To my Mother and Father
It would take another whole book to list the reasons
Peter James was educated at Charterhouse then at film school. He lived in North America for a number of years, working as a screenwriter and film producer before returning to England. His novels, including the Sunday Times number one bestselling Roy Grace series, have been translated into thirty-six languages, with worldwide sales of fifteen million copies. Three of his earlier novels have been filmed. His novella The Perfect Murder and his first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple, have both been adapted for the stage. James has also produced numerous films, including The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. He divides his time between his homes in Notting Hill, London, and near Brighton in Sussex.
Visit his website at www.peterjames.com
Or follow him on Twitter @peterjamesuk
Or Facebook: facebook.com/peterjames.roygrace
I would like to thank the very many people and organizations who have, in person or through their publications, given me invaluable assistance in my writing of Atom Bomb Angel: in particular, my wife, Georgina, for endless patience and encouragement, and Jesse, for not eating all the manuscript; Peter Bunyard, the Central Electricity Generating Board, Peter Taylor and the Political Ecology Research Group Ltd, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the union of Concerned Scientists, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, Dungeness Power Station, Ontario Hydro, Louis Kates, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, Hilary woolley, Margot kirk, Phillip Cochrane, the Namibia Information Office, Via Rail Canada, Laurie Drury, and many, many others.
The ignorant man always adores what he cannot understand.CESARE LOMBROSO (1836–1909)
Welcome to the second novel I ever had published, back in 1982. I was cutting my teeth on my craft then (although I guess I still am!) so please forgive any rough edges and, hopefully, enjoy Atom Bomb Angel for the period piece it now is.
Although it was the second novel I had published, Atom Bomb Angel was actually my fifth novel: there are four that I wrote in my late teens and early twenties that, fortunately, never got published — although the first got me an agent — and these manuscripts will remain for ever in a trunk in the attic.
Through an odd quirk of fate, Terry Pratchett gave me some research help on this novel — or rather didn’t! You will notice if you read the Acknowledgements that one is to the Central Electricity Generating Board: atomic energy and nuclear power stations are key components of the plot of Atom Bomb Angel and in 1981, as part of my research, I made an appointment to visit the Press Officer of the Central Electricity Generating Board, a Mr Terry Pratchett — then a completely unknown fledgling writer himself. As I sat down and explained my story — and that I wanted to have access to a nuclear power station — he said to me, very pragmatically, ‘Well, I cannot possibly give you any help. Look at it from my perspective: if I help you with this book and then when it’s published it frightens people off nuclear power, then the whole industry could go into decline and I could find myself being made redundant.’ And he was not joking! It was a very short meeting. He gave me a CEGB brochure (which I gather he had written) which argued in favour of nuclear power stations by pointing out that, in Victorian times, an average of one person per week died by drowning in a mill-pond, whereas there had been only one than death caused by the entire British nuclear power programme since the opening of Calder Hall in 1956 — the world’s first nuclear power station!
Atom Bomb Angel is a book that had a profound impact on the way I was to research my novels from then on. I needed some short scenes in Namibia but I was short of money, so instead of going out there I gleaned all my information from books (this was before the Internet) and from talking to someone who had worked there. When Atom Bomb Angel was published, I was asked about my experiences in Namibia in one of my first newspaper interviews. With my face bright red, I fibbed and squirmed my way through the interview, mumbling about it being quite hot and a lot of sand, and surprisingly lush in places.
I vowed then and there that never again would I write about anywhere that I had not visited, nor anything that I had not in some way experienced — death excepted! I think that has helped the authenticity of my writing hugely, although it has also led to many moments of terror — perhaps the worst being when I was incarcerated in a coffin with the lid screwed down, for thirty minutes, during my research for my first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple. And I am very deeply claustrophobic…
Through this novel, I also learned a lot about publicity. One of the most exciting days of my life had been the day, back in 1979, that I got a call from my literary agent telling me that WH Allen, then one of the leading publishing houses, had accepted my first novel — Dead Letter Drop — for publication and wanted to make a two-book deal. It was followed a year-and-a-half later by one of the most disappointing days of my life — publication day for Dead Letter Drop.
Early that morning, I got up and went into Brighton, rushing around looking in each bookshop window in turn, and could see no sign of my book in any of them. Worse, when I went inside and mumbled, ‘Erm, do you have a novel called Dead Letter Drop by the author Peter James?’ none of them had heard of it!
I then found out to my dismay that a mere 1,750 copies had been printed, of which about 1,600 had gone to libraries. WH Smith, God bless them — I will eternally be grateful to them — had been the only bookstore chain to buy it, with a whopping order of thirty copies. Or, to put it more positively, twenty per cent of the entire available print run after the libraries had bought their share! WH Smith had them all in their flagship store in London’s Sloane Square, but nowhere else.
Feeling very downhearted, I picked up a copy of the Bookseller magazine and began browsing through it, looking enviously at the success stories of other authors and at the bestseller lists, showing each of the names listed selling many thousands of hardbacks of their titles. Then I came across an article on independent publicists, and it was a light-bulb moment for me. Yes! Publicity! That’s exactly what I needed!
There was one firm — Pengelly-Mulliken — which got a bigger mention than all the others, so I made an appointment to go and meet with the two bosses, Carole Pengelly and Tony Mulliken. It was to be a fateful meeting. Today Tony Mulliken is one of my closest mates, and his firm — Midas PR — have been my brilliant publicists for many years. But it didn’t start too well.
I explained that there was a lot of controversy in the UK about the siting of new nuclear power stations and, with a clever publicity campaign, we could stir up a lot of interest in the novel. Carole and Tony agreed enthusiastically. Then came the cruncher. How much would it cost, I asked.
‘Well, a full nationwide tour, including Scotland, would be three thousand pounds,’ Tony replied.
I then explained, rather embarrassed, that my entire advance for the book was only two thousand pounds — not a big sum even back then. The two of them left the room, then returned a few minutes later. Tony said, ‘If you could drive yourself — or better, have your wife drive you — then we could do it for two thousand!’
So, the following year, starting on publication day, I began the most intensive UK publicity tour I’ve ever done. The nuclear issue was a hot ticket not just in the UK but around the globe; every VW Beetle and Camper on the planet was stickered-up with the yellow smiling-sun symbol and the words ‘Nuclear Power — nein danke!’
Tony Mulliken and his team had earned their money. I was on the road for three weeks, and in those days you did interviews in every town and city in England, Wales and Scotland, on both BBC radio and the local commercial station, as well as two or even three newspapers, plus television appearances. By the time we had finished I was exhausted, but excitedly and expectantly looking at the Sunday Times bestseller listings. But my name was nowhere to be seen. A few days later I found out why.
My publishers had yet again printed a meagre 1,750 copies. Yet again 1,600 of those had gone to the libraries. At least good old WH Smith had not let me down — they doubled their order to a whopping 60 copies! That left just 90 for the whole of the rest of the UK!
A salutary lesson learned, very early on: behind every successful author there is a publisher with faith in them. It was some years before I was to find that publisher…
There is a standing joke among authors that the rarest thing in the world is an unsigned copy of one of their books. But I guess in the case of those early copies of Atom Bomb Angel the joke is probably true. I hope you find it fun to read.
There were five men in the rear section of the railway carriage. Two read, one watched the scenery, one slept, one picked his nose. The train was travelling across Canada, from Vancouver to Montreal. It was fourteen and a half hours out of Winnipeg, and would be arriving in Montreal in just over twenty-four hours’ time. The intention was that by the time the train got to Montreal, one of the men in this section of the carriage would be dead. Me.
If any of the five had met before, they didn’t show it, and, as is often the way with strangers flung together in railway carriages, none had as yet acknowledged even the existence of any of the others. Without wishing to draw the attention of the rest, two of the men were particularly anxious to make each other’s acquaintance: myself and the man who had come to kill me.
I flicked, mechanically, through the pages of my book. It was by Lillian Beckwith, and was called The Hills is Lonely. I could have assured her it wasn’t just the hills: the hectares of December prairie that drifted endlessly past the window were lonely too. Almost as lonely as being in this railway compartment.
The other man who was reading put down his Time Life and stood up, unsteadily for a moment as the train swayed, then he made his way to the aisle, standing on my foot in the process.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘That’s what it’s there for,’ I replied.
He didn’t appear to know how to take it, so he left it. He stood indecisively in the doorway for a few moments, then slid the door shut behind him and disappeared into the next carriage. I caught the eye of the one picking his nose; he looked down, then shot me two furtive glances in rapid succession. On both glances he found I was still watching him; he looked down again and frowned, then tugged his finger out sharply, and began to study it with great intent, as if perhaps there was some problem with it that inserting it up his nose might have cured.
The one who was watching the scenery raised his fingers to his chin, and started to check the growth of stubble; after a few moments, apparently satisfied that his jaw and cheeks had not disappeared into an undergrowth of hair, he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes tightly for a few moments, then opened them wide and began to stare at the ceiling.
The one who slept was moving most of his head up and down in a slow rhythmic motion. The part that remained static was his lower jaw; as the upper part of his head lifted, his mouth opened, and as it lowered, it shut again. The effect reminded me of a rather gormless fish — the tall, thin type that hang around in the weeds in tropical fish tanks, waiting either to eat or be eaten, and not particularly caring which.
At the last station was a poster. It depicted a group of people in their seventies, in track suits, running through a field. The caption beneath said: ‘You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.’
Getting better. I wondered, at what? I was getting older, for sure, a damn sight too fast for my liking, but I certainly wasn’t getting any better — at anything — and that was a pity. Because right now I needed to be one whole lot better at a great many things if I was going to stay in this strange, tough, twisted temptress of a game that fatalists call ‘the luck of the draw’, clergymen call ‘the ways of the Lord’, and biologists call ‘life’.
Right now the key to life was contained in the briefcase that one of my four travelling companions had on the rack above his head. There were five briefcases on the racks. Two black Samsonites, two cheap leather ones of the type made in Hong Kong and sold through mail-order firms from glossy adverts in Sunday colour supplements, and one Gucci, the real thing, not a copy.
One of the Samsonites could be ruled out, since it was mine, which left me four cases to worry about. The content of one of these would tell me who it was that was here to kill me — and he didn’t have to open it up to show me. In fact, I was pretty damn sure he had no intention of opening that briefcase until long after this train had reached Montreal.
It would be highly unlikely for any man to carry a briefcase with him on a long train journey, and not to open that case at any time during that journey. On an hour-long commuter ride, most men click their cases open at least once; on a forty-hour journey, the man who did not open his briefcase would start to stand out like a sore thumb to anyone interested enough to take the trouble to notice. And I was plenty interested enough.
I put down my book and picked up my New York Sunday Times magazine and turned to the mammoth crossword. I pulled my gold Cross ball-point from my pocket, looked down towards the crossword, and tapped the top of the pen thoughtfully in my mouth. Gripping the pen in my teeth I looked up after some moments, then lowered my eyes back down towards the crossword. Fourteen across: Short Richard’s offspring divides nation with friendly underground railroad? Where the hell did I begin on that one? Normally I liked crosswords; in the long and boring hours of tailing someone, when it wasn’t possible to read a book in case one missed something, at least the clues of a crossword gave me something to chew on. But right now, I had plenty to chew on without this particular puzzle. I had a puzzle that was far more complex, and if I didn’t solve it fast, there was a pension-fund manager in England who was going to have one less pension to worry about. I squinted my eyes down towards the crossword, but it wasn’t the clues that were printed on the paper that were going to help me — it was the rotating digits in the dial that was concealed in the barrel of my pen.
After a few minutes my right leg went to sleep for the fifteenth time. I tried to move it and it hurt like hell, but not moving it hurt even more. I needed to go for a walk — if I was even capable of standing up. Apart from a brief trip to the washroom earlier, I hadn’t moved since boarding the train at Winnipeg last night. I had reclined my seat to go to sleep, and tilted it up again to eat the breakfast that appeared on a tray. I had a splitting headache, and my nose was running. The way I must have looked, I was worth gold nuggets to the advertising agency of any airline.