Peter James: Bright and sleazy by the sea

It's the darker side of Brighton that inspires the crime writer. Suzi Feay met him in sinister Sussex

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The Independent Culture

As I walk down to the seafront from the station, I see that Brighton's clock tower has been mysteriously draped in old clothing as part of the city's arts festival. It's a suitably drab welcome; after reading the crime writer Peter James's ninth Roy Grace novel, Dead Man's Time, I'm seeing this vibrant, touristy city through his eyes, noting every set of sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, every grimy doorway and litter-strewn alley.

James bounds over to meet me outside the pier. A week later, he will crack his ribs and bruise his spleen in a spectacular crash during a classic car meet, but for now he's full of energy. Strolling along, he gets a text from a policeman friend, ribbing him about Brighton and Hove Albion's latest defeat. "Bastard supports Crystal Palace," James laughs. As he poses for our photographs in front of the iconic pier sign, a small blonde woman barrels determinedly out, and for a moment I think we're going to be chased away. Instead she gives him a warm hug. "She's the manager of the pier," James confides. A few moments later, the events manager pops out with a camera and asks for a shot.

James's mood is as sunny as the weather, but he has promised to show me a darker side of Brighton. We move on to an arcade, innocuous in the daytime but "drug central", he assures me, after dark. His Roy Grace novels, selling upwards of five million copies in the UK, are notable for their authentic-feeling dialogue among coppers and crims, and James still goes out whenever he can with the local police to catch the lingo and keep up to date.

As we stride through the narrow streets, he peppers me with facts and figures about his beloved home town. "Back in 1841 the railway line opened and all the villains just poured down. It's much nicer to be a villain here than in London, and they brought cockfighting, prostitution, protection racketeering, razor gangs, everything. Graham Greene wrote about it beautifully in Brighton Rock."

The town has recently lost its uncoveted title of "Injecting Drug Death Capital of the UK". "Three previous chief constables and the recently outgoing police commander of Brighton and Hove have all said to me that Brighton is the favourite place to live in the UK for first-division criminals," he announces. That's not good, is it? "It's great for me!" he chortles.

"Look moody, Pete," the photographer urges as he poses in what's known as "Quadrophenia Alley", where Lesley Ash and Phil Daniels plighted their troth in the mod movie. Jostling in the narrow space, we run up against a local guide leading a group of German tourists, and it's another hug-and-greet as she introduces him to her charges as the famous local author. James obligingly rattles through the German titles of his books for their benefit. Later, in the higgledy-piggledy Lanes, there are more smiles and waves from shop-owners and a splendidly silver-haired and pink-trousered antiques dealer bounces out of his shop to greet his old pal.

"He was one of the original knocker boys," confides James. A knocker boy goes round houses trying to persuade unwary owners to part with their antiques, sometimes passing on details of high-ticket items to local villains. In the new novel, when an elderly woman is found tortured in her mansion and subsequently dies, a leaflet from a knocker boy proves a vital clue in a tale stuffed with red herrings and false leads. A valuable Patek Philippe watch has been stolen from her safe, and the theft unravels a story going back 90 years to a mysterious disappearance in New York's underworld.

Even in the coffee shop we retreat to for a chat, there is no respite from the fan club; we pass a soberly suited-and-booted guy who murmurs a discreet hello; a detective, it turns out. Over a cappuccino, James eagerly explains why Brighton is a flytrap for villains, his soft and surprisingly upper-crust tones contrasting with his subject matter.

"What you've got in Brighton that makes it so difficult to police, is a major sea port on either side: Shoreham and Newhaven – great places to bring in drugs. You've got miles of unguarded coastline. You've got Shoreham airport, which has no customs and immigration; you've got all the exit routes: the Channel tunnel, the ports, the ferries … we sit on the gateway to Europe. We've got two universities, we've got a huge young, hip, media community, so it's a massive recreational drugs market. And, of course, being so close to Europe, the police arrest dealers and they are replaced almost instantly; and with all the antique and jewellery shops, as you've seen, it's a great place to fence stolen goods."

With his books translated into 36 languages, he spends six months of the year on tour, and wherever he goes he tries to form ties with local police. "I went hunting with the chief of police of Moscow last November, which was quite an experience! I got friendly with him a few years ago. I have a relationship with a few prison governors."

With his endless touring, not to mention the research and the work he does to help drug users, it's a miracle he actually manages to write. He explains his back-to-front working day: "Six o'clock in the evening I make a vodka martini – four olives – put on music and get in a zone and I'll write until 9 or 10 at night. Then watch rubbish on TV, have supper on a tray, and go to bed," he says with relish. "I look forward to it; I love writing, it's my treat time."

What's the music? I ask. "There's certain music I can write to and some that I can't. I can't write to the Beatles, but I can to the Kinks! I love 'Mr Pleasant'. If I have one favourite writing track it's that. 'Hey, Mr Pleasant!"' he sings, sounding sinister for the first time. "It's the nastiest song …."

Dead Man's Time, By Peter James

Macmillan £20

'A senior nurse from the Royal Sussex County Hospital contacted Sussex police at 5am today. She … reported that a man giving his name as Ricky Moore had been admitted early last Saturday morning after stumbling into A&E with burns across his body – as well as internally. Without going into graphic detail, I understand it will be several weeks before he's going to be able to sit down …'