Peter Morfoot has written a number of plays and sketch shows for BBC Radio and TV and is the author of the acclaimed satirical novel, Burksey. He has lectured in film, holds a Ph.D in art history, and has spent thirty years exploring the life, art and restaurant tables of the French Riviera, the setting for his series of crime novels featuring Captain Paul Darac of Nice’s Brigade Criminelle.
A few pages into my novel, Impure Blood, (Titan Books, April 2016) featuring Captain Paul Darac of Nice’s Brigade Criminelle, we meet the detective heading back to his apartment the morning after playing a gig with his jazz group.
As a tram snaked behind him into Boulevard Jean Jaurès, Darac left the Place and disappeared into the whorl of narrow streets and alleyways that made up the old town, a quarter known as The Babazouk. Exuding coffee, fish, flowers and drains, the Babazouk had the feel of the Moorish souk its name suggested - a shaded warren frequented by fast locals and slow tourists... Darac had acquired his roof-terrace apartment in the Plassa five years ago. It had proved a good move. The pan-tiled canopy of the Babazouk was an atmospheric habitat and it suited him to live suspended between the tangle of the old town and the Nice of the boulevards.
Darac’s world is set in stone for me now but when I began devising the series, (the second and third titles, Babazouk Blues and Box Of Bones are published by Titan Books in April 2017 and 2018), the detective was neither French nor led a double life as a jazz musician. How did he get there?
From the outset, I had qualities in mind for the character that expressed his strong individuality. But attesting to the essentially collaborative nature of police work, I needed him to be a team player, also. An interesting dynamic, I thought, and one that gave me the pleasurable task of creating a permanent cast of supporting players. But where should I locate these stories?
Over the years, I’d come to know Nice well and although it appealed to me as a possible setting, places closer to home were ahead on points. I knew that plumbing the depths of a criminal justice system very different from the UK’s wouldn’t be easy. And my so-so French meant I would need an interpreter to interview officers of Nice’s Police Judiciaire, something I deemed essential should I proceed. It seemed far more practical to set the series in, say, my native Yorkshire.
The Côte d’Azur, though, has compensations for the researcher. And not just the restaurants. The light, the inspiration of generations of artists, is magical. The beauty of the Alpes Maritimes mountains and that eponymous azure coastline is stupendous. But as a crime writer, I needed more than light and beauty. I needed darkness and despair. Are there serpents slithering around in this paradise? Oh yes, they’re there. Aplenty. Nice, as exotically beautiful as any Mediterranean resort, has its fair share of big city problems and crime. Yet I was still unsure.
It was thinking further about my detective-to-be that decided the issue of the setting for me. The turning point was reading an article in The Observer penned by Europe Correspondent, Jason Burke. Entitled: France’s Tough Cops Wield A New Weapon: Culture, the piece focussed on the work of three artists of differing backgrounds and approaches. They did, however, have one thing in common. All three were serving police officers. In the article, chief of police, poet and best-selling author Philippe Pichon made this assertion: “A poet can be a policeman and a policeman can be a poet.” That was my light bulb moment. Added to the picture of Darac I’d already formed, I knew that enlisting him into the ranks of this new generation of artist cops, Poètes Policiers, as they’re dubbed, was the way for him to go.
The question now was to determine the art form. A music lover, I felt that jazz with 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, also. Headlined by Louis Armstrong, the city’s jazz festival of 1948 was the first in history.
So Darac was coming together. 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. I was intrigued that, unlike some of his fictional counterparts, he was a character drawn to living not so much on the edge but on the borderline. A man who chooses to position himself at points of junction or collision with the world. As Impure Blood unfolds, those collisions become ever more treacherous. For the sake of the subsequent novels in the series, let’s hope Darac makes it.
Impure Blood by Peter Morfoot (£7.99, Titan Books)
In the heat of a French summer, Captain Paul Darac of the Nice Brigade Criminelle is called to a highly sensitive crime scene. A man has been found murdered in the midst of a Muslim prayer group, but no one saw how it was done. Then the organisers of the Nice leg of the Tour de France receive an unlikely terrorist threat. In what becomes a frantic race against time, Darac must try and unpick a complex knot in which racial hatred, sex and revenge are tightly intertwined.