France is not a country one normally associates with crime fiction, although one in every five books sold in France is a “polar” (short for roman policier). After all, its leading author of polars is really a Belgian, and only a handful of French writers in the genre have received much exposure in English. But many experts expect the French to succeed the Scandinavians as the import flavour of the month. There are certainly many good things to be savoured. One is the Belgian author, a real-life character of excesses. Georges Simenon is well-known for his prodigious literary output – probably near a thousand novels, and countless short stories – and for his ferocious sexual appetite; he himself boasted of more than ten thousand sexual encounters. Simenon apparently kept a wife and two mistresses busy, as well as a string of casual relationships. In the 1930s his entire entourage toured North America, spending some time in Quebec.
Simenon wrote three kinds of books: his serious fiction, chiefly psychological studies; his literary thrillers; and his approximately 75 Inspector Maigret books, written over a period of more than 40 years. The Maigret books were frequently made into television series or movies. They were the very antithesis of formula crime books, the anti-formula being Maigret shambling around inside a situation and eventually coming up with the solution. Madam Maigret was a frequent part of the sniffing. One of the characteristics of the Maigret books was their brevity – usually less than 150 pages. His technique in all his writing was the same. He would lock himself away and emerge ten days later with a completed manuscript. Revision was minimal, and he gave little attention to the work once completed.
Simenon had little life outside writing, sex and good living (impressive houses, many automobiles.) He spent the war years living in seclusion trapped in Vichy France, and he ended the war under a cloud of suspicion as a Nazi collaborator, a taint that still follows him. He whined a good deal about not being taken seriously enough as an author, but couldn’t bring himself to write the sort of books that would win literary prizes such as the Nobel Prize. He just wasn’t happy enough with all those books and all those sexual encounters. (Penguin Random House have in the last year begun to issue new translations of the Maigret novels in paperback. We do have some of these titles in both new and used in stock as well as some used Maigret in French.)
Next to Simenon, the French crime writer probably best known to the English-speaking audience is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, better-known as Fred Vargas, a historian and archaeologist who burst onto the scene in 1996 with The Three Evangelists, a concoction which won several prizes and has been enduringly popular. I am quite fond of this book, fond enough to recognize its many weaknesses. In the first place, its basic premise is a fraud. Empty four-story ramshackle mansions simply do not exist anymore, even on the back streets of Paris, much less are such edifices available as cheap rentals by impecunious students. Moreover, such students would not have the money to put the mansion back into operation in time to be ready to participate in the plot of this book. Finally, of course, such impecunious students would not have the money to pursue the plot with such vigour; whenever money is required (for taxis, for train journeys), it is found. The story proper begins when the opera singer who lives in the expensive mansion next door to the tear-down discovers a new tree in her back garden, and cannot figure out what is doing on, but is menaced by it. She is soon murdered, and the plot thickens – and thickens, and thickens, until it ends up to a final resolution some two hundred pages later. By this time the reader is quite giddy from the series of revelations that take place so quickly that there is no time to assess their credibility. Along the way, we are introduced to a much more attractive and inexpensive Paris than the one I remember, as well as a number of loveable character; there are also some nasty villains. By the way, despite the blurbs on the internet, this book is not part of a series. When it is done it is done. Vargas does have an ongoing series, featuring Commissaire Adamsberg. It follows its own rules, occasionally drifting into paranormal fantasy, and has been very popular.
The European publishing sensation of 1997 was Brigitte Aubert’s Death in the Woods, a conceptual tour de force. Its narrator is a blind and mute paraplegic who is afforded information about a killer, if she can only communicate her knowledge to someone in authority before she is herself killed. Reviewers found the narrator sympathetic and full of good humour.
Another interesting French author is Jean François Parot. He has written an extensive collection of historical thrillers that follow the career of one Nicholas la Floch from 1761 towards the Revolution. La Floch is the illegitimate son of a highly-placed French nobleman, and so he is able to hang around the fringes of the French court, solving crimes in high places as he goes. Parot is a historian of considerable skill, and so along the way we are introduced to the mores of the French court, as well as other incidentals, such as French cuisine of the 18th century (aristocratic stuff, of course; the French peasants consumed a much less interesting diet barely fit for pigs). Unlike those involved, who ate, drank, and screwed to excess as if there were no tomorrow, we know how badly it all ends – and how suddenly.
Not all French crime fiction takes place among the upper or middle classes; the French have a notorious criminal underground, and a large proportion of the “polars” sold in cheap editions that tap into this netherworld. Perhaps the most notorious author in this sub-sub genre was Frédéric Dard, who wrote Industriously 175 books under the pseudonym “San-Antonio.” He picked the name by randomly scanning a map of the United States; the dash between the two words was his own contribution. Dard’s world was so unfamiliar to the bulk of his audience that at one point, Dard’s publisher included a glossary of the argot the author was employing. Probing the same world, although in fewer numbers, were the writings of Jean-Claude Izzo, who made a name a few years ago with a trilogy of novels set among the Marseilles criminal element. Both Izzo and Dard dealt with “white” criminals. I suspect there is a literature for the black African population which makes up an increasing proportion of the French underground, but I am unable to access it; probably the best way to approach this world is through daily television coverage, since the black underground is, among other things, the home of the terrorists in both Paris and Belgium.
Finally, some French stuff in English, by Peter May. His publishers have left the origins of the “Enzo” books deliberately murky, but when Peter May visited us in 2014, he told us that no British publisher was initially interested in the series. They were initially published in French in France, and appeared in English only after they became runaway French bestsellers. This story confirms Jack’s view that publishers are not very smart, but never mind. The story also explains why the series is only now appearing in North America years after it was originally written, although it has been available in the UK since 2006. The facts are that May is a great writer, and with “Enzo” he has created a great series. The premise is a bit complex to explain. Enzo MacLeod, a Scottish forensic psychologist with an Italian Catholic mother and a Scottish Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian father, meets his true love at a professional convention. He flees his wife and child to live in France with the other woman, who dies in childbirth, leaving him to raise their daughter, Sophie. He finds a job teaching at a French university, and twenty years after his impulsive act he makes a bet with a French journalist friend who has written a best-selling book describing seven notorious unsolved crimes. Enzo impulsively bets with his friend that, using his forensic skills, he can solve these cases. Extraordinary People records Enzo’s first attempt at winning the bet. The case he chooses to begin with involves the mysterious disappearance of a brilliant French academic, who teaches the nation’s smartest students – the “extraordinary people of the title -- at an elite institution preparing the students for careers as high-powered civil servants. And away we go, following Enzo on his quest! Enzo is very attractive to women, and very attracted to them, so a lot of romanticizing and drinking accompanies the action. This first book is puzzle one, in which the solution of one clue leads to another. Deconstructing each clue reveals another dismembered piece of the professor’s anatomy. It is clear that the clues have been deliberately produced and intended to be solved. An engrossing story, this is the first of six, which will be released over the next while.