The average reading age of a prison inmate is just 9 years old. That shocking statistic is enough to make anyone want to better adult reading levels in Britain. With that in mind the late government recently implemented a ‘Quick Reads’ scheme to encourage the average adult to do a little more light reading. Several big names in Literature have contributed by writing short novellas of no more than 128 small pages in large type. One of those big names is widely acclaimed crime writer Peter James , with over 20 novels to his name and a highly successful career spanning over 30 years.
His contribution to the Quick Reads scheme is his short novella ‘The Perfect Crime’, based in Brighton and Hove where Peter James shadowed the police force as part of his research. Unsurprisingly, he has a multitude of tales to tell as a result of his experiences on the beat and that’s where our interview begins:
Q. I’ve heard that you follow the Police around Brighton and Hove to gather research for your novels, what is your most poignant memory of one of these trips?
A. I guess about three years ago, attending a G5 (sudden death). We had to break into a flat near Brighton seafront, where neighbours had reported a terrible smell. There was a little old lady in her bed, in a floral nightdress, with a plastic bag tied over her head, and the room full of blowflies. She had been there about a month. What was so poignant to me was that she clearly had no family or friends who ever looked in on her and that she had committed suicide, probably out of loneliness. It was one of the saddest sights and experiences of my life.
Q. Have there been any dangerous moments during your research with the Police?
A. Yes, quite a few.The most scary moment was about 18 months ago, on night patrol up in the Whitehawk estate in Brighton, renowned for its toughness. I was with a young sergeant and even younger Indian female PC . They saw ten youths walking down a street, all drinking out of bottles and cans. It is a criminal offence to drink in the streets in Brighton. They pulled over to confront them. I followed them out of the car, wearing my fluorescent “Police Observer” jacket. Within moments the situation turned ugly. The youths refused to hand over their drink and started shouting racist taunts at the female officer, and advancing on us in a threatening manner. I had a split-second to make a decision – stay or run! I decided I would stay and help my colleagues and was bracing myself for a fight, when suddenly the ringleader of the youths pointed at me and demanded to know who I was: “Who the f******s he?” Quick as a flash the sergeant replied, “He’s with the FBI”. Instantly they all backed off!
Q. Your book ‘The Perfect Murder’ is a short sharp shot of crime, was it written specifically for the Quick Reads scheme or had you wanted to write it beforehand?
A. I sat next to the Chief Constable of Sussex, Martin Richardson at a dinner a couple of years ago and I asked him if there was such a thing as the perfect murder. He replied, “The perfect murder is the one we never hear about!” I was fascinated by that remark, and then when I was invited to write this quick read, I decided it would be the perfect theme – and I tried to create two characters that I felt people could identify with.
Q. In your book you reference several infamous murder cases and legal battles such as the notorious Darwin insurance scam, was the book’s plot directly derived from anything you witnessed as a ‘police observer’?
A. No there was no actual case like this that I came across. However, from my experience with the forensic team, and in particular at the mortuary and with pathologists, I learned that poisons are quite hard to detect in a victim’s body: You have to realize the person has been poisoned and you have to know what poison to test for.
Q. What are your hopes for the Quick Reads scheme?
A. The American writer Scott Corbett once wrote, “I often feel sorry for people who don’t read good books; they are missing a chance to lead an extra life.” I hope the scheme will introduce to many new people the riches of reading. In particular, prisoners in UK jails – I’ve visited several prisons and it is astonishing how few prisoners read – yet they have so much time on their hands. Also there are so few boys between 12-16 who read and I hope the scheme will encourage them to”.
‘The Perfect Murder’ is available to buy now and Peter James’ next book ‘Dead like You’ will be released in stores across the UK this June.