A farmer is murdered; a seven-year-old girl lies in hospital dangerously ill, delirious and racked with fever, and a hidden cargo of high-value puppies is discovered inside a lorry from Poland. As two farms come under suspicion, tests confirm rabies is back in Britain.
Step forward Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, the reliable Brighton-based cop played by John Simm in the televised ITV series, to uncover what’s going on.
In his latest door-stopping novel, thriller writer Peter James immerses Grace in the real-life horrors of puppy farming and dog-smuggling – a deadly trade that causes human and animal misery alike.
The profits that organised crime gangs are making from it can outstrip even those of drug dealers, reaching an eye-watering £50,000 a week, according to the RSPCA.
Dealers cash in on the craze for breeds such as cockapoos, whose popularity has soared thanks to their “cute” looks and various celebrities flaunting them as “designer” accessories.
Pre-pandemic, popular types of puppy sold for between £500 and £2,000, but now prices start at around £1,500 and can run up to £5,000 for breeds such as miniature dachshunds. Last year French bulldogs with sought-after colouring sold for £3,500.
With such prices, ruthless breeders and dealers don’t care about the risk of bringing rabies back into the UK, which apart from an isolated case in 2012, has been free of the disease for a century.
James, who has often gone out with Sussex Police to research each of his 19 Grace novels, tells The Independent: “Rabies is a big fear of the RSPCA and the medical world.
“Dogs are being smuggled from Romania, which has the highest incidence of rabies in Europe. They’re coming in with fake vaccination certificates so it’s almost just a matter of time before rabies comes back into England if this trade isn’t stamped on.”
The puppy-smuggling model works on a churn basis: animals are bred abroad, often in Ireland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland, then taken from their mothers when they are still too young to be separated – as little as two weeks – and shipped en masse, hidden in cramped, sometimes filthy cages, in lorries or car boots with insufficient food or water, often for journeys lasting several days.
The animals’ immune systems are poor and they have not had vital vaccinations against disease. By law, they should be 15 weeks old before they may be transported. It leaves them seriously ill, often suffering from a fatal virus called parvovirus that kills them within days or weeks.
Some unscrupulous dealers are now hiring properties short-term to trick buyers into thinking the dogs come from good homes.
The RSPCA says it is highly likely that a large proportion of the English puppy market is provided by unlicensed breeders or imported puppies, especially after a lockdown surge in demand, when it’s thought as many as 87,000 could have been smuggled into the country.
James says: “I had a catch-up meeting with the Chief Constable, who said one of the big issues they have is the black market in puppies and adult dogs.
“I was appalled at the concept of it. The RSPCA in Sussex were very excited I was going to be tackling this and they showed me hours of footage of illegal puppy farming and dogs being smuggled in from Romania and Poland.
“If these dealers are caught, their sentences are pathetic.”
Earlier this year the government dropped the Kept Animals Bill, which would have reduced the scope for puppy-smuggling.
As part of his research for the novel, James posed as a customer and rang two breeders he was certain were involved in smuggling and asked questions. “In both cases, as I started probing they hung up on me,” he says.
The RSPCA has found that some of the most unscrupulous breeders are hiring Airbnb properties to make buyers think they are adopting a dog from a good home.
Like lots of things in life, people want to pay and have the puppy instantly
RSPCA Inspector Kirsty Withnall
Kirsty Withnall, a specialist with the charity – who features in James’s novel under her real name – says buyers should look out for giveaway clues, such as a house that’s too tidy.
“Buyers have said the place looked a bit sparse, without many family photos. Typically the wife and kids are sitting awkwardly on show, whereas in their own home the kids would be sprawling around,” she says.
“Or else people will meet the seller in a layby. Like lots of things in life, people want to pay and have the puppy instantly. Or they take their kids, who fall in love with the animal so they can’t leave without it, even if they think it’s a bit dodgy.”
The sellers then change their mobile numbers and can’t be contacted, only for the new family pet – which was too sick to survive – to die within weeks or days or even the same day.
“Cockapoos and labradoodles - anything crossed with a poodle is fashionable. They don’t shed hair but we find quite a lot of behavioural problems with them,” Ms Withnall says.
“Upsettingly, gangs don’t care about the dogs’ welfare – all they care about is duping people to make money.
“Some of the conditions we’ve found have been dreadful – filthy, often at the back of a house but owners bring the dog into the house just to sell it.
“The puppies may die within days of people buying them or even on the same day.”
In Stop Them Dead, the girl’s family buy an adorable-looking puppy from a seller in a pub car park, but a scratch on her nose from the animal spells trouble, and both pup and girl steadily fall ever more unwell.
James, who with his wife has just over 100 animals, including chickens and rabbits as well as cats and dogs, at their Jersey home, is anguished by the conditions to which smuggled puppies are subjected.
“These people aren’t spending money on vet bills or injections. And buyers are paying out often thousands of pounds on a dog that’s possibly at best got hip dysplasia or at worst parvovirus and won’t survive. It’s heartbreaking.
“They are put into something like a concentration camp – concrete buildings with faeces on the floor, and just left there until they’re sold - it’s horrific.”
And it’s no coincidence that most of his villains are people who don’t like dogs, he says.
“Over the years I’ve written about many issues that often Sussex Police or the Met [Scotland Yard] have asked me to highlight – such as human organ trafficking and internet romance fraud – which was a direct request from Sussex Police to do as a warning. But I’ve written this novel as an out-and-out thriller.
“It starts with a struggling farmer and his wife being woken up at 2am by a break-in at a barn where they have a litter of puppies and he ends up dying in a pool of blood.”
He says he tried not to depict anything too horrific that would distress a dog lover but to expose the horrors of rogue breeders and smugglers who profit from misery.
“All crime writers deal with dark subjects but I try to deal with it in an enjoyable and entertaining way. There’s a fine line between horror and humour. We’re all fascinated by the criminal world,” he says.
He is appalled that most police forces have so few rural crimes officers - in some cases just two - after budget cuts under Theresa May. Dog-smuggling is part of a wider problem of dog theft, he warns.
“People think they’re safe if they chip their dog, but a rural crimes officer showed me how criminals can put a chip in over the top. If that dog goes to a vet that’s what the vet reads.”
Sussex Police say they work with the RSPCA and Trading Standards to tackle dog theft and puppy farming. Superintendent Steve Biglands, head of the force’s rural crime team, says: “It is known that those who prey on dog owners operate in elaborate criminal networks within which dogs can be quickly and secretively moved around the country. By working with other agencies to share information we are able to close the gap and target these criminals more effectively.
“Very often these are criminals with multiple criminal enterprises from burglary and acquisitive crime to road traffic offences, poaching and wildlife crime. By targeting some of these other offences, opportunities are presented to disrupt the dog thefts too. We collaborate with other police forces in the region to share information and target these criminals.”
Fans of the Grace novels will be intrigued by James’s next novel, They Thought I was Dead – the story of his adored wife Sandy, who vanished nine years before the crime series started.
Stop Them Dead is published this week, and They Thought I was Dead will be out in May.