Peter James celebrated 10 years of Roy Grace - the fictional Brighton (UK) police chief superintendent that has seen James move from the championship to the premiership of crime writing - with Want You Dead. For those unfamiliar with his books, every one he's written since Dead Simple kicked off the series in 2005 has the word dead in the title.
The Roy Grace books are also typified by short chapters. There are 120 chapters in the 402 pages of Want You Dead - an average of fewer than 3½ pages per chapter. Chapter 2 is only 109 words long. Chapter 31 even fewer - 74 words. So there are lots of pages (at the end of chapters) with blank spaces. This makes James' books even harder to put down than would otherwise be the case. One is always tempted to read "one more chapter" - and then another. Until, arriving at, say, page 350, and, desperate to know how it will all end, it's all too easy to read the final 50 odd pages with ferocious speed.
The character who "wants you dead" is a handsome psychopath and classic narcissist called Bryce Laurent (just one of his many aliases) whose multi-faceted skills include pyrotechnics, locksmith and conjuring virtuosity, and torture - not a man to fall out with. But the highly attractive Red Westwood, his ex lover, who once adored him, has done just that. After the scales of mad, passionate infatuation have fallen from her eyes, she becomes the unfortunate "you" in Want You Dead.
If I can't have you, no one will.
Thus begins a a breathlessly fast-moving, often violent cat-and-mouse saga in which Laurent sets out to seek revenge in spectacular and fiendish detail - destroying almost everything that Miss Eastwood holds dear. He even hires a private detective agency because "there was too much going on now for him to keep track of it all. And he did not want to miss a thing."
How she regrets posting this message on an online dating agency: Single girl, 29, redhead and smouldering, love life that's crashed and burned. Seeks new flame to rekindle her fire. Fun, friendship and - who knows - maybe more?
A lot more, as it turns out.
"Can you even begin to understand the anger I am feeling now?" declares the ghastly Mr Laurent. " It's why I have to kill you. Because I cannot live in a world in which you are with some other man. My heart just won't take it. I'm sorry Red. Really I am. We could have had such a great life together. Instead we're just going to have to settle for a great death."
Before striking gold dust with Roy Grace, based on a real life (retired) Brighton Chief Superintendant, David Gaylor (and working very closely for a decade with local and regional Sussex police officers) James was doing OK as a thriller/horror writer, with some 17 books to his credit. And it's intriguing how the horror genre seeps back into his Grace novels from time to time. It's as if he can't resist the urge to give his readers the shudders now and then. But it's what his readers undoubtedly expect, and partly why they can't resist turning the pages - or in some cases, skipping the occasional ghoulish paragraph!
Another clever sub-plot in all 10 Grace books has been the little-known fate of Sandy, Roy's first wife who we learn in the very first book, Dead Simple, published in 2005, has mysteriously disappeared without trace. There are hints - later confirmed - that she is still alive and living in Germany with a little boy fathered by Grace (unbeknown to Grace and his glamorous new partner Cleo). Will we ever know why she left? Grace seems a pretty decent cove, and is still haunted by her unaccountable disappearance. He even feels guilty, after all these years, about re-marrying, although he is besotted with Cleo. In every one of the 10 Grace books we get a tiny, unsatisfying glimpse of Sandy (who seems a far less pleasant soul than Grace) but very few questions are ever answered. Her disappearance is a kind of mystery within a mystery that helps keep James' army of fans coming back for more. But once again, in Want You Dead, she comes and goes briefly without a satisfactory conclusion. Will Peter James ever reveal all there is to know about her? One reader has even written to him pleading with him to leave the conclusion to Sandy's story in a safe somewhere on the basis that James' younger readers may outlive their favourite crime writer and never discover the truth about Sandy. Might he take her secret to the grave? So far, James has not obliged. Perhaps even he hasn't decided quite how to bring Sandy's story to an end. Even in Want You Dead, he keeps his options open. One gets the impression that even though she's been declared dead, dead she ain't. Or there again, she might even finally be dead now if you half believe what you read in Want You Dead, in which James, as usual, likes to torture his readers (but very mildly compared with the appalling Bryce Laurent) ever so slightly about her fate. So where does that leave Roy Grace? Married or not? And if so, to whom? Perhaps in the next Roy Grace thriller, we'll find out. Or maybe not....