Beneath Brighton’s soft, candyfloss exterior lies a dark underbelly of wrongdoing, according to international best-selling crime novelist and Brighton resident, Peter James.
While the only crime I’ve encountered here is a seagull nicking my doughnut, after reading James’ immensely popular series of Brighton-based crime novels, I’m starting to see this quirky seaside city in a different light.
Brighton is renowned in literary circles as the stomping ground of James’ long-time hero Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex CID, whose latest adventures, charmingly entitled Want You Dead, came out in paperback last week.
“As a writer you should write about what you know, and Brighton is the place that I know better than anywhere in the world,” said James, who was born in Brighton and, after a stint in the States and Canada, now splits his time between here and Notting Hill. “But it’s also more than that. Brighton has a long criminal pedigree going right back to its roots as a smuggling village,” he explained when I ask him where he gets his inspiration from.
“The big change for the town came in 1841 when the railway from London opened and all the low-life villains thought ‘hey, we could have rich pickings in Brighton with all these wealthy Londoners coming down’. They brought all kinds of villainy with them – cockfighting, prostitution, protection racketeering. Brighton became a notorious haven for criminals.” said James.
With his books having been translated into 36 languages, I’m not going to argue that this little city’s rough past is something to hide.
“Brighton’s got everything villains want. It’s got major seaports [Shoreham and Newhaven] on both sides – perfect for bringing in drugs, smuggling in people or exporting stolen cars. You’ve got miles of unguarded coastline, which is a smugglers’ paradise, plus it has the largest number of antique shops in the UK, so it’s a terrific place to fence stolen goods.”
But don’t let this put you off. I’m talking to a crime writer remember, someone who digs deep below the shiny surface for his ideas and inspiration.
“Brighton has all the elements that give it, yes that criminal undertone, but also that vibrancy. For me, anything I could conceive writing about is right here on my doorstep,” he said.
Our literary hero, DSI Grace (who I have to admit, I have quite a crush on) has been busy cleaning up Brighton’s streets for almost a decade now.
“I’ve developed a good relationship with the Sussex police, built up over a long period of time.” said James, who has also worked with the Met, NYPD and even the Russian police force for his novels in the past. “I find these people fascinating, nobody sees more of human life than a cop.”
When he’s not deriding drug barons and ruining racketeers, James takes great joy in exploring his hometown.
“The most beautiful part of Brighton is under the cliffs on a winter’s day, when the tide’s high and the waves are crashing over the wall – the walk from Black Rock to Rottingdean is just magical,” he said.
James is also a regular face in town.
“My favourite bar is Bohemia, it’s got a great smoking terrace. And I love English’s. It’s a quintessentially Brighton restaurant, a delightful place,” he said.
While it must be hard to overlook Brighton’s dark, dirty secrets when he’s knee-deep in a book, Peter told me what it is about the city that he loves, “I’ve got a big soft spot for the pier. I used to go fishing there as a kid. My dad would give me money to buy bait, but I’d dig up my own and spend the money on the slot machines.
“I also really like how close Brighton is to the countryside. I love the fact you can drive a mile or so up Dyke Road and bang, you’re in the most stunning national parkland.”
This mix of settings clearly ensures Brighton’s ability to inspire James doesn’t run dry. On 6 November, his brand new book of crime and supernatural short stories entitled A Twist of the Knife is released, which also features Roy Grace’s first ever case. James assures me that there is still plenty of life left in the detective. A TV series is currently in development and a new play opens in January based on his first Grace book, Dead Simple. Now if only I could get DSI Grace to tackle those thieving seagulls.