Drat! He's done it again. But how? You Are Dead, the best-selling author Peter James' 11th annual offering about a fictional British detective, Roy Grace, may just be his best yet. Well, his publishers would say that, wouldn't they? After all, they said it last year after the publication of Want You Dead. Hype? Annoyingly - and yet satisfyingly for the reader - they might just be right again this time. So what is it about Peter James? He seems to be able to get under the skin of murderers, deadbeats, psychopaths, weirdos, and all kinds of other deeply unpleasant characters. And now - a serial killer. Perhaps more than one?
By way of contrast, he has no problem conjuring up decent, civilised police officers - along with one or two less pleasant coppers, particularly the whining, deeply irritating Cassian Pewe who has a higher rank than Superintendent Grace and makes our hero's life much more of a stressful and annoying struggle than it should be.
When you meet Peter, as I often do, it's hard to believe such a delightful, friendly and intelligent man could come up with such "shiver me timbers" story lines with some pretty gruesome scenarios. Before he came up with his Roy Grace character more than a decade ago now, Peter wrote horror thrillers - the kind that might well give you nightmares later as you burnt the midnight oil, unable to put one of his books down until a disturbed sort of sleep finally closed your trembling eyelids.
In a way it's a relief to his fans that he's switched from horror to crime, but Peter being Peter he can't resist throwing in some horrific moments. I don't want to give too much of the game away, but of the 111 chapters of You Are Dead (all punchy and crisp, as short chapters have to be to keep the pages turning) some are truly masterful. In Chapter 22, for example, a certain Harrison Hunter meets Jacob Van Dam, a psychiatrist, at his Harley Street consulting room.
"For a moment they were forced into silence as an emergency vehicle siren screeched by outside. As the siren faded the only sound for some moments was the hiss of the gas fire in the grate."
Why bother with the hiss of the gas fire? Because James is a master of background noises and images. Somehow tiny touches like that - which litter the book - lure the reader into the already compelling but often disturbing mesh of his narrative. As the siren fades, Hunter continues: "I'm an anaesthetist. But a rather unusual one."
Pausing as another siren screams past - and then a third - Van Dam asks: "Would you like to tell me in what way you consider yourself to be unusual?"
To which Hunter replies: "I like to kill people."
Is he telling the truth? Is he a fantasist? Serial killer? Both? If so, is there more than one? If there are, who exactly is killing whom? Are the victims all pretty girls with long brown hair? No men?
The denouement - there are three actually - make the reader sweat it out right to the end. As usual Roy Grace's long-lost missing ex-wife Sandy pops up from time to time, but tantalisingly, as You Are Dead ends with a hat trick of surprises, Grace gets closer than ever before to having to deal with the traumatic possibility that she is still alive. I'd got to within four pages of the ending as our flight from Spain (where I'd been lolling on the beach reading this latest epic) landed at London's Gatwick Airport, and somehow - in between getting my luggage and my wife Vivianne's down from the overhead lockers - I just had to complete the last pages. Even while I was still walking down the aisle to disembark. That's what you call a book you really can't put down!
You Are Dead is published by Pan Macmillan.