The Crime Book: Peter James on our true crime obsession
The Crime Book is a fascinating guide to the history of crime and criminology. From bandits to highwaymen, pirates to con artists, serial killers to 21st century cyber predators, the book explores the psychology of criminal behaviour and the stories of the villains who played against the rules.
‘I owe my career as a writer to crime – in more ways than one. In 1982 soon after my first novel, a spy thriller, had been published, our Brighton home was burgled. A young detective, Mike Harris, came to take fingerprints, saw the book and told me if I ever needed any research help from Sussex Police to give him a call.
Mike was married to a detective, Renate, and over the next few years my former wife and I became firm friends with them. Almost all of their circle of friends were also in the police force, in all fields, like Response, Homicide, Traffic, Child Protection, Antiques and Fraud. The more I talked to all of them, the more I realised that no one sees more of human life in a 30-year career than a cop. They encounter every single facet of the human condition.
All investigated crime involves an inseparable trinity of perpetrator, victim and police. Even offences that disgust us, such as rape, domestic abuse, theft from charities, preying on the elderly or child abuse, hold us as much in thrall as other seemingly more “glamorous” ones. And there are some crimes which captivate us with their sheer verve, where the personality of the villains transcends the ruin, despair or even death inflicted on their victims. I’ve long held a sneaking admiration for brilliant con-man Victor Lustig who sold the Eiffel Tower to scrap dealers, and the brazen, skilfully planned, but almost Ealing Comedy nature of the Hatton Garden Jewellery Heist.
Much in the same way, the 1963 Great Train Robbery captured the nation’s attention – it was at the time the most audacious, and largest robbery ever committed in England.
I had lunch with the gang’s getaway driver, Roy John James, after his release from prison some years later. He was looking for finance to resume his motor racing career. A charismatic man, he ruefully told me if they had not made the mistake of coshing the traindriver, causing him permanent injury, they would all still be considered heroes today. But that of course is the problem with true crime – someone does get hurt. The glamour and vitality of the Bonnie and Clyde story grinds to a brutal and sobering halt in a relentless torrent of bullets.
But that doesn’t stop our endless fascination with monsters, whether real or fictional, from Jack The Ripper, through to fiercely intelligent and charming Ted Bundy, estimated to have raped and killed over 100 young female college students. Nor with crime in general. Why are we so fascinated by crime, from both the pages of fictional detective novels, crime dramas and movies, to the utterly addictive murders in our tabloids, broadsheets and on our television news?
I don’t believe there is a one-size fits all answer, but many. Top of my list is that we are programmed by our genes to try to survive. We can learn a great deal about survival through studying the fates of victims and the make-up of their perpetrators.
And there is one aspect of human nature that will never change. I was chatting with former serial bank robber, Steve Tulley. As a teenager, in prison for his first robbery, Tulley met Reggie Kray, and persuaded him to let him be his pupil and teach him everything he knew. At 58, broke, Tulley is living in a bedsit in Brighton. I asked him what was the largest sum he had ever got away with. He told me it was £50k in a bank job. So what did he do with the money? He replied, excitedly that he had rented a suite in Brighton’s Metropole Hotel and, in his words, “Larged it for six months until it was all gone.”
I asked Steve if he had the chance to live his life over again would he have done it differently? “No,” he replied with a gleam in his eyes. “I’d do it all again. It’s the adrenaline, you see!”’