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The Sunday Observer Salutes Le Cop Anglais

Pompey meets Le Havre in French TV crime hit

British writer Graham Hurley's detective duo are proving popular across the Channel

Filming for Two Cops Down at the Docks, which is set in the port city of Le Havre.

Graham Hurley has sold more than half a million books and been translated into nine languages. Last Wednesday he was in a bookshop in Portsmouth, where his most popular series is set, signing copies of his 12th and final novel featuring Detective Inspector Joe Faraday and Paul Winter, a fellow detective who becomes increasingly disenchanted with police work and eventually goes over to the other side.

On the same day 100 miles away, a crew of 60 were filming the third of four 90-minute TV adaptations of the Faraday-Winter books. The first two drew impressive audiences of just under four million, the next two will be finished by spring for broadcast at the end of the year and a deal has been signed for numbers five and six.

The rights have already brought Hurley a five-figure sum and "been a game-changer for me", he said. The cameras were not rolling in Pompey, though. The series is being filmed across the Channel in Le Havre – in French, for French TV. "Le Pompey de Graham Hurley transposé au Havre," as Le Parisien says.

BBC4 and Sky have been widely praised for showing crime dramas from Sweden, Denmark, France and Italy, and have been rewarded with impressive viewing figures. Now Hurley is redressing the balance and exporting his stories. The French have "pinched" one of Britain's popular fictional detectives and turned him into a capitain.

For years, the former documentary-maker tried to persuade British companies to film Faraday. His work has been praised by the Financial Times and the Guardian, and there has been interest, "but it takes years". As for the French, within two months of contacting Hurley they had signed a contract, found a TV station, chosen actors, appointed a scriptwriter and started filming. "I went over with my wife," said Hurley. "It was great to see the traffic stopping in Le Havre for the filming of one of my books."

Why opt for Faraday and Winter in a country that takes crime fictionmore seriously, and where there are so many writers to choose from? "They told me the books had significant social content and were politically committed," said Hurley, who is fluent in French and regularly speaks at crime-fiction festivals in France.

Faraday would fit well into one of the gloomy Scandinavian books that are so popular here. He is summed up by Winter in one of the later novels as "dogged by a reputation as a weirdo loner with a passion for birdwatching and a deaf-and-dumb son". He lost his wife to cancer, is a deep thinker – especially when out looking for a pectoral sandpiper or a black-tailed godwit – badly dressed, anti-consumerist and becomes convinced that, for all the police efforts, society is falling apart and "anarchy rules". "Family breakdown, substance abuse, domestic violence, crap education – there's plenty of all of that in Pompey," said Hurley. "The community is in a state of near collapse. The police are always there to see it first."

Social workers and young offenders feature prominently in the series and Hurley pays great attention to police procedure – especially the ever-changing guidelines and time-consuming paperwork. It could almost be the detectives themselves complaining through Hurley's fiction: he has exceptional contacts throughout the Hampshire force.

Winter is also a widower, but he is different – abrupt, pragmatic, jovial, a Stella drinker to Faraday's Guinness. The real star of the books is Portsmouth, where Hurley lived for nearly 30 years before a recent move to Devon, the setting for a new series on which he is working.

"Without Pompey, the books would never have been written," he said. The series is set in the 00s and there are constant references to the social problems of Britain's most densely populated city, and its "rough, gruff, wry humour". Portsmouth football club features prominently, and many of the villains are former hooligans. As Dickens's birthplace, the city was a focus for the bicentenary celebrations last week – but outsiders have not always warmed to it. General James Wolfe wrote in 1758: "The necessity of living in the midst of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me if there is such another collection of demons upon the whole earth." The city's official motto is "Heaven's light our guide". The unofficial one, said Hurley, is "If in doubt, have a fight". He is, he said, "not the most popular man in the tourist office".

How does this work in France? There is no translation for "mush" (a Pompey term of affection), "scrote" (the opposite) or "scummer" (anyone from Southampton). Can the city be exported? "I was intrigued by the move to Le Havre," said Hurley. "But they have done a good job. What holds true for Portsmouth also holds true for Le Havre. There are similarities: neither city is fashionable, they are both at the end of the railway line, relatively uncursed by money. Sharp-elbowed places, robust." Could you move other English detectives – Morse to Rouen, say, or Rebus to Marseille? "Rebus, maybe yes. But I'm not sure about Morse. You can't get away from those dreaming spires."

Jacques Salles, the French director of the Faraday episodes,, titled Two Cops Down at the Docks, said: "When I read Graham Hurley's books I immediately thought of Le Havre. A huge port, the same kind of atmosphere – same causes, same effects." Salles made an adaptation of a Val McDermid book for French TV two years ago, in two 90-minute episodes. He is excited about doing more of Hurley's work, and said that the TV audience for the first two was "a tremendous success" because they were up against a hugely popular show on France1. The French treat crime writers, Hurley among them, with great respect and have dozens of literary festivals for policiers. "Being from Pompey, at first I thought they were taking the piss," said Hurley. "The festivals have been a very civilised and civilising experience. I remember a coach load of people from Nantes coming to a festival in a remote town in Brittany, the European capital of pig breeding, and they'd know more about my characters than I did. The housewives love Faraday: they all want to mother him."

Attending the festivals helped popularise the books – and now, with the TV series, sales in France have risen. Wouldn't it be ironic if the French TV episodes appeared on BBC4 with subtitles. "Oh yes, that would be good," said Hurley. "I'd laugh – in French." Would the people of Portsmouth laugh with him? Maybe not, because Le Havre has a dark secret they will not like – it is twinned with Southampton.