Thank you for taking the time to discuss your fascinating career and share some of your experiences with us.
Your love of the English language shines through the quality of your work and the complexity of the plots you weave through your books. When did your love of storytelling begin?
I was a dreadful fibber as a child, so it must have been there from the start. I led a Walter Mitty existence, top of the class, popular, brilliant at games and with a girlfriend called Dahlia, the prettiest in school. None of it was true and Dahlia didn’t even exist. From there it was a smooth progression to making up stories for what was then called composition.
You also had a keen interest in sport which led to your first breakthrough as an author. Can you describe how this came about and if it is still one of your proudest moments?
At twelve I was taken to the post-war Olympic Games in London. There’s a lot of talk about legacy from the recent Olympics and for me the 1948 Games were a rich legacy indeed. I was hopeless at sport but desperately wanted to be a part of it, so I wrote about it, doing unpaid articles for small magazines. Out of it eventually came a book on distance running and then two years later, using distance running as a background, I entered a competition for a first crime novel. Wobble to Death won me £1000 and publication in England and America. A dream start to my career.
From your initial breakthrough, how did you then go on to develop the successful series of Sergeant Cribb and Peter Diamond?
Cribb was the Victorian detective I created to clear up the mystery in that first novel and he went on to seven more, using Victorian entertainments such as boxing, the music hall, boating, spiritualism and Madame Tussaud’s as the backgrounds to whodunits. The eighth, called Waxwork, won the CWA Silver Dagger and was turned into a pilot for a TV series, made by Granada, starring Alan Dobie as Cribb. Two series followed, based on the books and original scripts written together with my wife Jax.
The more recent series features a contemporary police detective called Peter Diamond, who is with Bath CID. The first book was going to be a one-off, called The Last Detective, and he resigned from the police. But it won the Anthony for best novel at the Toronto Bouchercon and I was asked to follow it up. So I contrived a story called The Summons in which the police needed him back and were forced to ask him to return and reinvestigate an old case. He’s been going ever since. The fourteenth, called The Stone Wife, is published this spring.
In which era do you prefer setting your novels – historical or contemporary, and why?
I wouldn’t say I have a preference. I enjoy the challenges of each. The Victorian period had a rich, rather daunting tradition to work in, thinking of Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, and the task was to avoid a pale pastiche of those great writers. The research was enjoyable, mainly using the British Library newspaper library. Today, with the internet, it would be quicker and easier. Turning to the contemporary police novel was scary, too. I wasn’t sure how I would cope with modern policing and the huge advances in forensic science, so I made Diamond a bit of a dinosaur. I get a lot of pleasure from using little known historical anecdotes in these modern books. Examples are Jane Austen’s shoplifting Aunt Jane and Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein in lodgings right next to Bath Abbey.
You have had work both televised and filmed. When this happens, do you become involved in the process and maintain control of what the producers can change?
I doubt if any producer allows the author control. They do take liberties and will tell you it’s necessary in visual terms. But I was lucky enough to attend read-throughs of the Cribb series and of Rosemary & Thyme, as the consultant. I was fortunate, too, that the adaptations of my books kept pretty faithfully to the plots – and that includes the movie Goldengirl and the TV drama Dead Gorgeous.
Do you write stand alone novels to have a break from the series, as a kind of refresher?
Yes, it’s fun to break out from time to time. I’ve written several from the point of view of the killer – and that’s very liberating. The False Inspector Dew won the Gold Dagger and has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, but the one I’m proudest of is The Reaper, a black comedy about a rector called Otis Joy, who murders the bishop in chapter one.
Every writer has their own way of working. Do you plot in detail first and then set wordage targets, or do you let the story grow as it builds on the page?
When I started I would plan meticulously and write the synopsis before beginning Chapter One. I don’t write in drafts. The pages I write each day aren’t altered, except in minor ways, so it’s a slow process. If I tell you how few words I manage in a day you won’t believe me. It has to be right before I can move on. These days I carry much more of the plot in my head, but it’s basically all there. It’s not a method I would recommend to anyone.
I first met you when you did a local library talk, which was both interesting and inspiring. Do you intend to tour again in 2014?
If I’m asked, yes. I’ve done several recent US tours, visiting cities I wouldn’t ever have known otherwise. And it’s lovely to meet readers who enjoy the books. Plus, of course, the occasional writer such as you – and that’s a bonus.
Thanks, Peter! Of all the accolades and achievements you have received in your career to date, which one(s) stand out as something very special to you?
Difficult. The CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2000 was a great honour, but couldn’t quite match the thrill of that first competition win with Wobble to Death. Another unforgettable moment came when I was Chair of the CWA and presented the Diamond Dagger to one of my early inspirations, Leslie Charteris, the creator of The Saint.
The Tooth Tattoo also shows that you have a love and understanding of classical music. The humour within the book works on many levels, which balances the much darker twists of the plot. What inspired this book?
I can answer this with more certainty than any of your questions. A 2004 article in the arts section of the Guardian by David Waterman had this intriguing headline: HOW DO THE MEMBERS OF A STRING QUARTET PLAY TOGETHER AND TOUR TOGETHER YEAR IN, YEAR OUT, WITHOUT KILLING EACH OTHER? The piece stayed in my mind for eight years until I was ready for Peter Diamond to investigate. I’m glad to say The Tooth Tattoo was well received, not least by the writer of the article, who still plays with the Endellion quartet. And it’s just out as a February paperback.
What is next for Peter?
The fourteenth Diamond novel, The Stone Wife, will be in the shops in April and I’m halfway through the one I’m currently calling Diamond Fifteen. Thanks, Valerie, for this stimulating interview.
My sincerest thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.