Two big names in British thriller writing visit New Zealand next week. Craig Sisterson talks to Peter James and Peter Robinson.
When publisher Macmillan approached Peter James in 2001 and asked the already bestselling British author whether he had considered writing a crime novel, the answer was simple. "It was what I'd always wanted to do," says James, on the phone from Nevada, where he's doing research for his next book before heading here to promote his latest, Dead Like You.
James already had 20 years as a published author, and 16 novels - a mixture of spy thrillers, supernatural suspense and horror - under his belt at the time, so switching genres may have seemed an unusual move. But he had "several years of developing relationships with the police", thanks to research for minor characters in his earlier novels.
"And when I went out to create a new detective, I thought, right, the first thing I have to do is immerse myself utterly in police culture," adds James, noting that those who work in law enforcement have a different outlook on the everyday world than most people. "I call it a healthy culture of suspicion. But it permeates all their lives."
In contrast, Peter Robinson dove straight into police procedurals with his debut novel in 1987, introducing Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks to the world in Gallows View. But like James, Robinson had concentrated on other types of writing - poetry and short stories - before turning to crime.
In fact, Robinson studied poetry, completing an MA at the University of Windsor in Canada under Joyce Carol Oates and a PhD at York University. "I found myself getting more interested in form and structure, tightening it up, and going into rhyme, meter, and writing poems that made sense, and even told stories."
At the time "nobody wanted that" from poets, preferring unstructured free verse, so Robinson turned to prose because he "was telling stories anyway".
"I'd enjoyed reading crime fiction, so that's what took me to crime writing," he says. "I'd read Chandler, Simenon, Ross Macdonald, just about everybody. And it was so great, I thought, 'I want to do this'."
Almost 25 years later Robinson is still writing about Inspector Banks, and this month Bad Boy, the 19th novel in the award-winning Yorkshire-set series, was published in New Zealand.
Both Robinson and James say they first fell in love with mystery stories thanks to Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, and each says that Sherlock Holmes is their favourite recurring detective of all time. "He is still the most enduring to me of all the fictional characters ever created," says James. "He was sort of the pioneer of forensics, and I think he is such a wonderful character, despite the fact he was completely eccentric."
Neither James' character Roy Grace nor Robinson's Banks have anywhere near Holmes' level of eccentricity, but each has become a popular character in crime fiction, with a few touches that reflect their creator's own interests. Banks is a big music fan, while Grace has an interest in the paranormal.
James and Robinson each also show a wonderful touch for setting in their novels, with their detectives solving crimes in the authors' own childhood backyards - Brighton and Yorkshire respectively. "Setting is really important because if you want to make a crime novel believable, then it needs to be in a context where people who read it can visualise it, they can completely feel it from the way you describe it," says James. "Then you set the crime against that backdrop and it's much more real and brings the book alive."
For James, his hometown of Brighton is perfect for crime novels. "It's been called the crime capital of England since 1944," he says with a chuckle. "It started off as a smuggling village in the Middle Ages, and it's always had this kind of dark criminal undertow."
A combination of easy access and escape routes, with sea ports, the Channel Tunnel, rail and motorway hubs nearby, plus a conflagration of diverse communities and the fact it's "a really nice place to live and work" provides fertile ground for crime - real and fictional.
In Dead Like You, which jumped straight to the top of the Sunday Times best-seller list on its British release, a series of rapes in Brighton reactivate a cold case, and readers are given more insight into the character of Roy Grace, as the narrative switches between the present and the past - a time before Grace's wife Sandy went missing.
For Robinson, who now lives in Toronto but still sets his crime novels "back home", Yorkshire is likewise an ideal backdrop. The largest county in England combines pristine countryside with industrial areas (coal, steel, textiles), big cities like Leeds and Bradford with historic towns from Roman times, and a gorgeous coastline.
"I think I wanted the best of both worlds," says Robinson. "I wanted to do things that used the sense of isolation you can get in North Yorkshire, where you can roam the dales for a day without seeing another soul, but I also wanted to be able to bring kind of urban-based crime writing to it."
Robinson has thrown a lot of tricky situations at Banks over the course of the series, but in Bad Boy he faces his biggest dilemma yet - his daughter Tracy is on the run with a very dangerous man.
Although the Chief Inspector's family life has featured in several of the novels, Robinson says he felt he "hadn't really said much about his relationship with his daughter for quite a while", and that inspired Bad Boy.
The first in what could become a series of Banks TV adaptations, Aftermath, is due to screen in Britain next month, with Stephen Tompkinson of Wild At Heart fame in the lead role.
"I read the scripts and went to the read-through, and I was on set about three times while they were filming it," says Robinson, sounding a little like a proud father.
James is also involved in the screen world, having been a film producer for many years. His credits include The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, and the New Zealand-filmed vampire tale Perfect Creature.
Both authors have visited New Zealand before (James has family in Hamilton), and say they are looking forward to returning to our shores this coming week. James will be making public appearances, while Robinson is holidaying around the North Island with his wife.
Bad Boy (Hodder & Stoughton $38.99)
Dead Like You (Macmillan $38.99)
Peter James appears at the Takapuna Library on Tuesday at 6.30pm; email firstname.lastname@example.org