Mystery Scene occasionally welcomes guest bloggers. Today, Peter James discusses research behind his new novel, Love You Dead.
James is an international bestselling thriller writer who is published in 37 languages. His DS Roy Grace crime novels have sold 18 million copies worldwide. In 1994 Penguin published his novel Host on two floppy disks as the world’s first electronic novel. He is Overseas Vice-President of International Thriller Writers in the U.S. His novels have won numerous awards, most recently the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and he was publicly voted by WH Smith—Britain's biggest book selling chain—The Best Crime Author Of All Time. Visit him on YouTube: www.peterjames.com/youtube.
His latest novel, Love You Dead, is about Jodie Bentley, who has two dreams—to be beautiful and rich. She's achieved the first, with a little help from a plastic surgeon. Her philosophy on money is simple: you can either earn it or marry it. Marrying is easy, it's getting rid of the husband afterward that's harder, that takes real skill. But she has not bargained for Detective Superintendent Roy Grace.
James offers us a peek at his research.
Researching Venomous Reptiles for Love You Dead
By Peter James
On a tour of Fulham Police HQ back in 2014, I saw two large tins of chocolates on a very overweight detective’s desk. I couldn’t help making a mischievous comment.
“Like these, do you?” I asked him with a grin.
“Actually they’re not chocolates in there—it’s food for my poisonous frogs,” he replied.
I stopped in my tracks.
In that moment, in the curious way my mind sometimes works, I sensed a plot for a new novel. A “black widow” targets rich men and murders them using poisonous creatures!
I quizzed him for the next hour, and viewed images on his computer screen of his pets, the world’s deadliest amphibians, poison arrow frogs. They are so called because their secretion is used for the tips of arrows. I also learned from him the difference between poisonous and venomous. Poisonous is something you touch or eat; venomous is something that bites you.
Then I learned something else. Out of their South American habitat, the poison loses its strength. Sensing my disappointment he said, cheerily, “What about venomous snakes? They kill more people every year, throughout the world, than guns. And often more quickly.”
I’m often asked if I ever get scared.
The answer is a resounding yes!
If I had been asked what the scariest thing that has ever happened to me during my research, before Love You Dead, then it would have been a close call between being locked in a coffin for 30 minutes, submerged in an upturned van in a harbour, going into a burning house with the Fire and Rescue Service, or walking at 2 a.m. with an unarmed police officer up to a car, in a deserted car park, believed to have a dangerous armed criminal inside it.
But with Love You Dead I’ve topped all that by quite a margin. I’m scared by a lot of ordinary things that affect many of us. I’m deeply claustrophobic, to the point where I can’t sit comfortably in the rear of a two-door car; I have a fear of heights; and I’m really not comfortable around spiders, creepy crawlies in general, or snakes.
Researching for this novel I did two things I never, ever thought I would—I held a live scorpion in the palm of my hand, and I had a 15-foot boa constrictor wrapped around my body.
My “black widow” character, Jodie Bentley, is an expert in venomous creatures, and keeps a host of them in a secret room in her home in Brighton. To learn more about them I spoke to a number of experts in the UK and abroad, all of whom told me the best place to learn about them would be to visit one of the regular reptile shows at Houten in Holland or Hamm in Germany. So I did. Gulp! I went to Houten and what I learned rocked me to the core.
It was an exhibition centre the size of Olympia, filled with rows and rows of stands selling everything from Black Widow, Trapdoor, Redback and other charming spiders, to all kinds of snakes including Taipans, the world’s most venomous snake, and Saw Scaled Vipers, which kill the greatest number of people.
The reason being, it was explained cheerfully to me, is that the Taipan lives in remote areas, so rarely has contact with humans, but the Saw Scaled Viper, common in India, lives in populated areas. It kills a staggering 53,000 people a year in India alone. By comparison, 45,000 people die in car accidents and 15,000 are murdered, annually, in the USA.
The Saw Scaled Viper’s venom destroys the ability of its victims’ blood to coagulate, essentially liquidising their insides. They start to bleed from every orifice, their eyes, nose, mouth and all others. If the antidote is not introduced within two hours, the bite is almost always fatal. I met a survivor of a SSV bite, a very charismatic young man, who told me that he managed to get to a hospital where he could be treated within the requisite two hours. But even now, six years on, several times a year he is bedridden with flu-like symptoms. He was lucky. One of the less publicized long-term effects of some venomous snake bites is that a male’s sex organs become permanently shrunk.
I kept well away from those creatures!
Then I made the mistake of chatting to a man selling scorpions. He told me that one of the most docile of all was an Arabian Flat Rock Scorpion, he produced one from a box and asked me to hold out my hand. He then laid the creature on it. It was huge, about the size of a small lobster, and felt warm. I was shaking with terror! “Nice scorpion!” I said to it, repeatedly, unsure what else to say to the creature, and hoping it wouldn’t misinterpret my jangling nerves as some manifestation of hostility. When finally he took it back, to my immense relief, he said, “It’s OK, if it had stung you it would be no worse than a bad bee sting!”
He then opened another clear plastic box—no bigger than a sandwich container, inside of which was another scorpion, which he cheerfully told me could kill me in five days, in agony.
All of these creatures were on sale for prices ranging from $50 to $150.
Further, there are no laws against bringing them into the UK.
All you have to do, if you walk through Customs with one, is say you are going to apply for a license within 48 hours.
But as the cost of a license can be as high as $1,500 per annum, not that many purchasers do.
And there is no one to monitor them…