Grace: John Simm stars in dramatic trailer for ITV drama
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Despite being a best-selling crime writer with a successful TV series starring John Simm, a new stage play touring in February, and homes in Brighton and Jersey, Peter James loves nothing more than rootling around at car boot sales with his wife Lara.
“It’s true,” he smiles. “We’ve always been keen ‘car booters’. Everyone hopes they might find that amazing bargain that turns out to be worth a fortune – we’re no different.” And, in a sense, he has, as they say, spun trash into treasure.
Inspired by his real life bargain hunting, Peter’s latest Roy Grace novel, Picture You Dead, begins with a boot sale discovery – a missing work by the French Old Master Jean- Honoré Fragonard. And the tale, like its 17 predecessors, is pure gold.
Having planned to write about a hospital serial killer, he turned to the less gruesome topic of art fraud during Covid. But fans, who include the Queen Consort, of whom more later, need not worry: the NHS killer is likely to appear sooner or later.
Over coffee before his appearance at London’s Capital Crime Festival this autumn, he tells me the roots of his latest book go back to 1996 and the moment a Brighton man called David Henty was caught forging UK passports.
“The head of HM Passport Office apparently later said these were the best forgeries they had ever seen barring one problem – two spelling mistakes,” smiles Peter.
“David’s got people binding, printing and despatching them when suddenly his error comes to light – he spelled ‘Britannic Majesty’ wrong – and his front door is kicked in by five of Brighton’s finest.”
Handed a five-year jail sentence, Henty learned to paint in prison – and discovered an incredible talent for forgery. On his release, he realised if he signed his paintings himself, they became works “in the style of the artist” rather than forgeries.
Peter continues: “In 2015, I co-wrote a non-fiction book with [former Brighton police commander] Graham Bartlett called Death Comes Knocking: Roy Grace’s Brighton.
“Graham rang me saying, ‘There’s this art forger I nicked and he’s invited us to lunch’. So we rock up at David’s house and there’s a blue plaque on the wall that says ‘David Henty, world’s number one art forger’.
“I’ve met many criminals over the years and David’s the nicest by a million miles. When I pointed out his blue plaque and said, ‘I thought you only got one after you’re dead?’, he laughed, ‘Yes, I forged it!’
“Anyway, we had a lovely lunch and I got to know him. Later he was having an exhibition of his forgeries and he asked me to open it. He gave me an LS Lowry to thank me and I put it on our wall at home.
“About a month later, we had a dinner party and one of the guests was former Sotheby’s director Tim Wonnacott from Bargain Hunt and Antiques Roadshow. He said, ‘That’s a lovely Lowry’. I asked, ‘Do you think it’s original?’ He looked at it for two minutes and said, ‘I don’t have enough time right now, but I’m not seeing anything to tell me it’s not’. And that’s what gave me the idea for my book.
“When I admitted it was fake, Tim said it was the best forgery he’d ever seen. So I went back to David and asked if he could forge something by Fragonard, who I’ve always loved, so even the world’s foremost expert couldn’t tell it was a fake? Basically, he said yes.”
Henty’s tricks include using antique canvasses, scrubbed clean and daubed in lead white paint; creating authentic surface cracking known as craquelure by placing in front of a woodburning stove for a fortnight; and recreating a suitably aged-looking patina by leaving his work for two months in the home of a heavy-smoking friend.
Using these techniques, he painted a “missing” Fragonard for Peter, which they named Spring, one of four fictitious canvasses showing the Four Seasons.
Thus was Picture You Dead – and its tale of Harry and Freya Kipling who find treasure at a car boot – born. Unfortunately, the discovery places them in the crosshairs of a ruthless collector. For his part, David Henty becomes forger Daniel Hegarty.
It’s the 18th Roy Grace novel and another bestseller already, no doubt due to pop up, under Christmas trees next week, which begs the question: how does he keep his series so fresh?
“When I was a kid a lot of my favourite writers, like Alistair MacLean, the more successful they got, the fatter their books got and the less exciting. I made a vow that if David Henty’s blue plaque ever I was lucky enough to have any kind of success, I’d try and raise the bar with every book.
“Everyone who reads is intelligent – we like to learn things about some aspect of the world – so I find a subject that fascinates me and research the heck out of it.”
(Needless to say, Peter is supporting the Daily Express Christmas appeal in partnership with reading charity Give A Book. A terrific cause, he enthuses.)
But one of his discoveries was that major London auction houses believe 80 percent of the art they are offered is forged. Museums, stately homes and other collections are also likely to harbour fakes hung among their collections.
“One of Dave Henty’s friends is a wonderful character called Billy ‘The Brush’ Mumford,” says Peter.
“Years ago, he sold a fake for £15,000. A year later, his painting was in a major auction in Dubai with a reserve of £1.5million and it all came tumbling down. But he told me he used to go round country houses before CCTV, take pictures of the paintings, copy them and then swap them!”
His latest book is deliberately lighter on murders than its predecessors – his debut, Dead Simple, featured a man buried alive in a coffin as a stag-do prank. “I was going to write about a serial killer in a hospital and thought, ‘This isn’t the time’. We were in a dark place with Covid and everything and we still are: Putin, the cost-of-living crisis, the price of oil and energy and all the rest.”
Equally, Grace – the surname a nod towards the peaceful acceptance of his lot Roy is struggling towards – and his lieutenant Detective Inspector Glenn Branson, played on-screen by Richie Campbell, are slightly less to the fore in the new book.
Is there a danger Roy gets so senior he might not be able to investigate anymore? “It’s why he’s always resisted promotion,” smiles Peter.
“Even at Detective Superintendent level, which he is now, the majority would just be pen-pushing, but there’s nothing to stop them going out and getting their hands dirty and that’s what Roy loves doing. I know one former Sussex Chief Constable who liked to go out in a traffic car and stop people speeding himself.”
It’s unlikely any other author working today has such a close relationship with the forces of law and order. Having met then Detective Inspector David Gaylor – often described as the “real-life Roy Grace” – a quarter of a century ago, the pair became friends and later collaborators. “That opened doors but you’ve got to work at it. People ask how I’ve got this access – it’s because I make a big effort,” says Peter.
A long-standing patron of the Sussex Police Charitable Trust, he has to date sponsored three police cars in Brighton and Hove.
“I try to give something back by showing the world what it’s really like to be a police officer. When they go out in the morning, they don’t know if they’re going to come back with their face intact or even come back at all. They get spat at, kicked, beaten and they see the most terrible things.
“A friend of mine is a traffic officer in Sussex and, about ten years ago, he got called to a suspicious-looking car. He opened the boot and found two dead children, aged two and three, inside.
“They had been killed by their mother after a bitter divorce. He had to try and resuscitate them until the paramedics got there, and later go home and bathe his own young children.
‘He’d round homes, the them, back “When the public gets angry, they’re getting cross about a fraction of one percent of a quarter of a million people who daily put their lives at risk, are not well paid and do it as a vocation. That’s why I’m defensive.”
Not to say he won’t call out the cops when necessary. “What people want above everything else is to feel safe on the streets and in their homes and the police lost that completely over the last 20 years,” he admits. “Far too woke, far too PC, far too much time worrying about the criminal rather than the victim.
“The positives are that the police are, very largely, no longer institutionally racist or homophobic or sexist. And by and large, women can have a proper career on equal terms with men.” He adds: “But I will always be critical if I need to be.”
Has ITV’s hit adaptation, Grace, with John Simm playing Roy, changed anything as far as the books go, I wonder?
“I’ve always sat down to write and thought, ‘Hi Roy, how are you today? Hey Glenn, how’s your train crash marriage? Hi Norman, who have you p****d off this week?’
“Now I’ve got to know John Simm and Richie Campbell, and they’re great guys, plus Craig [Parkinson, who plays Norman Potting] and Zoe Tapper [Roy’s partner, Cleo], so when I sit down, I know exactly how they walk, talk, laugh and so on. But if you’d sat me down in 2003 when the first book was published with a photo-fit artist, John would’ve come up as Roy and Richie as Glenn.”
The first five books have been done; and with six, seven and eight are being filmed for next year, there’s every chance Grace will continue while ratings soar. But will Peter, 74 but with the buzzing energy of a person half his age, ever find time to retire?
As he starts to tells me about the new stage adaptation of short story Wish You Were Dead, starring Casualty’s George Rainsford as Roy, and I’m A Celeb winner Giovanna Fletcher as Cleo, due to open in February, it’s clear work energises him.
“I joke that if I retired I’d just write a book so there’s not much point,” he chuckles. “I remember the late Wilbur Smith being asked if he planned to retire. He replied, ‘When they lower me into my coffin, my arm will come out and write on the side, The End’.
“I think my mum was working up until a few hours before she died – she was the Queen’s glove maker – and as she got older, she cultivated younger and younger friends. She said, ‘Old people are so dull’. No disrespect, but I think it’s important to be in touch across the generations.”
Today he credits his marathon-running wife Lara, 44, with keeping him young and in touch. The couple spend the majority of their time on Jersey with a menagerie of animals.
Among Peter’s fans, perhaps the most famous is the Queen Consort who makes a (long-awaited) appearance in the new book, joining her husband, the then Prince of Wales, in presenting Roy with a gallantry medal. “Camilla came down and interviewed me on the set of Grace earlier this year, and I didn’t tell her she was going to be in the new book,” Peter admits.
“I’ve kept it as a surprise and I’m waiting for her to spot it. I did jokingly ask, ‘Would you like to be a character in Grace?’ and she replied, ‘I could be a dead body’.
“I have so much respect for her. Here she is, our new Queen, one of the few highprofile people actually supporting books. She goes from humble Roy Grace to Booker Prize winners to Dickens and Tolstoy – she’s a proper fan.”
Picture You Dead by Peter James (Macmillan, £20) is out now. To order for £18 with free UK P&P, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com.
To book tickets for the Wish You Were Dead theatre show, click here.
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