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U R Dead

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 September 2017, 5.41am

On holiday this year, I read my first Peter James thriller.

I have a particular interest.

He’s a local boy, a Brighton author, who writes about a Brighton detective, Roy Grace; while I write about a monk/detective, Abbot Peter,
just twelve miles along the coast in Stormhaven. (Real-life Seaford.)

So there’s the smell of the sea in both murder mystery series; but perhaps there the similarities end, both in style and particularly, in sales.

On the cover of my copy of U R Dead, I’m told that James has sold 16 million copies worldwide; which explains his ‘other house’ in Notting Hill; and leaves me almost invisible in his commercial shadow.

And as I put the book down, I can see why he sells.

U R Dead is a page-turner. If you like ‘stop-talking-to-me-I-must-get-to-the-end-of-this’ page-turners, this is one of those.

I’ve given up on a couple of books recently, which I felt lost their way, over-estimating reader interest.

But I didn’t give up on U R Dead. Short chapters, scenes quickly created, you don’t get bored, there’s a pressing momentum.

And James is famously strong on police procedure, how things work in Old Bill land.  You quickly learn the difference between a CSI, a SIO, an ACC and a PCSO…oh, and a ‘misper’...missing person, keep up.

His extensive research in this area is not hidden; this is not Miss Marple.

Fortunately, my brother was in the Brighton police, and at the scarier end of some of their operations; so I had a bit of a ‘heads up’, as we coppers say.

And James is also strong on the forensics, on medical stuff, from the sciatic notch to the sub-pelvic concavity, which I’m sure I needn’t explain.

So here is a rattling good story that I wanted to finish.

I’m not sure there are any characters in it. (‘Back story’ should never be mistaken for ‘character’.)

Instead, we have a lot of people quickly and cleverly introduced, moving the story on…and, of course, this is a strength in some ways…it’s how investigations really are.

In real life, sleuthing it isn’t just Poirot and Hastings talking over coffee, with Miss Lemon chipping in’s a complex professional network of skill-sets contributing to the cause; and you sense that here.

A more significant concern is the villain.

While James shows a worthy commitment to gritty procedural reality in relation to the investigation, some sense of reality is lost with the villain, who is almost supernaturally clever and quite unlike any serial killer I’ve read or heard about.

I had a slight sense of it all getting a bit silly at the end, when, until then, reality had been such a virtue.

If you make a virtue of credibility, it’s important to stay there.

Like landing a plane, endings are the most difficult bit of any book for the author. It’s difficult to land the thing, what you choose to resolve, where you call time on the narrative, how many surprises you keep up your sleeve etc.

But whatever you do – whether you’re Tolkien, Stephen King or Austen – you need to do it within the rules you have set yourself.

You can set yourself whatever rules you like; but once set, you need to be consistent.

James has chosen gritty police realism, so probably the villain needs to stay in that world.

I walk on thin ice in this review, of course. I’m aware of the accusations that might be made.

‘Rather unsuccessful crime writer finds fault with more successful crime writer.’

Tolstoy insecurely felt the need to rubbish Shakespeare as a writer, while Agatha Christie was very rude about Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

It’s our peer group we tend to struggle with.

But I hope there’s none of that here.

No one is happier than I when I stumble across good writing, wherever I find it. I can find God in a well-cut sentence, whether fruitful or sparse. I stop and I breathe in wonder, love and praise.

And like all commercial success, writing is necessarily a pyramid of ambitions.

For James to be up there at the top, and he certainly is, there must be others, like myself, who tuck in down below to support the edifice.

There’s nothing particularly fair about this.

As in all aspects of life, it’s a hierarchy of good luck, which is why JK Rowling and Hilary Mantel (who can write) rub
shoulders at the sales pinnacle with 50 Shades of Grey author EL James, who can’t.

For now, though, I warmly commend to you U R Dead, by Peter James and published by Macmillan.

I give it four stars out of five. Sharp story-telling with built-in momentum, stuffed with police and medical information. You do feel you’re inside a real investigation.

And for those interested in trying another coastal murder mystery, and a change of style, my latest Abbot Peter mystery, The Indecent Death of a Madamis out this week, published by Marylebone House.


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