We're so used to men being the villains in crime thrillers that when we discover that an evil woman - a villainess no less - is the central character it makes us think. If we are men that is. I'm not sure how Peter James' army of women readers will react to his latest Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead.
It's quite brilliant. And this time the central villain - aided and abetted by some extremely poisonous reptiles - is most definitely female. A very beautiful and seductive one. But Jodie Bentley wasn't born beautiful. Her mind even less so.
Which may explain why when she loses her sister, Cassie - who was beautiful - in a cliff fall, she finds it amusing that during a pub supper, when her mother asks for a candle to be lit in memory of her elder daughter, the pub staff misunderstand and sing "Happy Birthday" as they bring the candle to their table. "I'm still laughing at that" Jodie writes in her diary later. "I've not felt so great in a long time!" Laughing? At the memory of her dead sister? That tells you quite a lot about how deeply sinister Jodie is under her make up.
Many years later, on a flight to New York to return the body of her elderly second husband Walt after a skiing holiday in the French Alps goes wrong (or should that be goes right?) we find Jodie "sipping vintage bubbly in first class" and thinking to herself that Walt has "more leg room than those poor bastards in economy."
Jodie's fascination with lethally poisonous snakes started when she was still with Christopher, husband number one, who was a reptile expert. "He knew so much about all of them" we learn. "He had rattlesnakes, a death adder, A Gaboon viper, a saw-scaled viper, a tiger snake and a whole variety of black mambas, as well as a range of spiders, including redbacks and funnel-webs. He also had a fascination with scorpions, keeping Indian reds, deathstalkers and Arabian fat-taileds."
Peter James tells us: "They excited her. She was awed by the power these small creatures had. The ability to kill a human being with a single bite or sting." So what happened to Christopher? Er, snake bite, actually. Occupational hazard, you might assume. But you might be wrong.
As I progressed through the earlier pages - including a breathtaking chapter about a small-time crook called Shelby struggling (and failing) to control his Fiat Panda after being taken ill (I won't divulge why) - it dawned on me that I was missing Roy Grace, the fictional Brighton (UK) detective chief superintendent who stars in James' series of thrillers which all have the word "dead" in the title. And I realised that unconsciously, I have always found the occasional Roy Grace chapter a comforting antidote to all the nightmarish villains James introduces in his books. The amiable Grace cheers me up in between villains! In Love You Dead, almost 70 pages rattle by with little or no mention of him. Help! I missed him like a long-lost uncle! But I needn't have worried: Grace puts in plenty of appearances in the second half of the book.
Now, about that third husband. Oh yes, there is one. But not for long, if you get my drift. Jodie marries Rollo on a cruise ship. When they get to Mumbai, he wants to go to a cricket match. She would rather visit a crocodile farm. He generously agrees. "How lucky she was" writes James, "to have such a sweet, understanding husband. How sad that it would only be for a short while longer, if all went to plan. So sad she almost shed a crocodile tear."
The book ends with a devastating disclosure for Roy Grace - and I don't mean the death of his long-cherished goldfish, Marlon, who is given a suitable burial. Regular readers will know that Grace's first wife Sandy had already mysteriously disappeared when the first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple, was published more than a decade ago. Her whereabouts have provided a brief but haunting sub-plot to all the Roy Grace novels since. Indeed, one devoted Roy Grace reader once begged Peter James to keep the final answer to the riddle of Sandy's disappearance in his safe in case James died (in real life, as it were) before he did - and denied him the long-awaited denouement. Now that is somewhat chilling!
Love You Dead is published by Pan Macmillan at $27.95. Peter's video channel Peter James TV can be accessed through http://www.peterjames.com