Peter James: Waiting in line in the Windy City, snorkeling with manta rays and Sussex charities

Me relaxing on the Maldivian island of Lux

Me relaxing on the Maldivian island of Lux - Credit: Archant

Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace

The late, very witty, Auberon Waugh, journalist son of Evelyn, once wryly observed in a magazine column: “The first thing any Englishman does when landing on foreign soil is to find the nearest queue and join it.”

This kept me amused on my travels for years, until this past week when Lara and I flew to Chicago for 24 hours, for a conference with my US publishing team. We were there to plan the launch and promotion of my 13th Roy Grace novel, Need You Dead, in the USA this June, and my stand-alone thriller, Absolute Proof, in October.

Having a couple of hours free after arriving, we decided to go up to the top of John Hancock Center. It has stunning 360° views across this amazing Windy City, and included in the ticket price for the Observation Deck is a properly strong cocktail to get you over your fear of heights! But we very nearly didn’t make it up. At 4pm, a little bleary from our 10-hour flight, we entered the ground floor of the building, and did just what Waugh predicted — we joined the nearest queue (or line as the Americans say) assuming it was for the Observation Deck. It was only after five minutes of shuffling along that we noticed everyone else was holding at least one envelope in their hands. Then the sympathetic man behind us gently explained that we were standing in the queue for the mail room.

I’ve always found Chicago a friendly city, and it’s a place best visited when you are ravenous. Home of the deep-dish pizza, and with a big emphasis on meat everywhere, portion control — as in most places in the USA — is totally out of control. I had a superb locally sourced burger in Farmhouse, and managed to leave most of the other 2,000 breaded and fried calories on the side of my plate. Locally-sourced? In central Chicago? Where there were 762 homicides last year? Maybe best not to ask... Lara had a very good vegetarian quinoa burger — luckily — as it was the only non-meat option. We stayed at The Four Seasons, long my favourite hotel group in the world. The service here was exemplary — and it has a quite superb swimming pool and spa. I find that the morning after any long-haul flight a 30-minute swim is the best jet lag-buster of all.

The —5° C temperature in Chicago was a stark contrast to the 29° C we’d enjoyed for the three weeks previously in the Maldives, where we’d gone to chill and to focus on the end section of Absolute Proof away from distractions.

It was our second visit to the Maldives and a different island from last year, Lux — every bit as luxurious its name implies. A sandy, wooded atoll, a mile long and a few hundred yards wide, located inside a circular reef with a temperature that ranged from 26-29° C. Our biggest highlight apart from getting close to finishing the book(!) — was snorkeling with manta rays. To swim with these tame, friendly and curious creatures, some bigger than us, was truly magical. Maldivian food is spicy, strongly influenced by India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent China and Japan, and I love it.

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The Sussex charities I support are particularly important to me. Last year the third run of my play The Perfect Murder contributed significantly towards raising £10,000 for the Sussex Police Charitable Trust, of which I’m co-patron with the Chief Constable. This year I hope to raise even more for this incredibly important charity, which helps our invaluable Police Force members and their families in times of injury, bereavement or other hardship. And one way will be through my new play, Not Dead Enough, starring fabulous Shane Richie and the really lovely Laura Whitmore.

In between arriving back from the Maldives and leaving for Chicago, Lara and I attended the dress rehearsal and first night of the play, which is based on my third Roy Grace novel. Its opening in Dartford was the start of a six-month nationwide run, which includes the Theatre Royal Brighton, the Mayflower, Southampton and the Connaught, Worthing. I’ve discovered a little gem of an Italian restaurant, if you’re ever in Dartford and peckish — Le Tre Sorelle. Family-run, unpretentious, simple food and wonderfully friendly. I’ve eaten there three times and always walked out with a smile. Unlike one or two of the unfortunate victims in Not Dead Enough who are destined for a date with the Brighton and Hove mortuary — which is where the play takes place with a wonderfully authentic set design...

Peter James donates his fee for this column to his charitable fund supporting Sussex charities and this month’s fee will be given to Relate Sussex.

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