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After ScandiNoir, French are crime fiction stars

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 which was a byword until very recently for potentially best selling crime fiction has tailed off,” the founder of the London-based MacLehose Press told AFP.

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.

The novel's prequel “Irene” is also due to be published in the U.S. and Britain in 2014.

Niche Publisher

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 publishing only American authors and all of them were men,” said Vauterin, 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.”

Vargas, the pen name for archaeologist and historian Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, has won three International Daggers, twice for novels featuring her chaotic and sartorially challenged Superintendent Adamsberg, a native of the Pyrenees region of southwestern France who likes to present himself as a bit of a country bumpkin in Paris.

Sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, meanwhile, 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 which publishes the Victor Legris mysteries, said readers were disproving the once widely held belief that contemporary French writers did not sell.

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