IT IS every parent’s worst nightmare.

In Peter James’s forthcoming book Dead If You Don’t, a child goes missing during what should be an enjoyable family day out – a football match at the Amex Stadium.

It’s part of a kidnap plot that the writer says is more complex than any of the previous 13 novels involving his fictional detective superintendent Roy Grace.

The Amex has seen plenty of gripping drama over the years but nothing like what James has in store for readers when the book is released next May.

While the author carried out characteristically meticulous research into security at the stadium, the book’s emotional heart can be traced back to the tragic, real-life case of a missing teenager.

In November 2004, the Hove-based parents of student Eddie Gibson went to meet their son at Heathrow Airport after his trip around Cambodia.

Eddie never showed up, though, and 13 years later nobody knows for sure what happened to him on his travels.

That’s despite the fact that Eddie’s mother, Jo Gibson-Clark, has visited Cambodia more than ten times to try and get to the bottom of the terrible mystery.

James knew Gibson-Clark before Eddie went missing and remembers talking to her – and her then husband Mike Gibson – about the traumatic emotional effects of her son’s disappearance.

Gibson-Clark had hoped that the author might be able to use his considerable contact book to help the search.

“I spoke to them years ago but I’ll never forget,” says James, who lives in Woodmancote, East Sussex. “I tried to help them in any way, to no success.

“Talking to them and seeing how they coped with it...until you’re in that situation you can’t possibly know how it feels. It leaves you in limbo. “It’s every parent’s nightmare that they’ll get two coppers knocking on their door saying their child has been in a road accident – or that they’ve just vanished.”

When the author first met Eddie’s parents he had no idea he would one day write a book about a young person disappearing. It was only later, embarking upon Dead If You Don’t, that Gibson Clark’s words came back to him.

“When I was starting the book I was trying to think of the emotions of the different people I have met over the years that have suffered a missing person,” he says.

“As a writer, you bank something from everybody you meet in life – you draw on things that happened years ago.”

The central theme of the novel also brought to mind the strange tale of James’s aunt, who died on a trip to Niagara Falls. It’s still unknown whether she jumped into the water or was pushed by her husband. “It’s a mystery,” says the author. “It happened in the 1960s and was very hard to investigate back then.”

Having mulled over the sensitive themes of loss in much of his fiction to date, James is well versed in the impact it has on those left behind – and especially on families.

“Any family, in which one member is murdered, is destroyed,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to recover. The same applies to kidnap.”

Aside from Roy Grace, the main characters in Dead If You Don’t are Kipp Brown and his teenage son Mungo. When the latter is abducted at the Amex during a Brighton and Hove Albion game, his father receives a text with a ransom demand and a warning not to go to the police.

It’s a thoroughly unenviable situation and one that forces Mungo’s parents into a difficult conundrum – especially given their limited funds.

“In my story, it’s about how far the parents will go to pay the ransom money,” says James. Understandably he can’t reveal a huge amount but he does add a few more points about the book.

A) that Bitcoin features in the plot (“I wrote about that before it exploded – I’d like to claim some credit for that”) and b) that the action takes place over just one weekend.

“Most kidnaps do actually get resolved very quickly,” says James. “The longer it goes on, the less chance there is that the hostage will be alright.”

It comes as no surprise that the author carried out thorough research in the course of writing Dead If You Don’t.

After all, this is a man who visited a poisonous animals fair in Hamburg for inspiration for last year’s novel Love You Dead.

He was given the access-all-areas treatment at the Amex, thanks in no small part to Albion chief executive Paul Barber.

In fact, Barber inadvertently fuelled James’s creative fires with an apparently flippant suggestion. “Two years ago Paul said, ‘it would be great if you had a murder at the Amex one day’,” says James.

“That was really the starting point. With Brighton getting into the Premier League I thought it would be really fun to write something set there.”

James spent a number of days at the stadium trying to work out how its tight security could possibly be breached.

He was told by a member of the Albion backroom team that the surveillance cameras at the ground can zoom in so far that security staff can read the time on every fan’s wristwatch. All that being true, James agreed to leave certain facts about the logistics of Albion’s safety measures out of Dead If You Don’t.

“There were a few things they requested that I didn’t put in,” says the author. “When anybody helps me with something sensitive I always agree to leave certain things out.”

Despite being more of a rugby fan, James has been to a few Albion games this season and remembers visiting the Withdean Stadium with Graham Bartlett, the retired Sussex police officer with whom James co-wrote non-fiction crime book Death Comes Knocking.

“Graham was chief football officer at Albion once and he used to say to me, ‘we find it fascinating to go to the football because we get to see which criminals are sitting with whom’. It’s quite a good intelligence gathering.”

James is a big fan of the Amex itself and revels in the atmosphere whipped up by Albion fans.

“I think it’s amazing for the city to have such a great place,” he says. “I like watching the crowd as much as anything.

“At one level it’s like pantomime for grown-ups, with everyone shouting ‘you’re no good ref’”.

The inclusion of Albion in the Roy Grace series will perhaps attract a different audience for the books, although it’s not as if James needs any more readers.

To date, he has sold 18 million copies and scored 11 consecutive number ones, at one point even toppling 50 Shades of Grey from the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list.

His books have been sold in 37 different countries, too.

Given how Brighton-centric much of work is, does he find it strange that readers in, say, Russia construct their mental image of the city through his fiction?

“I do think it’s weird, but at the same time we all love books set in towns we don’t know. It’s really the storytelling that counts.”

Such is James’s “Mr Brighton” status that the tourist board have, apparently, started placing Roy Grace novels in hotel rooms across the city.

“A few Dutch fans wrote to me saying they were coming to Brighton but were a bit worried having read my books,” says the author.

“They emailed me later saying they had had a lovely time and that nobody had mugged them.”

As for the long-awaited Roy Grace television series, James hopes to have something to announce at the end of January and says he is in “final negotiations with one of the major broadcasters – it’s really moving forward”.

We can count James as one of our biggest cultural exports, and, with Dead If You Don’t, he has written another story steeped in Brighton life.

Amid all the novel’s twists and turns, however, we should remember Eddie Gibson – the boy who never came back from his travels.

l Peter James is in conversation at Theatre Royal Brighton on February 8.

Dead If You Don’t is out on May 17.