Not Dead Yet by Peter James
Not Dead Yet by Peter James (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the eighth in the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series. He and the young hopeful Glenn Branson are up to their elbows in chickenshit jokes when a body missing its limbs and head (no chance of it being recruited by Chickenfoot) is discovered on an environmentally friendly factory farm. Even though he would prefer the quiet life dealing with this outbreak of foul play, Grace finds himself forced into the front line to defend Gaia Lafayette, a Lady Gaga-like megastar, from predatory fans and equally homicidal stalkers. She’s visiting Brighton as the lead actress in a historical drama to be filmed in the Pavilion. On the home front, a vicious criminal with a grudge is released from jail and, if Grace reads the signs right, is immediately focused on revenge for his imprisonment. This threat includes the now pregnant Clio. And also secretly back in Brighton is Grace’s wife. She’s been prompted to return by seeing adverts initiating a presumption of death hearing to clear the way for Grace to marry Clio.
By any standards, you would have to classify this book as ”busy”, i.e. it crams multiple plot lines together hugger-mugger, delivering the appearance of pace and excitement through almost 130 chapters, some only a few lines long. This is both a strength and a weakness. I note the slight irony that this book and the other Roy Grace books that precede it, have constantly shifting points of view and we only get to see our supposed hero from time to time. Although, as is usually the case, our hero does rise to the occasion and stands centre-stage in the final few chapters.
I have the sense this book is slightly overegged. My apologies to my readers for using an idiomatic British word. Those of you who cook will know you can put too much egg into a cake mix. Even though eggs are a vital ingredient, you can have too much and it spoils the result. In this case, we even get payback to Kevin Spinella, the reporter from the Argus (Brighton’s local newspaper). I’m not saying everything that happens is not interesting. Far from it. But there’s a lot of information here that, while relevant, could safely have been left for the next book. That said, the core story is strong.
One of the curses of celebrity is that it can attract the attention of stalkers. These are obsessive individuals who harass and intimidate the objects of their attention. In most cases, the stalkers delude themselves into believing they have a relationship with their victims. This leads them to send emails and gifts, followed up by other behaviour designed to communicate their affection or love. I’m prepared to believe Peter James on this subject since he reports his own experiences of being stalked. In this novel, we have a group of obsessive fans who compete with each other to put together the most comprehensive collection of Gaia memorabilia. The star regularly auctions off costumes and other personalised items on eBay, passing on the proceeds to charity. The pervasive lack of rationality leads to excessive prices being paid as the group members bid each other up. Naturally, when one person has the cash to outbid the others, this leads to resentment. However, with their star visiting England, everyone has the chance for forging a more personal connection. The other theme running through the book is the unethical way the film industry works, often borrowing script ideas without attribution or payment for the rights. This also leads to bitterness and resentment, and would give spurned scriptwriters a motive for wanting to derail a production based on work stolen from them. Well, I did warn you this was a busy plot.
As a character, I like Roy Grace. Unlike many of his competitors, he’s neither complicated nor miserable. There’s a strong sense of integrity about him in most of his decisions. This does not prevent him from bullying or pressuring those who threaten his interests. As the holder of a senior rank, he’s used to getting his own way and does not sit quietly in a corner. If there’s a threat to be confronted, he’s out in front leading the charge. I suppose this more straightforward quality comes from the format. In a police procedural, the author has to make the character of the lead detective the main focus. We will watch the thinking processes as he or she guides the investigation. Such cerebral pursuit often requires the author to make the personal qualities of the mind slightly more extreme. Not that all detectives are manic depressives or prone to wildly eccentric behaviour. But authors seem to people their novels with individuals who have slightly more than the usual range of emotional issues. Peter James does not write “traditional” police procedurals. There’s always quite a strong thriller element as our heroic Detective Superintendent is required to fight in his own defence and the defence of others. The ability to drop into adventure or thriller mode removes the need to make Grace himself a more complicated person. He lost his first wife. He has a new reasonably stable relationship. He’s well liked and respected at work. Insofar as anyone can be, he’s happy. That’s enough to be going on with.
Put all this together and Not Dead Yet is good but not one of the best Roy Grace novels. For my taste, there’s just too much going on and it distracts from what would otherwise have been a gripping linear investigation. As a final aside, the image used on the jacket is nicely atmospheric and, as in the book, makes a feature of Brighton which is one of my favourite south coast seaside towns (further promotional tourism content can be provided at my usual professional rates).
For a review of another novel by Peter James, see Dead Man’s Grip.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.