In Peter James’ new novel Absolute Proof, a journalist is given evidence that will lead him to proof that God exists. It’s an intriguing concept, and one based on a
real event: 30 years ago James was phoned by a retired academic offering him the very same. James agreed to meet the man. "He rocked up—very polite, about 75, neatly dressed—shook my hand and said, ‘You and I have to save the world.’ I replied, ‘It’s a big ask,’ but I got him a cup of tea and said, ‘Where do we start?’"
It began, of course, with a 1,000-page unpublished manuscript. James agreed to read it, but he did not get far, running out of steam after about 20 pages of theology—
"I don’t think he’d had the benefit of Wayne Brookes’ [James’ editor at Pan Macmillan] editing."
Nevertheless, the concept niggled away at the author for 20 years, before Pan Macmillan commissioned it; the eureka moment was not how to prove the deity’s existence, but thinking through what the consequences might be. "Proof is the enemy of faith," James recalls. "I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, how he’d feel. He just smiled at me and said, ‘I’d be out of a job.’"
James was afforded the time to write the book after he cancelled a scheduled operation following a second opinion. Divine intervention, perhaps? Maybe. "I had been wanting to get on and write it for about six or seven years. But then I found I had 10 weeks completely clear. It’s probably the second-fastest book I’ve ever written.
It almost wrote itself." Quite.
James is, of course, best known for his police procedurals featuring Brighton cop DS Roy Grace, but his bibliography includes a number of one-off works—he now produces one a year for his publisher Pan Macmillan, alongside the Grace titles—that could loosely be characterised as horror/mystery. James, however, says he is "wary" of the genre tag: "Good, intelligent thrillers are not bound by genre convention."
In Absolute Proof, the central character is not James, but Ross Hunter, and the novel is a thriller in the manner of The Da Vinci Code, as various factions seek to take advantage of, or thwart, the revelations. "The Da Vinci Code was really inspiring; it showed that you could write a book about religion without getting killed."
There is also a whiff of Chariots of the Gods about it, with a plot that is twisty but believable. Written by Erich von Däniken, Chariots sparked a series of non-fiction books from the 1970s that sought to demonstrate that humanity was subject to an extraterrestrial guiding hand. "I wanted to write it not as a religious book, but as a thriller. But I love writing books that make people think." In Absolute Proof, Hunter is given three locations that will help him to prove God’s existence. He also meets the son of God—or at least, someone whose DNA is a match.
Having spent so long in the gestation period, James says: "It’s the book I’m most excited about [of those] that I’ve written. I’m very fond of Grace, and he’s been very good to me, but this is the most ambitious novel I’ve written." The overlap between the Grace books and his standalones is motive, he says. "I am passionately interested in why people do the things they do."
But James also has an interest in the unknown that he can better tackle in the one-offs, such as the 2015 ghost story The House on Cold Hill (the sequel of which he is now working on). "I am deeply fascinated by what happened before we were born, and what will happen after. That is not something I could explore in a Roy Grace novel."
The source material
James says he is open-minded on the subject of the supernatural. In fact, he has story after story of encounters that cannot be explained—from his former home, which inspired The House on Cold Hill, to friends who have consulted mediums after family tragedies. Grace himself has consulted mediums. James cites scientists—such as Anthony Flew—who have changed their minds, and contends that most will accept that there are limits to what they can know and understand.
"It’s not that I want to believe. I do believe. You’ve got to be arrogant—or stupid— to believe you can explain everything." He says the research that went into the book also shifted his mind: "As I wrote the book, in a way my views changed. I’ve always had an interest, but now I’m of the view that we’re not here as a result of emerging from the primal soup." He thinks that readers can be challenged. "Curiosity is what drives authors. People don’t want to read a book just to get a story—people want to learn something. Books should be enriching."
But he is no fan of religion, and as the book explores, the results of absolute proof would not necessarily benefit the church. "I’m not a fan of a lot of what organised religion stands for, or has done, but I do respect people who have faith, because none of us know the answers. One of the joys of the years of research is that I have met some wonderful people of faith. But a lot of time religion has been used as a method of control—in parts of the world now, and historically, religion can be quite nasty."
Even those with faith might be perplexed by the appearance of the divine. "For people of faith, the question is would the God who appeared be the God they had in mind."
The book leaves the big questions unanswered, though the ending is both satisfactorily grand and convincing. Depending on its reception, James will pen a follow-up. In one respect at least, he has left his options open. "It’s really hard to create good characters; I don’t kill them off lightly." Though presumably, even if he had, this—of all his books—would have allowed for a resurrection.
As for the neatly dressed man James met 30 years ago, he kept in touch for almost a decade after their initial meeting, when James declined to help him further. He would often write to the author to say there was "no further progress to report". He was last in contact in the late ’90s, seeking a letter of recommendation to excavate a site in the Valley of the Kings. James recently discovered that the man died some years ago. Having been in touch with the former academic’s family, the original 1,000-page manuscript will be published online to coincide with the novel’s release in October.
James’ public relations for this book are being handled by Riot Communications, which is keen to differentiate it from the Roy Grace police procedurals, with the subject matter ripe for lively discussion. James says he hopes the novel will inspire a wider conversation about the nature of faith and the supernatural.
The book is published on Super Thursday (4th October), when competition for the fiction number one spot will come from Martina Cole, whose No Mercy is out from Headline on the same day. James’ Grace series—issued in the spring—are going from strength to strength, but the standalones have yet to hit the same heights.
Time for James to have a word with the big man upstairs...
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