Call from a Stranger
By E. M. Powell
There are some aspects of 21st century life that need no introduction. One is the unsolicited phone call from a stranger—someone usually trying to sell something or convince us to part with our bank details because allegedly our computer isn’t working properly.
But sometimes random contact from a stranger can turn into something much less innocuous.
Way back in 1989, bestselling author Peter James received a phone call at home in the U.K. from an unknown individual. James picked up the call and an elderly-sounding man asked if he was an author, which James confirmed. Put aside any notion that this was about double glazing or market research, for the man responded: “Thank God I’ve found you! I’ve called every Peter James in the phone book in the South of England—it’s taken me two weeks. My name is Harry Nixon, I assure you I’m not a lunatic.”
Many of us would have been tempted to hang up at that point. James did not, as the sincerity in Nixon’s voice caught his attention. That sincerity was also evident when the caller went on to say: “Mr. James, I’ve been given absolute proof of God’s existence and I’ve been told you are the man to help me get taken seriously.”
It wasn’t only Nixon’s sincerity that kept James on the line—his writer’s nose for a story played a big part, as well.
“Everyone you will ever meet in life has a story,” he says. “Something that has happened to them or a loved one or a friend that is worth hearing.”
Harry Nixon’s story was indeed worth hearing, for it inspired James’s latest release, ABSOLUTE PROOF.
In it, investigative reporter Ross Hunter takes a similar call about proof of the existence of God, one that would change his life—and possibly the world—forever. It’s an intriguing, fast-paced read that takes the reader on a breathless ride across the globe in Hunter’s quest for the truth.
Though some 29 years have passed between the real-life phone call to James and the publication of ABSOLUTE PROOF, James explains that this was a novel that required huge amounts of research—research that he had to fit in while he was already busy fulfilling his book-per-year publishing contracts.
“I needed to understand all the different perspectives of the world’s monotheistic religions,” he says, “as well as the perspectives of the leading atheists.”
Having embarked on such a vast research project, the second major issue he grappled with was related to plot. “I needed to come up with a climax for the book that really would be credible proof that God might exist—something that even the most hardline atheist would have a problem easily dismissing—something of the magnitude of the sun rising from the West one morning instead of the East.” Happily, help was at hand. “It was my wife who came up with it, suddenly, one morning at breakfast and that was it, the Eureka moment, after which I began writing.”
Part of James’s in-depth research involved spending five days at the monasteries of Mount Athos, the world-renowned “Holy Mountain,” which is forbidden to women and children. He acknowledges that it was an enormous privilege to visit this Unesco World Heritage site, and a profound experience.
“It’s an extraordinary place for contemplation. The daily regime on Athos is a harsh one, alternating between work and around 14 hours a day in prayer,” he says.
Even getting there was a major undertaking. “Before I was allowed to board the ferry, I had to get a visa signed by the Monk Bureau in Thessaloniki,” James says. “You have to stand in front of three monks, seated at a table, so they can check that you’re not a female. If they have any doubts, they make you drop your trousers.”
Yet it was very much worth it for the knowledge he acquired. “It was the beginning of my understanding of what faith really is,” he says. “Absolute and utter faith.” He was particularly struck by the depths of the belief of the monks he met, who shared experiences with him of miraculous intervention.
“To be a monk,” one man told him, “you absolutely have to believe.” It was an unspoken mantra James found wherever he traveled around the commune. He found the same when he visited an English monastery, St Hugh’s Charterhouse, which also features significantly in the book.
The research paid off and brings credibility to the novel’s premise.
Where ABSOLUTE PROOF is a standalone thriller, and a successful one at that, James also of course has received international acclaim for his bestselling Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series. There are 14 books to date and readers will be delighted to learn that there’s another in the works.
“I love writing my Detective Superintendent Roy Grace novels,” James says. “In my next one, Dead at First Sight, coming out in 2019, I have written about one of the fastest growing crimes in the western world—internet romance fraud. But there are some subjects that just would not work within the confines of a detective thriller, and ABSOLUTE PROOF is just that.”
James’s international acclaim is backed up by stellar sales. He’s had 13 Sunday Times No. 1s and global book sales of more than 19 million copies, as well as won numerous awards. For those writers who might be just starting their career or still seeking publication, James offers the following sage advice.
His first three books, all spy thrillers, had, he says, “very poor sales. One day, I poured my heart out to a friend who worked at Penguin, writing cover blurbs. She looked at me and said, ‘Why on earth are you writing spy thrillers?’ I told her that I’d read an article in the Times saying there was a shortage ever since Ian Fleming had died. She raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Darling, what can you ever know about the world of spies? You are up against authors like John Le Carré, who’ve come out of the security services. Research is as fundamental to writing a novel as character and plot. You will never succeed writing something you can never access.’ It was the best advice I was ever given. A few months later my wife and I were burgled. A young detective came to the house to take fingerprints and saw my first two books. ‘If you ever want research help from the police, give me a call,’ he said. I did, and within a year, I was going out on patrol regularly with my local cops. I began to realize that no one sees more of human life in a 30-year career than a cop. And that was the start for me.”
Could one say that James’s secret ingredient is research, research, research? Perhaps. Certainly, the research for ABSOLUTE PROOF brought an anecdote that James cheerfully relishes—and rightly so.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had heard about James’s research and invited him to drinks at his London residence, Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop asked him about his book. James told him about it and its central theme, of what might happen if someone credible claimed to have absolute proof of God’s existence. James asked the Archbishop what his view would be if someone could deliver that proof.
He smiled and said, “I suppose I would be out of a job.”
Peter James is a U.K. No. 1 bestselling author, best known for writing crime and thriller novels, and the creator of the much-loved Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. With a total of 13 Sunday Times No. 1s under his belt, he has achieved global book sales of over 19 million copies to date, and has been translated into 37 languages.
Synonymous with plot-twisting page-turners, Peter has garnered an army of loyal fans throughout his storytelling career – which also included stints writing for TV and producing films. He has won over 40 awards for his work, including the WHSmith Best Crime Author of All Time Award, Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger and a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, for which he was an executive producer. Many of Peter’s novels have been adapted for film, TV and stage.
To learn more about Peter and his work, please visit his website.