I wrote the following story for The Armchair Detective magazine, in 1997. The magazine, one of the leading mystery writing magazines at the time, has since folded. But this story still stands, with many of the writers mentioned herein still writing today.
Forget Georges Simenon. Forget Maigret. Simenon wasn’t French anyway, but Belgian. Over the past decade or so-and in the past three years particularly-France has experienced a revolution in crime writing.
Today’s French crime novel is not populated by quaint characters with berets, mustaches and baguettes, it is a reflection of contemporary France. It is peopled by Arabs, black Africans, European immigrants, and the French of the suburbs and other regions of the country.
To understand how the novel got there, we have to look neither at Simenon nor his French contemporaries like Pierre Very, or Leo Malet (who wrote about post-war Paris). Nor at the Boileau-Narcejac duo, who inspired Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. We have to go back to May 1968, when Paris’s revolution-hungry students nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle.
By ’68 the French mystery novel was dead. Then along came writer Jean-Patrick Manchette.
“Manchette,” said Renaud Bombard, editorial director of Presses de la Cite, “restarted the French crime novel with books that were highly inspired by the great American noir writers. He showed that we could use the French sociohistorical reality to write very dynamic and shocking crime novels.”
One of them, L’Affaire N’Gustro, was inspired by the Ben Barka affair.
“It was at a time that was politically delicate,” said Bombard. “The whole De Gaulle epoque was a pressure cooker. Everything was kind of being stifled, and then Manchette appeared and inspired a number of authors to follow in his footsteps.”
Manchette’s name echoes through almost every discussion of the mystery novel in France today. His was the age of what they call the “neo-polar,” since the French mystery novel had been reborn.
Manchette ceased writing in 1981, however, because he felt he had exhausted his form. His exit seemed to be a passing of the baton to a new generation of writers, the May ’68 student generation itself. They were in fact generally only a few years younger than their master, so it might be called a post-Manchette second wave.
Francois Guerif, editorial director of the Editions Rivages mystery collection, and editor of the review Polar, said of this new wave: “It was a difficult time because they all followed Manchette without having understood the lesson of Manchette. Manchette had introduced politics into the crime novel. So all of a sudden there were a bunch of writers who thought that having a social message about their period was the most important thing. We fell into all sorts cliches and stereotypes. They said the “Polar” is the “Polaroid.” A photo of society. But Manchette never said that. On the contrary he said you work on the text, the writing. Start with a banal situation and make something interesting out of it.”
The post-Manchette politically-inclined writers were typified by Jean-Bernard Pouy, Didier Daeninckx and Daniel Pennac.
Jean-Bernard Pouy also wrote some of the finest books of the period, social message or not (i.e., La Belle de Fontenay, 1992). The first quarter of his L’Homme a L’Oreille Croquee in 1987 (The Man with the Bitten Ear) reads more like Kafka than Manchette. Its first 35 pages are unforgettable noir. The opening lines:
“The young woman sitting across from me vaulted at my face. I saw her nose grow over my eye, then suddenly slide. Then her teeth planted into my forehead.”
The two characters have just been involved in a train crash, with the woman flying into the narrator’s face. The conversation between them as they are pinned together under tons of wreckage is brilliant tragi-comic dialogue that leads into a fine mystery story.
Pouy never planned to become a writer. The metier was thrust upon him after he lost his job as cultural counselor at a junior high school, and he wrote down a tale he was in the habit of telling the students. A friend who ran a small press published it without Pouy’s knowledge, under the title Spinoza Encule Hegel (Spinoza Sodomizes Hegel) in 1983, and it became a success.
CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION
Jean-Bernard Pouy’s career has also been important for his help to other writers. He grew up and taught in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, where he befriended two students who were to have an important role in the mystery novel later. The first, Maurice G. Dantec, was eleven when they met, and we’ll hear more about him later. The other, Tonino Benacquista, a child of Italian immigrants, became practically an adopted son to Pouy.
Tonino Benacquista, 35, is the first of a new wave of the post-’68 generation of writers. His first book appeared in the early ’80s, but it was with Trois Carres Rouge Sur Fond Noir (1990), and La Commedia Des Rates (1991) that he became an old master. (Or a young one, rather.)
The first, Three Red Squares on a Black Background, is about a young man with a passion for billiards, who earns a living hanging paintings at art shows. He is in a gallery when a theft occurs and he gets involved against his will. It is biting satire of the art world.
The second, A Comedy of Failures, is about another narrator getting in a bad situation against his will, but this time it concerns the Italian immigrant community in Vitry, and takes place partly in Italy. Benacquista writes about today’s France with a fresh and engaging voice, and a conspicuous lack of political statement.
Another writer to rise above the political storm of the ’80s is Thierry Jonquet, whose personality is difficult to pin down in his many narrative voices. In Mygale (the title refers to a type of spider, 1984), two petty criminals get mixed up in the weird world of a vengeful cosmetic surgeon. The way the book’s complex narrative is drawn together at the end, and the insight into warped human psychology, make it a noir symphony in several movements.
Jonquet’s Les Orpailleurs (The Gold Hunters, 1993) starts as a classic police procedural about Paris cops trying to solve several murders. It then develops into a profound moral and historical reflection on the plight of the Jews in Europe just before World War II.
Whereas Les Orpailleurs succeeds in making the police procedural a convincing French form, the less interesting works here are those that imitate the American forms rather than steal them. (To apply to the mystery T.S. Eliot’s dictum, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”) French crime writers are somewhat in awe of the American crime novel. The best works are those where the writer has taken the American form, savored it, and then used its essence to create a new French entity.
While these ’80s “non-political” writers were reshaping the genre, mid-decade Daniel Pennac provided another refreshing antidote to the Manchette school, in what might be called “humorous noir,” starting with his Benjamin Malaussene series character, debuting in the novel Au Bonheur des Ogres (The Happiness of Beasts, 1985).
The new wave of leftist writing came with the socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Mitterrand was to be France’s leader until 1995, and this was also the age of Didier Daeninckx, a tremendously popular writer that some classify as politics first, mystery second.
It is difficult to share that opinion completely. Take, for example, Meurtres pour Memoire (Murder in Memoriam, 1984). True, the story opens during anti-Algerian riots in Paris in October 1961. True, it is based on an historical event where hundreds of Arabs were killed by the French police, and we end up hating the government. But the tale that emerges is a well written-mystery about a young man trying to learn how his father was killed two decades earlier, in those riots. It is typical Daeninckx in the author’s use of fact in a kind of journalistic recounting of events inside a fictional story as tightly sealed and entertaining as any good mystery should be. (True, the book also led to a French crackdown on World War II collaborators, including the life-imprisonment of Paul Touvier.)
Another great buddy of Pouy’s is Patrick Raynal, whose first novel was also published in the early ’80s, but whose best work started toward the end of the decade with Fenetres sur Femmes (Window on Women, 1988). There he plants a classic Chandler-style mystery in the Riviera city of Nice. Much of the pleasure in reading him comes through an appreciation of his style and his play with language.
(His portrayal of life in Nice is also interesting, and an example of how the mystery has moved to the regions. Also notable in this regard is Jean-Claude Izzo, whose series takes place in Marseille, France’s crime capital, just up the coast from Nice.)
After working as a journalist at Nice-Matin, Patrick Raynal was mystery reviewer at the national daily Le Monde. Since 1991 he has been editorial director of one of the most prestigious mystery collections: La Serie Noire. At fifty, he is a year younger than his collection.
A LITERARY MAFIA?
When outsiders look at the tightly-knit French crime writing community, they may be excused for thinking it is a literary mafia. This is particularly true with the noir field, in which all the writers and editors know each other, and often did even before they were in publishing. The quality of the writing is so good, however, that it would be better to see it as a literary group like England’s Bloomsbury.
When TAD asked Benacquista why the suburb of Vitry had produced three of the best current writers, he said, “Simple. It’s Pouy. He was into Chandler. He introduced me to Vonnegut, all the American writers. It was his influence.”
Which brings us back to Pouy’s other student Maurice G. Dantec, now 36, whose manuscript the older writer sent to his friend Patrick Raynall at Serie Noire.
Pouy plays down his role, saying, “If one really wants to see how I might have helped Dantec, it’s that when he was twelve, thirteen, I’m made him read books like Crash, by Ballard, or Spinrad’s novels. Already at twelve, he was reading that stuff.”
But Dantec confirms that Pouy was also instrumental in getting his first novel published.
“I left the school and lost sight of him for 15 years,” said Dantec. “And when I found myself with this huge manuscript, I didn’t know exactly where to send it. So I managed to contact him, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve done this thing and I’ll send it to you.’ He got Patrick Raynal to read it.”
Raynal rejected it because it was more science fiction than crime novel. But he said he would be happy to see something else. So Dantec returned with La Sirene Rouge (The Red Siren), and Raynal published it in 1993.
It sold well and won the French crime writers’ association prize, Le Trophee 813. Inspired by this success, Dantec’s next book was almost as thick as War and Peace. And it was not only a crime novel, but it bordered on science fiction again. Raynal took the risk and published it.
After Patrick Dantec with his spiky black hair, black clothes, and dark glasses appeared on a prime-time live interview show and started losing his temper over France’s policy toward Bosnia, his tightly-printed 635-page tome became a bestseller.
(To TAD Dantec said of his Bosnia outbreak, “It’s like the American writers of the ’60s and ’70s. It was impossible for them to write without mentioning Vietnam. It touched their whole generation. But bizarrely, while in the U.S. the problem was going to war, for us the problem is that we didn’t. It’s as if the West has done all it could to fight all the wars they shouldn’t have fought, and didn’t fight the wars they should have fought.”)
Les Racines du Mal (The Roots of Evil, 1995) also won the two most prestigious science fiction prizes in France (one awarded by fans, the other by critics and other professionals), the first time a crime novel has won a science fiction prize here.
On the subject of prizes, Raynal waved his hand contemptuously about the crime prizes. Then his eyes lit up and he said, “What’s really interesting is that a crime novel, a novel with the cover of the Serie Noire, has won a science fiction prize.”
He said another of his authors, Herve Prudon, won a literary award. The two cases, he said, “show that we have obliged people who did not want to take any interest in this kind of literature, to read it, and to appreciate it. That’s very interesting.”
Dantec’s two books are quite different. La Sirene Rouge concerns the discovery by a twelve-year-old girl in the Netherlands of a video of her mother murdering the girl’s tutor. The girl goes to the police, but they do not believe her testimony since on the tape the mother is masked. They also cannot verify it even depicts a real event. The girl escapes and meets an arms-runner returning from Bosnia. He’s a Robin Hood-cum-Terminator who agrees to drive the girl to Portugal to find her long-lost English father, while they are chased across Europe by the girl’s mother and her henchmen.
It is a highly entertaining thriller with sympathetic characters, but it is not a full expression of the range of Dantec’s imagination. For that, Les Racines du Mal is the required reading.
This second novel is about a serial killer they call “The Vampire of Vitry.” The first part takes place in Vitry, then it becomes another “road story” throughout France. The lead male character is a dope fiend scientist who uses his computer, a “schizzo-processor,” to plumb the mind of the killer and the data of the case. The book spans the decade of the ’90s and passes into the next century.
The narrator goes on long philosophical tangents about the nature of consciousness, drug taking, and evil, but far from interfering with the story, the passages are probably what give the book its growing youth cult status.
Dantec and Benacquista are examples of how the genre is being appropriated by a new ’90s generation and how some of the traditional barriers are falling. (Another example is Olivier Thiebaut, whose 1993 L’Enfant de Coeur, is a first- person tale about a young matricide. Thiebaut tells TAD the book is being studied by child psychologists.)
ENTER “THE OCTOPUS”
This decade is also seeing the birth of new series and the rise of the small press. Late in ’95 a series-called “Le Poulpe”-was born at the small press, Editions Baleine. The idea came over drinks in a bar to none other than Jean-Bernard Pouy, Patrick Raynal, and another writer, Serge Quaddrupani.
Pouy said that since the quality of French crime writing had risen to a literary level in recent years, the old “train-station” style of pulp writing has been represented only by series such as SAS and The Executioner that are so right-wing Pouy calls them “almost fascist.” So the libertarian Poulpe was created as an antidote.
“Le Poulpe” is lead character Gabriel Lecouvreur’s nickname. Pouy says it’s a play on the English “pulp,” but the word in French means octopus.
“Le Poulpe is something of an avenger, an outlaw, a Robin Hood and an anarchist,” said Raynal. “He always looks behind the scenes, to see if what we’re told reflects the truth.”
The series has about 27 volumes in print, and many more have been commissioned. The first books were written by well-known writers, now a few previously unpublished writers, journalists and show business personalities have also taken shots at “le Poulpe.”
Each writer is invited to create his own story after reading the Poulpe “Bible,” a six page outline of the character’s life and friends. The writer is urged to keep his own style, and his own interests.
“It’s an exercise in style,” said Raynal. The attraction of the Poulpe series is similar to that of listening to different violin virtuosos play the same
While Pouy’s is the first in the series, and it lays out the characters and the terrain, they may be read starting with any volume. (Since the titles in this series are based on puns, I won’t venture to translate). Raynal’s, Arretez le Carrelage (1995), takes place in a fishing village in Britanny, where Le Poulpe reads about a trawler exploding on its way back to the village. He connects the event to his discovery that the residents’ houses are being snatched up by an unknown buyer and left vacant.
Another excellent one is La Cerise sur Le Gateux by Jean-Jacques Reboux, who is 1996 winner of the Trophee 813 for his novel, Le Massacre des Innocents (A
Massacre of the Innocent), and who is at 38, another up-and-coming writer of the new generation.
Editions Florent Massot is another small press specializing in crime novels, but in contrast to Le Poulpe’s beautiful artist-painted covers, these have raunchy covers, and titles like Baise Moi (Screw Me). Editions Liliane Hamy publish the works of one of the few top women writers, Fred Vargas.
CHERCHEZ LA FEMME
Here we might pause to note the lack of French women writers and editors in the genre. Helene Amalric, editorial director of the oldest mystery collection in the country, Le Masque, is the only woman directing one of the top specialist collections. Amalric started at Le Masque 14 years ago.
“When I arrived in the small world of the crime novel, people really looked at me in a very guarded way,” she said. “But when they saw that I knew something about it, they let me alone.”
This is not to say that the French don’t like work by foreign women writers. After having had a young author named Agatha Christie recommended to him, a Paris bookstore owner named Albert Pigasse started Le Masque in 1927 to publish English mysteries. The collection with its distinctive yellow covers with the black mask began with the first publication in France of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was a good omen since, as Amalric notes, Le Masque sells 2.5 million Christie titles a year. It is the leading seller of Christie in the world after the English-speaking market.
“We sell about three or four times more Agatha Christie titles annually than England,” Amalric notes.
But Amalric feels things are changing. In her opinion, the more original writing today is coming from women. Amalric’s star French woman writer is a toxicologist in her late thirties, who publishes under the name Andrea H. Japp. After publishing in the collection for several years, Japp delivered a manuscript called La Parabole du Tueur (The Killer’s Equation, 1996).
“I was astounded,” said Amalric. “Frankly, the masterfulness, the construction of the characters, I’ve rarely seen a French author able to do that.”
The book is one of many in France that pay homage to America by being set in the U.S. It is about a serial killer who kills women, and is tracked primarily by a woman, a scientist working with the police. The suspense is well-handled, and the scientific information impeccable.
Many editors say they simply receive fewer manuscripts from women, though Patrick Raynal says that is changing. He has recently published several women, including, Pascale Fonteneau, whose Confidences Sur L’Escalier (Secrets in the Stairway) was a hit in 1992, and whose comic Les Fils Perdus de Silvie Derijke (Sylvie Derijke’s Lost Sons) came out in 1995.
Ironically, reader statistics in France are no different from those in the U.S. As Amalric said, “The readers of mystery novels are women, more or less whatever the collection happens to be.” She said that for her collection the ratio is 60%, 40% men.
While most of the French writing we have looked at is noir, the bestsellers are the same everywhere, and decidedly not noir. Renaud Bombard, editorial director of Presses de la Cite, said, “If you’re asking, who do the French read? It’s Mary Higgins Clark.”
Francois Guerif says that Editions Rivages sells 70,000 copies of the biggest noir success in France, James Ellroy. Each Mary Higgins Clark sells close to half a million. Renaud Bombard estimates that Presses de la Cite sells about25,000 copies of Elizabeth George.
In titles printed, the ratio has always been in America’s favour: about 80% American translations to 20% original French writers.
While the French seem to excel at what Jean-Bernard Pouy calls small canvas noir, some broad canvas thriller writers are starting to appear. Serge Brussolo is a prolific forty-five-year-old author of thrillers often bordering on fantasy and horror. He started in the early ’80s and has published over 60 books in several genres. His rural thriller La Moisson D’Hiver (Winter’s Harvest, 1994), is a gripping psychological tale told through a child’s point of view and takes place during World War II.
Finally, the French mystery world was in mourning after the death of Jean-Patrick Manchette in June ’95. Then in early ’96 Leo Malet died, and soon after went Michel Lebrun, who had been publishing since the ’50s, and was very active in the mystery community.
So Georges Simenon, the generations pass, but the genre lives on.
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May 19, 2013 at 8:56 pm
Very interesting write up on a genre that many think to be quintessential American. Nice to see that a good crime story knows no geographic boundaries. Sadly, my own French isn’t good enough to read in the original, so I’ll see what I can find among a couple of these that hopefully has been well translated into English.
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December 28, 2020 at 10:41 pm
Fascinating stuff. So glad you’re staying in touch with the arts
I hope you’re still playing live music as well.
January 20, 2021 at 2:10 pm
Thanks Paul! Great to hear from you. Sorry I took so long to respond! Hope all is well!