Cops and Writers

Laurent Guillaume is a multiple-award-winning French writer and former police officer. In law enforcement, he worked anti-gang, narcotics, financial crimes, and served in Mali as an advisor to the local police. His first novel to be translated into English is a hard-boiled PI story set in West Africa: White Leopard. Here he tells us about how his life as a cop mixes with his life as a writer.

Does being a cop help to write a mystery novel?
It is both an asset and toxic. My novels necessarily borrow from reality, so being a cop is an advantage. But I also think it is a trap. In a mystery, the writer's main preoccupation has to be the plot.

>>>Be drawn in before you can spot what lies ahead<<<

In your novels, politicians are never very clean.
I think the quest for power has a negative impact on everyone who goes after it. Politics has the power to corrupt on many levels because it lives off of everything that is toxic in our society: money, dissimulation, and lies. One has to overcome so many obstacles to attain power that it becomes a kind of Grail, and overcomes its original raison d’être: public good. But there are politicians who are driven by a real sense of democracy, by honest political conviction and humanism. I like to believe that even the worst people can at certain times and under certain circumstances prove to have some purity. The opposite is true as well. It is just a matter of proportion.

You seem to leave the reader to judge. Is this done on purpose?
I don't like the idea of telling a reader how to think or what to like or not like about my novels. I don't judge, I tell a story. Moral judgments are for philosophers. All of my characters are made of shadow and light, like in life. You are free to love them or hate them for what they are. But I don't want them to leave you indifferent. Indifference is the harshest criticism.

Tell us a little something about the genre you chose for this book.
White Leopard
is what I would call a “hard-boiled African” thriller. I went back to the codes of the 1930s-1940s hard-boiled detective novel (tough, alcoholic PI; the femme fatale who brings him a complicated, perilous case; etc.) and then I transposed them to contemporary Africa. And it worked.

>>>If you long for Philip Marlowe's return, this one is just for you<<<

What inspired you to write this book? Is it based on real events or your own experience?
When I worked at the French Embassy in Mali, I was in charge of police cooperation, particularly with regards to drug trafficking and organized crime. At the time, I worked on a case called “Air Cocaine” as a consultant for the Malian authorities. It didn’t take long to find some material for a good mystery in there. For that matter, a better part of the novel is based on real events.

Big Thrill Interviews Laurent Guillaume

A while back, Big Thrill Magazine ran a really interesting interview with Laurent Guillaume by thriller writer Steven P. Vincent. Here are some highlights. Please do visit Big Thrill to read the full interview.

  • Can you tell our readers a bit more about WHITE LEOPARD?

 In 2009, a Boeing 747 unloaded some mysterious cargo in northern Mali and got stuck in the sand trying to take off again. The plane had just delivered several tons of cocaine that was headed to Europe and the Middle East. Investigating this case, we uncovered an extremely well organized network of Colombian and Spanish drug traffickers that settled scores with dollars or a chainsaw, depending on how much opposition they got. I had wanted to write a novel about the drug trade in Africa for a long time... 

  • What struck me about WHITE LEOPARD was your vivid description of Mali. Can you tell us about writing in a place you’re familiar with, but not actually from?

... It takes time to see what lies beneath the postcard, to see the stark reality of the people who live there. I hope that I managed to do this, although I’m sure I missed things. More than a mystery,  WHITE LEOPARD pays homage to the people of Bamako, a mixed crowd in overpopulated streets, who never stop smiling and feeling happy, despite the harsh conditions of their daily life.

  • You’ve written about things you’re familiar with–Mali and police work. Was there anything in WHITE LEOPARD that challenged you a little more?

The hardest part for me was to project myself into the mind of a protagonist of mixed racial background. In addition, I wrote in the first person, which was something new for me. This type of writing created a kind of intimacy with Solo, to an extent that I had not imagined possible...

  • Our readers are always interested in the writing process. You write full time, so what does your average day look like? How do you approach writing a novel?

...I get up at seven in the morning, eat a hearty breakfast and work out for a good hour. Back at home, I sit down in front of my computer and answer my email. Then I do some research, and when I feel ready, I open up Word and start writing. I generally write until four in the afternoon, when I read to relax and find a change of pace...

  • I’m curious about the process of working with a translator. Is it a smooth process or does it require some hard work to make it work and, ultimately, ensure a better book?

... As far as my understanding of English allows, Sophie did an excellent job. I’m not surprised, because throughout the process, she showed great rigor and a real interest in the topic of the novel: West Africa. I’m very happy with the result.

Why Exile Makes for a Good Protagonist

Top French writer Laurent Guillaume

Laurent Guillaume, author of White Leopard, was a cop and became a writer. He shares some thoughts about his protagonist and his book.

How did you come up with your protagonist?
For the character of Solo, I raised the question of mixed race. Blacks consider Solo white, and whites consider him black. I find this to be a particularly interesting issue for a novel because it carries narrative tension. Solo is exiled from a life in which he lost everything, and he is unconsciously looking for a second chance, a second self. He thinks he should die, that that would be best, but unconsciously he hangs onto life because deep down he is more of an optimist than he lets show.

What sets him apart?
Solo’s mixed background gives him a particular complexity. He is torn between two worlds (Africa and Europe), two cultures (French and Malian), and two religions (Christianity and Islam). His past as a “fallen” cop on the run, pursued by his former colleagues also sets him apart.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Stormy, loyal and sentimental.

Can you describe your protagonist, Solo, in five words?
Hot-tempered, ironic, alcoholic, nosy, depressive, vindictive, sentimental.

What actor do see playing him?
Denzel Washington

Do you see Solo coming back?
It is probable that Solo will become a recurring character. It is important for me that the character evolve and grow. I find it annoying when the protagonist is always the same fifteen years later. The scars on Solo’s soul are there, but they will begin to heal. I don’t want a hero that just keeps digging a deeper hole. I like to be more light hearted than that—sometimes. 

White Leopard Author beats records with new TV show

Actor Bruno Wolkowitch in Borderline.

Actor Bruno Wolkowitch in Borderline.

Laurent Guillaume, author of the upcoming hard-boiled noir White Leopard, co-wrote a TV film that just broke audience records – 5.8 million viewers this week. Borderline is produced by Olivier Marchal and written by Oliver Marchal, Christophe Gavat and Laurent Guillaume. Olivier Marchal is also a former police officer, like Laurent. He directed 36 Quai des Orfèvres, a 2004 movie known as 36th Precinct and Department 36, starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu.

Borderline tells the story of a cop with the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme (Banditry Repression Brigade), a special police unit that deals with armed robberies and trafficking. After 25 years of an irreproachable career, the main character—Willy Blain—finds himself arrested by internal affairs and accused of drug trafficking, theft and misappropriation of evidence. While he's being held, Blain must face the reality of his job from the other side. What faults in the system led to his fall?

The show is based on a true story about a police officer in Lyon. So, like in White Leopard, Laurent finds inspiration in reality.  The show is dark and moving.

Meet an author: Laurent Guillaume

We are busy preparing for our fall release of White Leopard by Laurent Guillaume. This "hard-boiled African" detective story comes from a writer with a particularly interesting background. He's won multiple awards for his crime fiction and, as a former law enforcement officer, knows his stuff. He's a bit about who he is. 

Another award-winning French writer

Laurent Guillaume was no ordinary cop, just like he is no ordinary writer. At school, he read more than he studied, and after getting a Master’s degree in law, he served under France’s flag. Once he finished his military service, he went to the police academy and graduated a lieutenant. Driven by a need for action and adrenaline rushes, he signed up to work in the projects on the outskirts of Paris, where he headed up an urban crime unit. The unit’s logo was a bat and the men called Batmen. They worked nights, in direct contact with dealers and drug addicts, thieves and vandals, traffickers and the down-and-out. Quickly recognized, he was a clever cop, respected by his men, who did what he had to do to get the job done, staying within the confines of the law. But soon the night and its shark-infested waters invaded his personal space, leaving his private life in chaos.

After further training, his excellent physical and organizational skills led him abroad, on missions of international cooperation in Chad and North Africa. In France, he returned to his home region of Annecy for a calmer job. There, he discovered crime fiction and devoured the founding fathers—Hammet, Chandler and Himes—and the contemporary masters—Block, Connely and Lehane.

Hard-boiled African noir

Bored with his sleepy job, he returned to the streets with the drug squad, and after three years got antsy for something new. He signed up for a position in international police cooperation in Mali, a country that is key to France in West Africa. An advisor to Malian police, particularly on drug trafficking issues, that his where he started writing—a historical novel at first, until the crime fiction demon grabbed him by the collar—two novels, two literary prizes and TV rights sold right off the bat. Guillaume returned to France to work financial crimes in Annecy, where he hung on for a year and a half before leaving behind the red tape, judges and lawyers in 2013, when he started writing full time.