PARIS: Police chief Camille Verhoeven is diminutive, pugnacious and brilliant. The shambolic Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg prefers intuition over logic. Victor Legris juggles bookselling with solving grim 19th-century murders. After the international success of Scandinavian crime writing, France’s own small army of fictional detectives and amateur sleuths is sparking unprecedented interest from English-language publishers on the lookout for the next big thing.
Christopher MacLehose, who discovered the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson for an international readership, says that, after years on the sidelines, French crime writers are finally moving “center stage.”
“I think there is a wide feeling that Scandinavian crime,” the founder of the London-based MacLehose Press said, “which was a byword until very recently for potentially best selling crime fiction, has tailed off.”
In a sign of the growing interest in French crime writers, a U.S. film adaptation of author Pierre Lemaitre’s kidnap thriller “Alex,” featuring Commander Verhoeven, will begin shooting in Paris later this year. Lemaitre won the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger award for the book in 2013.
Complex and driven, Verhoeven, whose brilliance is a source of irritation to his bosses, stands a mere 1.4-meters tall due to his mother smoking during pregnancy.
In “Alex,” he is at first reluctant to investigate, feeling that the kidnap case is too close to home – his own wife was kidnapped and killed a few years earlier and Verhoeven subsequently suffered a breakdown.
“Irene,” the novel’s prequel, is also due to be published in the U.S. and Britain in 2014.
Maylis Vauterin – of French crime fiction specialists Viviane Hamy, in Paris, whose stable of authors includes the best-selling Fred Vargas – said a new generation of crime writers had emerged since the house was set up as a niche publisher 20 years ago.
“At the time, the other French publishers were printing only U.S. authors and all of them were men,” Vauterin said, adding that it took them 10 years to persuade a publisher to translate Dominique Sylvain’s “Passage du Desir,” which has just been published in English as “Dark Angel.”
The pen name for archaeologist and historian Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, Vargas has won three International Daggers. He was twice honored for novels featuring her chaotic and sartorially challenged Superintendent Adamsberg, a Pyrenees region native who likes to present himself as a bit of a country bumpkin in Paris.
Sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, who write the Victor Legris series under the pen name Claude Izner, have also fired imaginations with their left-bank bookseller with a sideline in cracking Parisian mysteries such as “The Predator of Batignolles” or “The Marais Assassin.”
Pilar Webb, editorial director of London-based Gallic Books that publishes the Victor Legris mysteries, said readers were disproving the once widely held belief that contemporary French writers did not sell.
“Years ago,” she said, “it was very hard unless an author had won, say, the Goncourt [literary prize] to be looked at sympathetically by the bookshops.”
As a consequence, fans of English-language crime fiction were now starting to benefit from a pool of talent that had only recently begun to be tapped.
Other Gallic crime authors include Andrea Japp, who also translates U.S. crime writer Patrica Cornwell into French; Armand Cabasson, a psychiatrist who has set three of his detective novels against the backdrop of Napoleonic-era France; and the late Pascal Garnier.
“[Garnier] has turned into something of an indie sensation for us,” Webb added, “and had an awful lot of critical attention in a way, which I think in the past a French author might not have done.”
Garnier, who died in 2010, was the author of around 60 books. Gallic has published four of these in English, while a fifth, “The Front Seat Passenger,” is due to be released in March.
Veteran Hollywood writer, producer and director James B. Harris will direct the film version of Lemaitre’s “Alex,” and the producers have promised a “very high level” cast.
Webb said the combination of a U.S. production, star names and a French location would introduce French crime stories to a mass audience worldwide.
At a time of increasing demand for crime writing across the board, MacLehose said the emergence of so many French authors represented an “inescapable development.”
He said Scandinavian crime fiction’s tapering off was to be expected given the large number of books published, combined with the death of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell’s decision to bring his Wallander series to an end.
“So many people sprang into print writing crime stories from Scandinavia,” he said, “ ... and quite a lot of the books then written in Scandinavia were much less good than the wagons they climbed onto.”
Now French writers are finally coming into their own.
“People ask if I have any Dutch crime writers. I say ‘No, but I’ve been hunting and hunting for a good one.’ Germany? Not yet, Spain? Not quite. ... There are one or two wonderful writers, but nothing to compare at present with France.”