Graham Bartlett and Peter James | Death Comes Knocking presents reality, reflects on fiction

Graham Bartlett and Peter James | Death Comes Knocking presents reality, reflects on fiction

Brighton’s underbelly has long provided the setting for author Peter James’ Roy Grace police procedurals, and the city has also been the backdrop to retired Sussex police officer Graham Bartlett’s career, which during its later years saw him provide insight and advice for James.

Non-fiction title Death Comes Knocking (Pan, July) is an attempt written by Bartlett, with help from James, to chronicle some of the cases he encountered, while drawing parallels with the Grace books. The prologue sets the scene: “Not long ago, some people would have urged you to buy just a one-way ticket to Brighton rather than bothering with a return—chances were you’d be dead before you could use the homeward part.”

Bartlett says that he always had an urge to write, but his work—unsurprisingly—got in the way. He was a Sussex police officer for 30 years, posted to Brighton and Hove, becoming first a detective, then a homicide investigator, then chief superintendent and the city’s police commander—or, as James refers to him, the “Sheriff of Brighton”. Before you ask, Bartlett is not the inspiration for Grace—that was James’ first police liaison, Dave Gaylor—but he does feature in the books as Graham Barrington, the fictional head of the city’s police.

When Gaylor retired, Bartlett took on the role of James’ contact, a position he regarded with some importance. Says Bartlett: “The way in which Peter wrote about the police, and got the detail but also the nuances of policing spot on, did us huge favours, as it gave the public a real understanding of what we go through as police. It’s fiction, but it reflected the reality.”

Graham Bartlett and Peter James.

Death Comes Knocking turns this on its head, presenting the reality and reflecting on the fiction. There are multiple references to how Grace might have dealt with the crimes or situations Bartlett retells. It also provides publisher Pan Macmillan with an obvious marketing hook for the book—the subtitle is “policing Roy Grace’s Brighton”—making sure the title will appeal both to fans of true-crime and to James’ own readers.

“Nobody sees more of human life over a 30-year career than a police officer,” says James, who confides that he is regularly contacted by retired police officers who fancy dabbling in fiction. “The trouble is they write in a sort of ‘plod-speak’—’He was proceeding in a westerly direction . . .’“ James says he saw something different in Bartlett. “Graham sent me a couple of blogs and I found the writing compelling, but I told him that to interest a big publisher he’d need a handle—if he’d arrested the Krays, for example. But I said a lot of my fans had asked me to write a non-fiction book based on my research, so I suggested we collaborate. That was the starting point.”

Yet for all that, the book is Bartlett’s story. It is surprisingly personal—and all the better for it. Bartlett, for example, describes the emotional turmoil he goes through when attending a cot-death at a time when he and his wife were struggling to conceive (they eventually had triplets), the difficulty police have delivering “the death message” to a deceased person’s relative, and the harsh reality of arresting a colleague gone wrong.

He is also, at times, deliberately pointed, taking aim in particular at defence lawyers for getting the guilty off, sometimes on a technicality: “How do they sleep?”; there is an occasional side-swipe at journalists; and criticism aimed at the Reclaim the Street marchers who, in one instance, descend on Brighton Police Station.

But at the heart of the book are the crimes, the villains and the cops who deal with it all. Some crooks, such as fallible forgers David Henty and Clifford Wake, are almost Ealing Comedy-like in their ineptitude, while others, such as Paul Teed, who bludgeoned his family to death 30 years ago, are chilling. James is clearly captivated by such stories, while Bartlett says he has learned not to demonise the perpetrators. “I had a road to Damascus moment when I met my old friend Sam, who had become a druggie. I had been looking at the world in a very binary way. It changed my policing philosophy. What underpinned this was the notion that there weren’t really bad people, there were people who did bad things.” In the book, he writes that the chance encounter made him realise that “every villain has a story”.

The book has also enabled Bartlett to revisit these characters years on. Henty is now an artist with his own forthoming exhibition, which both authors plan on attending; Teed is living in York, and though he declined an invitation to do any interviews for the book, the duo have visited him. “We wanted to show people that he’d moved on,“ says Bartlett, but actually the former policeman reached a different conclusion. “I don’t see him ever being a free man. He will be chained to his conscience forever,” Bartlett writes in the book. Teed, they reveal, told them he was a “bad man”.

It’s a fascinating vignette into how the dualism between cops and robbers can play out and stretch to breaking point. “I’ve met hundreds of criminals in my career, but always across the table. Meeting Teed, and later Henty, was different. Less adversarial. They could be much more honest about themselves,” says Bartlett.

“It’s also a book about human nature as much as it is a book about criminals,” adds James “We all commit crimes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “but what makes some take it to the next stage?”

Bartlett is also keen to show the real people behind the police, including their vulnerability. “I try to portray both sides, as Peter does in his books. To glorify criminals is wrong, but to glorify the police is also wrong. There is good and bad on both sides.” James adds: “The public forget that police officers are not super-human: if they see a terrible accident, or a dead child, for example, people forget about the impact this has on them as individuals.”

Bartlett and James have also worked together to try and rid Brighton of its reputation as the “Drug Death Capital of the UK”. Bartlett pioneered Operation Reduction, which seeks to arrest the suppliers of illegal drugs but not the users, who instead must enter a rehabiliation programme. He was briefly vilified in the press, and appeared in Russell Brand’s 2013 documentary “End the Drugs War”.

Bartlett says drugs changed the city and the criminals: “I think it is worse now. In the past the criminals were minor celebrities—the families that ran Brighton were almost gentlemen thieves. What switched it was drugs—the profits and the rivalries have made the crimes so much more pernicious and violent.” In part thanks to Bartlett’s efforts, Brighton eventually lost its damning tag.

There is a sense that Bartlett has more to say about all this, and that perhaps publishing will provide safe passage for views that might be difficult to convey in other media. Police officers are able to retire on a full pension after 30 years of service, meaning that Bartlett, like many ex-cops, is young enough to forge a second career, perhaps even in fiction.

Bartlett says: “I feel like an ‘X Factor’ winner, I’ve got a bit of talent, but then I’ve got my Simon Cowell here in the shape of Peter. I want to go on and write fiction: I’ve started a novel, and I want to get back into it.”

James has a 30-year, 28-novel career as an author, with sales tracked through Nielsen BookScan’s TCM of £17.2m since 1998. His latest title, Love You Dead, is published in hardback next week by Pan Macmillan. Not a bad partner for a rookie writer to have.

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 13th May 2016.