Quais du Polar Lyon 2017: Part 1

Back from Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon and it was once again a wonderful experience, one that I would encourage all my crime fiction friends in the UK to consider. The total cost can work out cheaper than attending British crime festivals, even with a weaker pound: flights to Lyon are often cheaper than train tickets, hotels can be cheaper too, all the events are free, and you need to eat and drink in both places (plus the food in Lyon is usually of excellent quality).

So that’s my contribution to the Lyon Tourist Board. I was very lucky to attend the festival with a book-blogging friend in Lyon, Emma from Book Around the Corner, and her far more timely and excellent descriptions of each day at the Quais du Polar are here, here and here, so I am not sure I can add much more to that. But I did attend some different panels than Emma. Incidentally all the conferences available for replay on live.quaisdupolar.com (mostly in French, but also in English and Spanish, depending on what language the authors were using). I will try to include a link to each specific conference I am discussing.

The Tricolore flying from the Town Hall tower.

Women as victims, women as executioners

Clare Mackintosh (UK) and Jenny Rogneby (Sweden) both worked with the police before turning their hand to crime fiction, so they had interesting things to say about the capacity of women to be perpetrators of crime. The other writers on the panel (Andrée Michaud from Canada, Dominique Sylvain and Harold Cobert from France) agreed that they were all tired of seeing women in fiction exclusively as disempowered victims, being raped or murdered or tortured for entertainment purposes. Andrée said that kind of writing smacked of voyeurism and she isn’t sure it serves the purpose of the story. Clare wants to give a voice to the victims, and what happens off the page, what is implied, what we all fear is often scarier than a very graphic scene of actual violence. Jenny pointed out that there is still very often a double standard: that when women commit a crime, they are judged far more harshly, as if it’s more understandable or forgivable or to be expected when men commit a crime. Harold thought (based on the example of his own young son) that all of us are born with a capacity for violence – we all feel like killing certain annoying people, for instance – but we don’t act on it because we learn to put on a thin veneer of civilisation as we grow up. Dominique didn’t quite agree with that; she argued that it’s the survival instinct, when we feel attacked or cornered, which can make even the most placid of us react violently at times. She was fascinated with Clare’s account of drunken Friday nights in city centres in the UK, when women are often more aggressive and resort to physical violence even more readily than the men, and commented: ‘It’s interesting that you don’t see that kind of female behaviour in fiction: you see the manipulative/psychological type of feminine violence.’ Indeed!

Detail of the Town Hall Grande Salle where this conference was held.


TransEurope Express

A journey from East to West and North to South of Europe: Arnaldur Indriđason (Iceland), Victor del Arbol (Spain), Andriy Kokotukha (Ukraine), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Olivier Truc (France, but writing about the Reindeer Police in the Arctic Circle).

This was one of those panels where it was very difficult to find a common subject, other than stating that crime fiction is a wonderful way to discover new countries and cultures and that we should enjoy our European diversity without ever taking it for granted. Each author shared a little bit about their specific countries and their experience of ‘occupation’ or ‘oppression’. The most poignant account was of course from the Ukraine, where the ‘Maidan’ (street) movement was not just revolutionary but also a cultural initiative, and the protesters found refuge (and spiritual nourishment) in the Cultural Centre and Library. Yes, even Iceland has known occupation: it only became independent in 1944 and until 2006 had a US military base which practically doubled the population of Reykjavik overnight. They also expressed concern about the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric. As Del Arbol said: ‘I thought I was writing about the past – dictatorship, not being able to listen to other points of view, the blaming of others, hatred – but I can see we are in danger of it happening all over again.’

Full audience for this panel, as in fact for all panels.

Madame Bovary, c’est moi

Three male writers – David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US), Caryl Ferey (France) – who have powerful female protagonists in many of their books. Why do they choose to write about women – in either first or third person (and they all agreed that it was much more intimate and difficult to do the first person)? What was fascinating here was the difference in approach: Rash and Ferey talked very much about inspiration, almost divine dictation straight from the source of the story. David Young had a much more down-to-earth, craftsman-like approach.

RR: It’s not that I choose to write women: the story and the characters choose me. When I tried to write one particular story from a man’s perspective, it was as if I was switched onto the wrong frequency, so I had to switch to a woman’s voice and then it all became clear. Besides, women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical. Plus I am such a boring person, I want to write about much more interesting people than myself. Perhaps some other writers – naming no names – should consider doing that too. And I love the challenge of writing about something or someone that I know less – we are all essentially trying to describe what it means to be alive in the world, to be human. After a while, you start to hear the voice so clearly, it’s like being possessed in some ways.

CF: Two women together in a scene are always far more interesting than two men: with two men in a scene in a crime novel, they usually end up fighting or shooting each other, with women it’s a lot more complex. I do admit falling in love with my female character, pathetic though it may sound. And my ideal of manhood is David Bowie, who is that perfect combination of male and female characteristics.

DY: I had a much more cynical reason for using a female heroine: I wanted to write a thriller set in GDR in the 1970s, but that kind of thing usually only appeals to male readers, so I wanted to draw in female readers by creating Karen Müller as the recurring main detective in the series. Plus, it is reflective of East German society at the time: over 90% of women were working, in all sorts of jobs, it was a far more egalitarian society in that respect. I was also lucky that my tutors at City University were women and gave me good feedback if they felt that I was straying too far from a woman’s perspective on things.


Die Mannschaft: German Crime Fiction

This was the first of two panels on Germany: viewed from the inside, by German authors Thomas Willmann, Sebastian Fitzek and Oliver Bottini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second session on Germany and Berlin seen from the outside by Maxime Gillio and Romain Slocombe (France), Philip Kerr and David Young (UK), but I will be listening to that recording.

Aside from the huge pleasure of hearing German once more, I also appreciated the opportunity to discover some new authors. I had only read Fitzek before, and his fast-paced psycho-thrillers are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered that Bottini has a series featuring an alcoholic woman detective Louise Boni (makes a change from male alcoholics, I suppose). However, the one that captured my imagination was Willmann’s combination of Heimatroman (translated as: sentimental novel set in a traditional regional background) and Western, with a stranger coming to a snowbound village in the Alps, sounded very much like Dürrenmatt’s play about revenge ‘The Visit’ liberally sprinkled with Scandinoir moodiness. It has been filmed in Austria, directed by Andreas Prochaska. The German language trailer is at the end of this blog post.

From left: Willmann, Fitzek, moderator Joachim Umlauf, Bottini.

What all three writers complained about was that German literature tends to be very earnest, full of educational zeal and purpose, so genre literature, whose sole purpose is entertainment, is regarded with suspicion and quite a bit of derision. Fitzek claimed that he doesn’t care what the critics say about him, or what drawer he gets stuck in, as long as he can tell the kind of story he enjoys reading himself. Bottini, however, was more enraged by the lack of consideration given to crime fiction, and said there are no big crime festivals in Germany which could compare to Quais du Polar or English festivals. In spite of all that, German ‘Krimi’ is remarkably healthy and diverse, and it engages with current affairs, examines social problems, provides a kind of X-ray of society.

Although I want to avoid this becoming a roman fleuve, I also want to avoid a massively long post, so I will write separately about the two political panels which I attended, plus the advance screening of the first episode of the new series of Spiral (Engrenages), as well as my book haul and personal encounters.





34 thoughts on “Quais du Polar Lyon 2017: Part 1”

  1. what a fascinating mix of subjects. I thought when I saw this event was about crime fiction thst it might be a bit too narrow in its focus but clearly I was wrong.

    1. No, it’s not just crime fiction. Every year there are authors who can only loosely be described as crime fiction writers, including Ron Rash, David Vann and in fact there was an art historian there too, who gave a fascinating conference about the symbolism of colours.

  2. It sounds like a fabulous experience, Marina Sofia, and I’m so glad you were able to attend. Interesting panels, too! And what a nice setting…

    1. It’s the fifth time I attend this, I just can’t seem to stay away, even after I’ve moved away. Perhaps some day we might be able to entice others.

  3. It sounds like you had a wonderful time! And you saw one of my favourite writers, the disarming Ron Rash who may be a boring person by his own admission but who can knock many other authors into a cocked hat in the writing stakes.

    1. He’s an absolute darling too, modest, polite, with a musical Southern accent. I’ve bought his book Serena (they had a few books in English too), so I hope to report on it soon. He said that one man asked him to sign the book and dedicate to his wife because the central character was the ‘only woman meaner than her’.

    1. I’m so glad I decided to go in the end. I was dithering for the longest time, but I would have been gutted if I hadn’t gone and read all of Emma’s posts.

  4. Fascinating stuff. The Trans Europe Express and German Crime Fiction sound particularly interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write them up – I feel as if I’ve experienced a virtual trip to the QdP!

    1. Do click on the titles of each session and listen to the podcasts if you have the time. I’ll be listening to all the sessions which I missed because of overlap.

      1. That’s a great idea to offer podcasts of each session. I often listen to them during my daily walk when I’m on my own. Thanks for the nudge.

  5. Great post, it gives a real flavour of the festival and the diversity of the panels.
    I’m so glad you decided to come again and I loved spending these three days with you. We had a lot of fun.

  6. Cool stuff! I’d love to make time for this one day… But since I had gone to France this year for the winter school break and just returned on March 9th, it was not an option. Thanks for telling us about the links, I might listen to a couple of conferences.

  7. What a great visit and an interesting festival, they do them so well here, putting people together and encouraging discussion, so nice to see you have a return visit too, can’t let your French get rusty!

    1. It was really nice to be back and hear and speak a lot of French, although there is plenty for English language speakers too, which is why I am on a mission to encourage people to attend.

  8. Sounds very interesting and so does Lyon, but I’m curious as to why exactly you keep going back? do you find inspiration for your own writing? or does it just give you more pleasure when you read these authors and this type of literature?

    1. I love literary festivals in general, there is always the opportunity to discover a new author and learn new things. But in addition to that, the atmosphere is so relaxed, you get to meet passionate readers from all over – not just France, and the place itself is so beautiful. A perfect combination and a perfect weekend escape!

        1. But that’s exactly what I need – the right kind of pleasurable intelectual stimulation which makes me forget my rather miserable everyday…

  9. Funny, I just stumbled on Fitzek yesterday for the first time yesterday! Thanks for your great posts on Quai du Polar, maybe One day I’ll be able to go!
    I also have several books by Izzo, I hope I can soon discover him

    1. Oh, you should go, it is marvellous! I adore the Marseille Trilogy by Izzo, and Fitzek may not be the greatest stylist of all time, but he sure knows how to write a pulse-throbbing story.

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