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Talented and much-loved crime writer.
What, in relation to your writing, are you most proud of?
Tough question for an opener. Pride is one of those private pleasures it isn’t usually wise to share. If pushed, I’ll admit to being pleased to have made my living entirely from writing for forty-five years and raised my family – with strong support from my wife Jax, who has shared all the insecurities of self-employment.
At what point in your life did you start to describe yourself as an author?
I put ‘writer’ against ‘occupation’ on my first passport application in 1977, prior to visiting New York for the 1978 Crime Writers’ International Congress. I don’t much care for the term ‘author’. Mickey Spillane once put it this way: ‘I’m a commercial writer, not an “author”. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.’
What did you buy with your first royalties cheque?
My first cheque was the £1000 for winning the Macmillan/Panther first crime novel contest. We spent a large chunk of it on a celebration dinner at the Cumberland Hotel with my parents, brothers and their wives. There was nothing tangible to keep, but it’s a memory I treasure. We ate, drank and were merry, thinking publication was a one-off, unlikely to be repeated.
What is the first crime story you remember reading?
Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner. Strangely I was reading this German children’s classic in my primary school’s underground air raid shelter in August 1944 when my house was destroyed by a VI flying bomb. Sometime after hearing the explosion I was collected by a neighbour and taken to the site where my two brothers emerged from the rubble alive. I have never finished the book.
- 1968 First book, non-fiction, on running, called The Kings of Distance
- 1970 Wobble to Death wins Macmillan/Panther first crime novel contest
- 1975 Prix du Roman d’Aventures for A Case of Spirits
- 1976 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for Swing, Swing Together
- 1978 CWA Silver Dagger for Waxwork
- 1979 Granada TV adaptation of Waxwork
- 1980-81 Granada TV series 1 and 2 of Cribb
- 1982 CWA Gold Dagger for The False Inspector Dew
- 1986 CWA Veuve Clicquot Short Story Award for The Secret Lover
- 1991 Ellery Queen Readers’ Award for The Crime of Miss Oyster Brown
- 1991-2 Chair of the CWA
- 1991 Anthony Award for The Last Detective
- 1995 Mystery Writers of America Golden Mysteries Prize for The Pushover
- 1995 CWA Silver Dagger for The Summons
- 1996 CWA Silver Dagger for Bloodhounds
- 2000 CWA Diamond Dagger
- 2007 CWA Short Story Dagger for Needle Match
- 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, Malice Domestic
- 2010 Grand Master, Swedish Academy of Detection
- 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award, The Strand Critics
- 2018 Grand Master, Mystery Writers of America
- 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, 50th Bouchercon
I am fortunate to be married to a keen reader of crime fiction who will also write when pressed, although she prefers to paint. When a second TV series of Cribb was commissioned and needed to be written in a terrifyingly short time, we divided the work and both names appeared on the credits. I met Jax at Reading University and we celebrated our Diamond Wedding in 2019. Our daughter Kathy had a successful career in banking in America and was a vice-president of J.P. Morgan investment bank. Our son Phil is a writer with four psychological suspense novels to his credit as well as a trilogy of fantasy novels illustrated by his wife Jacqui and featuring a character called Matlock the Hare. Phil won the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2011. My own first career was teaching. After National Service as an RAF education officer, I was in further education at Thurrock Technical College and Hammersmith College, but retired to write full-time in 1975. Away from crime writing, I research the history of athletics and write books and articles on the sport that afford me great pleasure and earn no money at all.
Publishing in the 1970s was a gentlemanly business. My first publisher was a former prime minister (Sir Harold Macmillan) and my editor (Lord Hardinge of Penshurst) had been pageboy to three monarchs. Macmillan would occasionally take a book home to read and send a pithy comment (on Waxwork: ‘I am not an expert in this kind of literature, but it seems to me that this stands pretty high in this category’). George Hardinge would take me for long lunches at Rules or tea at the Ritz. Otherwise we communicated mainly by post. Letters from my agent, George Greenfield, often carried an aroma of cigars. All this is far removed from modern corporate publishing, the staff ranged behind innumerable screens in a vast office like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Emails allow for quicker contact now, but, oddly enough, decisions take about as long as they always did and a book takes as long as ever to appear in print. Don’t start me on social media. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get started.
For me, the electronic revolution makes life easier than when I started writing longhand in exercise books on the kitchen table and Jax typed them with carbon copies and a bottle of correcting fluid at the ready. Research using the internet means less travel to remote libraries and less of an excuse to buy second-hand books, but the time I save is mostly wasted on fruitless surfing on Google.
I miss handwritten letters from readers, all too rare nowadays when I can be reached on email. Fortunately I still have a fat folder filled with the eccentric ones (from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, a vicar, a hangman, an IRA bomber, a spirit medium and numerous pedants) and they have come to my rescue several times, most notably at the CWA awards dinner in 1990. This glitzy occasion was graced by Princess Margaret and a number of stars of screen and stage including Diana Rigg, Julie Christie and David Suchet. On the evening before, John Mortimer, our speaker, was taken into hospital with a detached retina, and Catherine Aird phoned me to ask if I would fill in. As Robert Barnard put it in his report in Red Herrings, ‘Peter, as we know, gets the best post-bag since the late Gerard Hoffnung, and he rose marvellously and funnily to the occasion.’ In truth, the credit should have gone to Disgusted, the vicar, the hangman and the other correspondents.
My happiest memory of the Diamond Dagger evenings came in 1992 when I was chair and had the privilege of presenting the award. Back in the 1940s, when my family was homeless after the bombing, I had discovered the magic of reading, but had no books until I was given one that I took to be about a holy man. How wrong I was. Alias the Saint was the first adult crime novel I read. What a thrill to meet its creator, Leslie Charteris, nearly half a century later. I’m so pleased we honoured him. He gave a marvellous unscripted acceptance speech from the House of Lords terrace. Only a few months later he died.
I was touched and humbled when I won the award in 2000 and Ian Rankin made the presentation. My link with the CWA goes back to 1969, when I was welcomed by our founder, John Creasey, and I have warm memories of talks, visits, conferences, parties and collaboration in anthologies. Above all, I value fifty years of friendships. Creasey achieved much in his lifetime, more than 600 novels under 28 pseudonyms, but his most enduring achievement is our association.
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