Crime writer Peter James: ‘Buy the best you can… a cheap bike nearly killed me!’

Award-winning crime writer Peter James has sold 21 million books. The 75-year-old author grew up in Brighton with his sister Genevieve and parents Cornelia and Jack – former glovemakers to Elizabeth II. 

His books are set in the resort and have been turned into the hit ITV drama series, Grace, starring John Simm. 

James tells York Membery how the series – for which he gets seven per cent of the overall profits – has boosted international sales of his books. 

He lives in Jersey with second wife Lara, 44, and their two dogs, Wally, a goldendoodle, and Spooky, a labradoodle.

What did your parents teach you about money?

My dad always told me to buy ‘quality’ because he warned: If you buy cheap, you buy twice. Unfortunately, I initially didn’t follow his advice and while at boarding school, aged 18, I bought a clapped-out Triumph 250cc motorbike for £25. 

A tyre blew out late one night and I lay on the centre white line of the Hog’s Back road on the North Downs as lorries roared by either side of me. I bought cheap and it nearly killed me – since then I’ve always bought the best I could afford.

Did you ever consider following your parents into glovemaking?

My mother Cornelia, a refugee from Nazi Europe, and my father Jack founded the glovemakers Cornelia James, which counted the late Queen among its clients, and still holds a Royal Warrant. 

I did join the firm in my 20s, but my heart just wasn’t in it, and when a sales rep said to me: ‘Only 12 years to go until I retire!’ I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ So I left to try my luck writing full time and my sister Genevieve now runs it successfully… fortunately without me.

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?

As a student I had to survive on £8 a week, just enough to cover the rent on the converted garage I was sharing in Chelsea, pay the rail fare and feed myself. I needed to earn extra to take a girl I fancied out to dinner, and got a job as a cleaner on ten shillings an hour. But after four weeks my employer told me, politely, that ‘I wasn’t cut out for the job’ so I was let go. Things didn’t work out with the girl either!

Did you make money from your first book deal?

No, I signed a two-book deal – £2,000 for my debut and £3,000 for the follow-up for a couple of spy novels in the early 1980s. But that first book, Dead Letter Drop (1981) sold just 1,800 copies in hardback, and the sequel didn’t do much better. Then my fortunes changed overnight with the publication of my first Roy Grace crime thriller. 

Dead Simple was published in 2005 and the third in the series became my first No 1. I now write a book a year – I’m currently writing the 20th Grace novel – and 18 months ago negotiated a new, five-book deal.

Ever been sent anything valuable by a fan?

No, but I was once sent a fan letter written on a piece of wood from a coffin – after Dead Simple came out.

Has the TV adaptation of Grace proved a money-spinner?

The TV series – with the brilliant John Simm in the title role of DS Grace – has been sold to more than 20 countries and is returning for a fourth series in 2024. I get 10 per cent of the production fee and 7 per cent of the overall profits. It’s also given my books, which have been translated into 38 languages, a big international sales boost. Lara and I had cameo roles as coppers.

By the book: John Simm as Brighton-based DS Grace

What is your biggest money mistake?

Buying an old Jaguar E-type for £10,000 in 1988 as a 40th birthday present for myself. It was a wreck and I spent another £60,000 restoring it. But I had to sell it when my first wife and I got divorced. Unfortunately the classic car market had temporarily collapsed so I sold it for a measly £20,000. That hurt.

Your best ever money decision?

Firstly, setting up the third internet service provider in the UK, Pavilion Internet, when there were just 50,000 people online; my two business partners and I sold it in 1998 for a seven-figure sum. Secondly, investing in Animas, which developed a wearable patch enabling diabetics like myself to get an instant insulin read-out on their mobile. That netted me a 20 times return on my six-figure investment.

Do you save into a pension?

No, I’ve seen so many swings and roundabouts in pensions. My properties, my classic cars – I’ve got a 1962 American Racing Chevrolet Corvette, a 1964 Mini Cooper S and a 1987 Mercedes 500 SL among others – and my modern art collection are my pension.

Do you invest in the stock market?

No, but I bought £15,000 of Bitcoin as part of my research for a Grace novel. It jumped to £70,000 then dropped. I sold for £40,000, not a bad return.

Do you own your own home?

We have a 17th Century detached house in Jersey with a 75ft tower where I write. The view from the top is fantastic, and I can see the coast of Saint Malo in France. My wife Lara and I are passionate about animals and we have more than one hundred in the grounds.

Do you donate money to charity?

Lara and I have our own charity, The Really Scary Books Charitable Foundation, and donate to mainly small charities such as Martlets Hospice, in Brighton, which cared for my mother. Another one I’m passionate about is the Sussex Police Charitable Trust. I’m also a patron of the RSPCA.

Stop Them Dead (Roy Grace 19) is published by PanMacmillan and is out in hardback.

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