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Author Peter James And Sidekick Track Seaside Crime

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

After turning over a book to his publisher, Peter James wakes up the next day and starts on the next one.
/ Gareth Ransome
Gareth Ransome
After turning over a book to his publisher, Peter James wakes up the next day and starts on the next one.

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Earlier Web versions of this story, as well as the audio, included a description of a scene in one of Peter James' books, and gave the wrong title of the book in which the scene is included.
Vicki Barker
Vicki Barker was UPR's Moab correspondent from 2011 - 2012.