when I started out was to read – and reread – books that were in the genre I wanted to write. I remember reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and I was just blown-away by it, so I deconstructed it to discover how he had made it work. I read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby again and again – nothing seems to happen in that book but there’s a sense of dread that’s horrifying – and another book that I learned a lot from was Stephen King’s The Shining.
Another important lesson is you have to grab the reader straight away with a terrific first line, because if they’re browsing in the store and pick up your book and the first sentence doesn’t grab them, they’ll more than likely buy somebody else’s. I’ve talked to agents who’ve had authors say to them ‘Ignore the first 50 pages, it gets exciting after that!’
These days everyone has so much choice. Grab your readers and never let them go! We all learn from past writers, and from our peers. My greatest thrill is to go into a bookshop,pick up a book by an author I’ve never read before, and then be utterly riveted by it, so that when I put it down, I think to myself, “Wow, I wish I’d written that!’