Peter Morfoot will be speaking about his new book at 6:30pm at Heffers bookshop on Tuesday 4th AprilPeter Morfoot

An island in Northern Sweden. Los Angeles. A village in Dorset. London.

Once Midsomer – the murder capital of the fictional world – is thrown into the mix, it seems the line-up is complete. There is nowhere left for crime fiction writers to thrill fans (readers and viewers alike) with stories of death and suspense, investigation and evidence.

Peter Morfoot has other ideas. His Captain Darac series – the second instalment of which hits the shelves next Tuesday – takes as its setting the glamour and beauty of the French Riviera. With evocative descriptions of the region, the city of Nice in particular, central to Impure Blood – the first novel of the series – I am keen to discover where this fascination with the Côte d’Azur stemmed from.

“As for so many others, my first encounter with the French Riviera was a summer holiday – our first foreign foray as a family. I remember the flight as if it were yesterday”, he tells me, somewhat poetically. “We took off into a thick blanket of cloud over Gatwick and it wasn’t until we were coming into land that it finally cleared. Of course, being greyed out for two hours served only to heighten the power of the reveal as we touched down. There was a world outside that porthole after all. And it was now in glorious technicolor”.

That it was “pretty much love at first sight” for Morfoot – though, citing the failures of President Hollande and the rise of Marine Le Pen, he does admit that “as in all love affairs, we’ve gone on to have our ups and downs” – is evident in his novel. Hence, his ability to depict Nice and its surroundings, accurately capturing the region’s atmosphere and people, has been widely praised. 

“The popularity of the crime genre as a whole is as strong as ever”

“I’ve got to know Nice well over the years, certainly well enough for it to function as a character in its own right in the stories,” he explains, before noting that regular trips out still feature, albeit in the early stages, of his writing process: “I tend to make all my notes in situ, but seldom pen anything longer than an occasional scene there. That’s a job for home.”

Though descriptions of the area feature within the Darac series, taking pride of place is the plot. Fatal Music, the second book of the trilogy, begins in textbook fashion for the genre: with an intriguingly unexplained death. As the corpse of a 71-year-old woman is found in a hot-tub, the seemingly logical explanation of natural causes does not satisfy Darac, who – as he investigates further – identifies some anomalies that begin to gnaw away at him. Complicating the case are personal factors and allegiances for Darac, who becomes entangled in a story of greed, deception and escalating murder. It is vintage crime fiction stuff.

This fast-moving narrative represents a trademark element of the genre. Yet it is this emphasis on plot that seems crime fiction often subjected to a degree of snobby and scepticism from other writers.

“I would agree that crime fiction can bore the reader very quickly if all it consists of is plot and pace”, he responds good-naturedly as I raise these criticisms. “But in the right hands, crime fiction is as rich a genre as any other!”

And does he take heart – and indeed inspiration – from the fact that, in light of TV shows like Sherlock and Broadchurch, the ‘detective murder mystery’ genre appears to be undergoing something of a resurgence?

“It’s a truism that trends come and go”, Morfoot says. “But the popularity of the crime genre as a whole is as strong as ever. I certainly admire the work of Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and others, but for inspiration, I look to people like Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht: he wrote everything from superb thrillers such as Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious to laugh-out-loud comedies like The Front Page and Monkey Business.”

“I still get a buzz from reading the American hard-boiled trio of Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald”, he continues. “And three contemporary writers would make my starting line-up of inspirations: John Le Carré, Peter James and Fred Vargas”.

Having originally written comedy for radio and TV – his work was often featured on the BBC and performed by actors like Peter Davison, David Haig and June Whitfield – Morfoot explains that his switch to writing crime came as a result of “the idea of tackling a full-length prose work in a different genre taking hold and not letting go.”

“I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that sparked the transition but I can detail the moment that shaped it”, he tells me. “I’d already put together the bare bones of a detective-to-be character, someone with a strong individuality, but attesting to the essentially collaborative nature of police work.”

And then, it was the content of an article in The Observer that Morfoot describes as his “lightbulb moment”, and to which he attributes the creation of his protagonist, jazz-loving police officer Captain Darac.

“It focused on the work of three artists: poet and author Philippe Pichon, novelist Bénedicte Desforges, and rapper, Le Brigadier”, he explains. “They’re not members of a movement as such but formed part of a loose affiliation of artists of differing approaches and backgrounds. They did, however, have one thing in common. All three were serving police officers.”

“I tend not to use Darac as a mouthpiece – he has his own voice – but on occasion, I use him to spark debate”

Morfoot is quick to emphasise the resonance of an assertion made by Pichon: that “a poet can be a policeman and a policeman can be a poet.” For him, this “added to the picture of Darac I had already formed. I knew that enlisting him into the ranks of this new generation of artist cops was the way for him to go.”

The final piece of the puzzle in the creation of Darac was finding the art form. But why did Morfoot settle on jazz?

“I felt its characteristic tension between structure and improvisation would give me the most relevant and interesting possibilities. And Nice’s long love affair with the medium seemed right”, he says before letting slip some more of his impressive knowledge of the region: “the city’s jazz festival of 1948, headlined by Louis Armstrong, was the first in history!”

“So Darac was coming together”, he concludes. “A senior police officer who plays jazz in a quality group, a significant player therefore in two different sorts of team, was someone I was looking forward to getting to know better. Once I had begun devising the Darac stories themselves, my transition from comedy to crime writing was more or less complete.”

“I’m in it for life now, with no hope of parole”, he jokes.

The first Darac novel – set in 2009 – is, in Morfoot’s words, “a story of hate, murder and revenge in which a terrorist threat plays a significant part”. I note that I find this latter element particularly interesting in light of the recent attack of London, before inquiring to what extent he draws inspiration from such events?

Pointing out that Fatal Music is set in 2010, Morfoot notes he is “writing with the benefit of hindsight.” Thus, he can “naturally draw inspiration from current events and, within the constraints of the police procedural genre, I try to place them within a historical context.”

Morfoot continues. “I tend not to use Darac as a mouthpiece – he has his own voice – but on occasion, I use him to spark debate. For example, in Impure Blood, a colleague asks Darac what he makes of Muslims praying in the street. He replies: ‘I know diversity isn’t the French Way but you don’t have a problem with it, do you?’ ‘How could I?’ the colleague replies. ‘Don’t tell Sarko but I feel Catalan first, French second, myself.’ 

As Morfoot explains to me that this exchange raises important questions about the Riviera’s culture and society, his passion and fascination with the region is laid bare. For him, there is an interesting discussion to be had about whether there is “such a thing as the French way and, if there is, how has non-diversity become the norm?” Indeed, Morfoot argues, “although his colleague’s reference to the censure he risks by declaring his split allegiance is light-hearted, it points to a deeper truth.”

And Morfoot is keen to emphasise that Fatal Music will offer further insights into French society. Indeed, he tells me, at the book’s launch at Heffers in Cambridge on 4th April, he plans to discuss the “themes of change, loss and new beginnings which span the full width of Nice’s social spectrum” that run through the book.

“Why should students come to the event?”, he says, pre-empting my final question. “I can’t think of a better reason than a free glass of wine. Except two, of course.”

Peter Morfoot will be launching his new book, Fatal Music, at 6:30pm at Heffers bookshop on Tuesday 4th April. Tickets to the event are free, and further details can be found here

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