By Isabella Biedenharn
December 01, 2016 at 05:17 PM EST
Alexander James

The thriller writer—who just published his 33rd novel, No Man’s Land—opens up about his penchant for British TV dramas, In Cold Blood, Adele, MacGyver, and warm, fuzzy children’s books.

My favorite book as a child

Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigator Series. Not as popular as The Hardy Boys, but I will take Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews over that pair of lads any day. Just pure escapism reading for a young boy.

A book that really cemented me as a writer

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I read this while working as a Pinkerton security guard during college. I was guarding an electrical plant where everything you touched could kill you. For four dollars an hour I decided to just sit in the guard shack and read. Please don’t tell the Pinkerton folks I did this. The book scared the crap out of me, but it turned my thoughts to writing mysteries. The randomness of the victims really hit home with me.

A book, movie, or TV show I’ve read or watched over and over again

Midsomer Murders and the Hercule Poirot series with David Suchet. Midsomer with DCI Barnaby is dark comedy at its best. John Nettles is fabulous and is one of the few TV detectives who isn’t drunk and divorced. And David Suchet was born to play the little Belgian detective with the grand mustaches. I can pretty much recite lines from every episode.

A classic that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read

Atlas Shrugged with Absalom, Absalom a close second. I tried multiple times with both, but could never pull it off past the first few pages. I think that says more about me as a reader than anything about the books. But I’ve managed to lead a fairly productive life nonetheless.

A book I’ve pretended to have read

Atlas Shrugged and Absalom, Absalom. Ha! When people start talking about Ayn Rand, I nod and look genuinely interested. I do wonder if many other people claim to have read it but really haven’t. Rand was a believer in the elites running everything — see The Fountainhead, which I have read. And she was an atheist. So when I see people who hold views diametrically opposed to those touting Rand and her work, I go, Hmmm? Don’t think you actually cracked the spine, chum.

An illicit book that I had to read in secret as a kid

Valley of the Dolls. This was cutting-edge stuff way back and you couldn’t hide behind an e-reader. For an adolescent youth coming into his hormones, Jacqueline Susann was a godsend. I remember hiding this book all over the place, terrified my parents would find it. Then later, I remembered that I “borrowed” it from my mother.

A book that people might be surprised to learn that I loved

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read this book in college, where I was a political science major. I’ve always considered myself a chap with his feet placed firmly on the ground. But this book really spoke to me and has stayed with me. And the title is so cool.

A book I consider to be grossly overrated

The Atkins Diet. As a high school wrestler I tried this diet to make weight. I made the weight but with no carbs I was so weak I couldn’t compete. And my breath smelled like what I would imagine a lion’s would after a feast of raw gazelle. Yet millions of copies are sold every year as folks try to shed those troublesome pounds.

A recent book I wish I’d written

Anything with “Girl” in the title. I think that whoever came up with this idea is brilliant. I thought about trying it with “boys” in the title but then a bunch of those books came out. Now I’m thinking “Second Cousins On a Train Heading to a Boat.” My publisher has not come around on that one yet.

The last book that made me laugh out loud, and the last one that made me cry

Bill Bryson’s Down Under in a Sunburned Country. I love Bill Bryson’s writing and this book comes with many laugh-out-loud lines. John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. The scene where the son says goodbye to his dead father while driving away from the hotel. It might have been because I had, at the time, a son of the same age. But I remember choking up and actually sobbing.

The book I think is the gold standard for legal thrillers

Presumed Innocent. I’ve known Scott Turow for a long time. Great guy and amazing writer. This book has it all. A thriller, a mystery, a procedural with great depth of character. And a stunning twist at the end. What’s not to love?

My favorite fictional lawyer

Jack McCoy’s character played by Sam Waterston. He’s deeply flawed but legally brilliant. He agonizes over his actions but he knows the law cold. A multi-layered character all around. And on episodic TV that’s hard to do when you have a case to solve each week.

My literary crush

J.K. Rowling. How can you not love her? She’s like the literary version of Michelle Obama. Her talent as a writer is known by the world. But her humanity, her courage in taking on difficult subjects, her wanting to help those who need it most make it impossible not to admire the lady. May she write long and much. We’ll keep reading!

The actor I’d want to play me in a movie

If Brad Pitt’s not available, then Matt Damon can step up. If he’s not up to it, Ty Burrell who plays Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, will work just fine. Like Phil, I’m a goofball with a big heart.

The TV show I think doesn’t get its due

Blackish followed closely by Doc Martin followed closely by Suits. These are all very different shows, but I don’t think they’ve gotten the following and professional recognition they deserve. Great writing and acting is rare. Let’s celebrate it when it comes together.

The last TV series I binged

The Blacklist. At my son’s prompting. I’ve always loved James Spader and he knocks it out of the park here. And Megan Boone is a great sidekick and more than holds her own. The plots are smart and the pace is a lightning bolt.

The TV show that’s my guiltiest pleasure

Downton Abbey. It’s basically a soap opera set in the early 1900s, but the actors are incredible and it’s so well done. If you’d asked me this back in the 1980s, everything I watched was a guilty pleasure. Can we say Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, oh the shame.

My all-time favorite movie

Chinatown followed closely by The Big Sleep. I like mysteries and these are two of the best ever filmed. William Faulkner wrote the script for The Big Sleep. He supposedly asked the author Raymond Chandler who killed the chauffeur in the novel and why, and was told by Chandler that he didn’t know. So in the film that’s never really explained. I love that!

The last book I gave as a gift

My brother is an artist, so for his birthday we bought him a couple of pinup art books from the 1950s. Fantasy and glamour all in one package.

The book I would use to squash a bug

The six-volume set of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can even use it on burglars, it’s that heavy. But don’t drop it on your toe or you will decline while you’re falling.

The song that always makes me feel better

Meat Loaf’s Paradise By the Dashboard Light. If that doesn’t sum up the perils of young love in one song I don’t know what does! I liked it so much I used it in a book once, King & Maxwell.  I listened to the song while I was writing the scene.

The last album I listened to

Adele’s 25. This woman is amazing. I saw her do Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and fell in love with her humor. And of course that voice. A truly one-of-a-kind talent.

The first album I bought with my own money

Three Dog Night’s It Ain’t Easy. I last saw this album in my parent’s attic thirty years ago. I think by now it’s either been sold on eBay a hundred times or is in a landfill in Richmond, Virginia.

The song people might be surprised I know all the words to

Philadelphia Freedom. But only because I had to lip synch it for a New Year’s Party while dressed as Elton John complete with glasses, rings and a gold lamé jacket with dollar signs. Everybody said it was the money song of the night. But then again they were all drunk.

The fictional place I’ve dreamed of moving to

#4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, but only so I can kick the crap out of the Dursleys.

The fictional character I’d want on my side in a zombie apocalypse

MacGyver. Duct tape and aluminum foil, I’ve heard, work incredibly well against zombies. And if they catch us, who better to escape with than this guy?

The fictional group of pals I’ve always felt I belonged in

The Camel Club. Of my own creation. An older set of guys who appeared in five novels. I would be by far the youngest member, which would make me feel really good.

Have I ever bought my own book in a bookstore?

No. But I once I stopped, unannounced, into a store to sign copies of my books. The store clerk required me to show ID to prove I was actually who I said I was before she would let me sign copies. I guess the picture on the back of the book simply wasn’t good enough.

What I’m reading right now

After giving myself ulcers reading everything printed on the presidential election, I have now reversed course and am reading lots of children’s books starring cute, innocuous animals. My mental health has improved immeasurably.