Peter James is one of the most popular crime and thriller writers working today and on Monday a stage adaptation of his bestselling novel - The House on Cold Hill - opens at Leeds Grand Theatre.
In his ghostly mystery, the Harcourt family - Ollie, Caro and daughter Jade – move into the house of their dreams that has been empty for 40 years. However, their dream home quickly turns sour as they begin to sense that they aren’t the only residents in the old house.
Writers are constantly on the lookout for story ideas and in this instance James didn’t have to look very far for inspiration.
It’s more than 30 years since he and his then wife, Georgina, decided to leave Brighton and buy an isolated house in the country. James picks up the story. “On the day we moved in I was standing in the doorway with Georgina’s mother guiding the removal men in. There was a panelled anteroom going into the kitchen and I suddenly saw this shadow move across the room. My mother in law, who was a very down to earth lady, said ‘did you see that?’ I pretended that I hadn’t because I didn’t want my wife to get spooked on the first day.
“But the next morning my wife was out at work and I came down from my office to make a coffee and noticed these tiny lights in the air in the anteroom.”
He took his glasses off thinking it might have been the light playing tricks on him. The lights vanished but later on the same thing appeared. He thought nothing of it until the following day when he struck up a conversation with a local man. “He said ‘Mr James, you’ve just bought the manor is that right?’ and I said ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘how are you getting on with your grey lady?’ And I said, ‘what grey lady?’ He told me that he used to house sit for the previous owners when they were away in Ibiza, and he was there one Sunday night sitting in an armchair watching telly when this woman in grey crinoline with an angry face came out of the wall and glided towards him, brushing his face with the edge of her dress and then vanished into the wall behind him. He told me that wild horses wouldn’t get him back in the house.”
A week later when he had his in-laws round for lunch, he took his mother in law to one side and asked her what she had seen. “She smiled and described this woman exactly as this man had. So I told my wife and she said she’d seen this woman several times but didn’t say anything to me because she didn’t want to spook me out!”
James says it’s believed that the ghost is that of a woman, who endured an unhappy marriage, that once lived there, and it’s a story that he later used as the basis for his subsequent novel. “I liked the idea of a man-hating ghost so the setting for The House on Cold Hill was very much based on this house and the grey lady.”
James grew up in Brighton and hankered after being a novelist from an early age. “As a kid I always wanted to be a writer but I never thought I’d actually be one, it was something that happened to other people.”
He wrote his first book at the age of 19 “a very bad spy thriller” that didn’t get published and spent the early part of his career as a TV writer and film producer.
His first literary success came in 1988 with Possession, a supernatural thriller, though today he’s become best known for his crime novels featuring Det Supt Roy Grace - the next in the series, Dead at First Sight, comes out in the middle of next month.
The inspiration for Roy Grace comes from a former real life detective. James first met him more than 20 years ago and the pair have since become close friends.
“I went into his office which was full of green and blue plastic crates bulging with folders. He said that each one was a case file on an unsolved murder and that he was the last chance each victim had for justice and the family had for some closure.
“He asked me what I was writing about and I told him I was writing a psychological thriller, called Denial. He said ‘tell me about it’ so I did and he stopped me at one point and said ‘I don’t think your detective would have done that’ and I realised this guy had a really creative side to him.
“Something I’ve learned about good homicide detectives is they have this combination of skills, from being able to piece together little bits of detail but also having this creative, blue sky mind.”
A few years later his publishers asked him if he wanted to write a book based around a police detective. “I’ve always been a stickler for research and I thought it would be great to have a detective based on a real one, so I went to Dave and said ‘How would you like to be a fictional cop?’ He loved the idea and he became my Roy Grace. He doesn’t look like him, but there’s a lot of his quirks that Roy Grace has and we’ve worked together very closely ever since.”
It’s helped give his detective series an unmistakable air of authenticity. “When I’m planning a Roy Grace novel we sit in a local pub with a brandy and a mole skin notebook and map out the plot and then I write the first hundred pages and he then reads them and tells me how the police characters would think and act, so he’s very much involved in every book which helps give it the authenticity that to me is so important.”
James is now 70 and has sold more than 19 million copies of his books worldwide. Presumably, then, writing has become second nature? “It gets both easier and harder at the same time. Easier in the sense that I know that I can get a book written, but harder in that I want to keep raising the bar with every book.
“I remember as a kid that with some of my favourite authors, like Alistair MacLean, it seemed to me that as they got bigger and more successful they got lazier, and I never want that to happen, so I always push myself very hard to try and make each book better than the last one.
“I always get a panic about fifty to a hundred pages in when I worry that it’s not very good.” Surely, though, after all this time, he’s confident in his own ability? “Funnily enough I was at a crime writing festival last year and I was standing outside with Lee Child and Martina Cole and I asked them if they ever felt like this and they both said ‘yes’.
“I think the day you’re complacent is the day you write a **** book. Fear of failing makes you try and go that extra distance to make it as good as you can.”
It’s this desire that compels him to keep on writing. “People sometimes ask me if I plan to retire and I always say if I retire the first thing I’d do is go and write a book, so I might as well not retire and get paid for it.”
The House on Cold Hill, Leeds Grand Theatre, runs from April 29 to May 4. For ticket details call 0844 848 2700, or log on to www.leedsgrandtheatre.com