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Interview for French Television

Interview for Cyrille Latour (copyright France Televisions)

How did you become a crime novelist?

In truth, I became a crime novelist by accident. I’d written a series of nine international thrillers – the kind of stuff you buy at airports – and although they were selling quite well, my publisher thought I could do better by taking the plunge into crime fiction. At the time I was horrified. My “international thrillers” could take me anywhere in the world. For the foreseeable future, my fictional world was to be the city of Portsmouth (surnommee “Pompey”). How claustrophobic is that?

How did my career in TV documentary influence my writing?

Enormously. Faced with the challenge of writing a series of crime thrillers (a genre which I’ve never much liked), I decided that the only answer was to follow the documentary route. I had to find out about these detective guys. I had to get into their heads (and their hearts). Research was always the best part of making TV documentaries but getting alongside working detectives was a very tough ask. In the end, after months of effort, it worked. They began to trust me and I began to understand some of the pressures that shape these guys’ working days (and nights).

If you believe that certain parts of society are en plein degringolade (and I do) then it’s often the police who are first-person witness. Whether it’s family break-up, education de merde, substance abuse (drugs and alcohol), or crimes of poverty, it’s police officers who have to cope with the consequences. Create a character like Joe Faraday – solitary, thoughtful, passionate – and you’ve suddenly got a way of taking the magnifying glass to the world we’ve created for ourselves. And I’m guessing that would be as true for France as it is so obviously true for the UK.

The moment I started writing crime fiction, I realised that these books would be an exploration of what we’re doing to each other in the name of progress. And that, I suspect, is what makes them a little different.

Where does your inspiration come from?

After twelve books, as you might imagine, I have a huge range of police (and underworld) contacts. The nature of policing, and the texture of society itself, is always changing. I’d be crazy, therefore, not to have conversation after conversation, drink after drink, with these guys from both sides of the thin blue line in order to keep trying to explore what’s really happening out there.

But the real inspiration, a vrai dire, lies at the very edges of these conversations. A cop might let slip a particular detail. He might tell me a really funny story. He might have a thing about an eight year old who steals bacon from supermarkets. He might want to murder the guy who authorises his overtime payments. But it’s the detail that matters. My books happen in the minor key. I don’t rely on serial killers and page after page of car chases because – in real life – stuff like this is rare. The drama is there. But you have to look hard – and keep listening – to find it.

How do you start a novel?

I’d never written series before crime fiction, and this has changed the way the books come about. As you can maybe sense, I’m always on the lookout for a story, or a face, or an overhead conversation at a bus stop or in a pub that might kick start an idea, and thus a book. But as the series gathered speed, it was the characters themselves – especially Faraday and Winter – who took over.

These are two very different guys with two very different attitudes to the Job. They’ve become as authentic to me as anyone I’ve ever met in real life and they began to take the writing process over. This probably sounds fanciful (un peu fantasque?) but from my point of view it’s a good sign because if I don’t believe in Faraday and Winter, then the readers won’t either.

So do I start with a complete plot? No. I start with an imagined scene. A body in a railway tunnel. An adolescent girl dead on the pavement below a tower block of flats. Four charred bodies in a smouldering farmhouse. These single images are keys to an important door. Push through that door, and you’ve no idea what you’ll find. In this respect, I’m as curious and as excited as any reader. I follow my nose. To see what happens next.

Was I excited when I first heard about the French TV project?

Yes. But in a way I didn’t quite believe it.

What do you think of the first two episodes?

I spent twenty years in TV and I’ve written TV drama myself, so I know how hard it is to capture the essence of an idea, or a story. Trying to compress a whole book into 90 minutes of screen time is impossible. You have to be merciless. You have to boil the whole thing down and start again. That can be an ugly process and it’s all too easy to get it wrong.

To be frank, when the package arrived with the first two DVDs, I was nervous. My wife and I had visited the set in Le Havre, and met the crew and cast, and all the signs were good, especially the scripts. But so much can go missing between the location and the screen.

I needn’t have been worried. Jacques Salles and his team have done a fantastic job. The films are polished, engaging, and utterly true to the spirit of the books. The choice of Le Havre exactly mirrors the original setting of Portsmouth: the same end-of-the-railway line feel, the same scars from poverty and social breakdown, the same rough wit, the same taint of maritime blood and treasure.

The casting is also, to me, inspired. Jean-Marc Barr is a fine Faraday. Bruno Solo has exactly Winter’s mischief. These films have captured the developing chemistry between these two men, especially with reference to J-J (“Lulu”). Top marks, as well, to the supporting cast. Solving crimes is down to teamwork. There are lots of faces in the CID office, lots of characters, lots of different voices. Your adaptation has caught that, too.

And as for the texture of the films, the look, it’s beautifully lit and directed. It’s got real depth and some of the camera moves are inspired. The music is also parfaite. I’m a lucky guy.

Is there Noir in the TV adaptations?

Yes, definitely. There’s obviously more space, more opportunity, in a book to explore the darkness that lies around us but no book can ever match the ability of a good actor to reflect the darkness in a glance, or a turn of the head, or some other tiny moment caught forever on screen. Your guys have done that. Time and time again. To me, there’s real despair in some of those moments.

Can Le Havre be seen as a microcosm of twenty first century society?

I realised early on that Portsmouth was the perfect choice for the kind of crime series I was determined to write. It’s an island city, cut off from the mainland. It’s inward-looking, claustrophobic, and extremely crowded. There’s never been much money around and folk have to battle to survive. In this respect, especially now, it’s the perfect microcosm for the larger island of the UK. In this sense, importantly, Portsmouth is the UK writ small.

But Pompey is also a very proud place, with a special kind of wit. The city is football-crazy, especially the kids. People battle on, often against the odds. People help each other out. There’s a really distinctive sense of place. And place breeds character.

Does Le Havre have all this? I’m not really in a position to judge but all the superficial things: the look of the city, the dockside setting, the left-wing history, the cut-offness of the place feel right. The train stops at Le Havre. There’s nowhere else to go.

How come the books are so successful in France?

My wife and I go to countless festivals de polars in France, and I often ask readers exactly this question. I think it’s got to do with the social realism of the series – people recognise this world as their own – and I think it’s also got to do with Faraday. French women, in particular, want to mother him, to take care of him, to take him to one side and put a smile on his face. They recognise his sensitivity, the effort he’s made to sustain a relationship with his deaf-mute son, his disastrous choice of copains, the way he lets the dark side of his job get far too close. All these things speak to them. Winter? I’m not so sure. I remember a conversation at the festival in Lamballe. I was talking to a reader about Faraday. She loved him. And Winter? Un ros-bif, she pulled a face. Tout-a-fait crapuleux.

How do I respond to this success in France?

Avec joie. Je suis ravi de ce qui s’est passe.

Graham Hurley