After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.
Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour
Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.
After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.
And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.
Colin Niel: Ce Qui Reste en Foret (What Stays in the Forest)
This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.
Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.
There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).
I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.
This is the second part of the summary of panel debates which I attended, and also the final part of the Quais du Polar 2016 posts. You will be relieved to hear that, no doubt, but I really have saved the best till last. You can also listen to all of the panel discussions (in French and English) via this link. You can also read some more scoops about all of these authors on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
Writing Series: Olivier Norek (winner of this year’s QdP prize with Victor Coste), Arnaldur Indridason (Inspector Erlendur), Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole), Sara Gran (Claire DeWitt), Deon Meyer (Benny Griessel), Craig Johnson.
This was in many ways billed as the ‘Dream Panel’, with all the star names of internatonal crime fiction, but in actual fact it was disappointing, because there were too many panellists, there was not enough time to go into any depth and it was a bit of a PR exercise for some of them. The panel was split between those who had always intended to write a series (Sara Gran, Olivier Norek) and those who had started out with just one book (Indridadur, Nesbo, Craig Johnson) or even with a different character (Deon Meyer). Here are the more amusing or memorable quotes:
JN: I chose the name Harry Hole because that was the person that my mother used to scare us with if we weren’t home by 8. Many years later, I did meet the Hole she was referring to, and he was scary even though he was very old by then. As I shook hands with him, I kept saying: ‘But it’s not 8 o’clock yet.’
CJ: I created this overweight, overage, overdepressed character – just like all of us here – well, except for those skinny ones at the other end. He’s not an alcoholic – yes, he drinks a lot of beer, but it’s such bad beer that you can’t get drunk on it, you just get fat. And the way I keep him from aging too quickly is that each book is set in a different season of the same year, so he ages four times as slowly as me…
AI: Erlendur is a bit of a strange name in Iceland, and that was deliberate, because I wanted him to feel foreign, alien, out of time and place. There is an advantage to having Iceland as a background – we have long, dark winters and short, cold summers, and a murder every two years, so I had to get Erlendur to reopen a lot of cold cases. Of course he is depressed and haunted – happy people have no history, it would be the end of the story for writers.
DM: I was adamant I did not want a series with the same guy being put through hell in every book, but Benny just insinuated himself back into the story. So sure was I he was only going to appear in one chapter, that I made him drunk in the first book and then had to work with that cliche. But I don’t want to take him too much out of Cape Town – he shares all my passion for that most beautiful city in the world.
SG: I wish I could claim great foresight and cleverness in choosing Claire DeWitt’s name, but it only occurred to me much later that Clarity and Wit or Wisdom are the paths she seeks in life and detection.
ON: Victor is the name of my younger brother, and my character is morose because he is like a sponge absorbing all the dark atmosphere of his experience with criminals. I was exactly like that when I was a police officer, working in Dept. 93, which is the most notorious in France, with twenty times the crime rates of other places. Yet at the same time it’s a lab of creativity – the birthplace of French rap, streetdance and graffiti art.
An Hour with David Peace
This was the best session I attended: perhaps because it gave us the opportunity to explore things in more depth, but no doubt also because he is such a thoughtful and modest author, focusing far more on the work itself than on his own person. Here are just a few of the interesting things he said:
About reading aloud as part of the writing process:
Yes, I always do that eventually. In the case of ‘Red or Dead’, I was also fortunate enough to have tapes of Bill Shankly speaking, which his ghostwriter lent to me, so that enabled me to get a feel for his rhythm of speaking and thinking. But I also wanted to use repetition and ritual to show how he made the team effective, through constant daily effort and training every day. Besides, I want readers to read with their whole bodies, not just their head, so I try to make it a living experience for them, to make them feel they are part of the text.
About always writing about losers and underdogs:
I suppose I do, retrospectively one might say I’ve written nine books about failure. But that’s because I believe that a team learns more in a defeat than in a victory, and I try to understand who we are as human beings in my books, and for most of us it’s a history of defeat, loss and failure.
About writing social commentary:
I see more of what I do as painting portraits of a certain time and place. I don’t differentiate that much between fiction and non-fiction – you can never get away from the subjective, history is dishonest if it presents itself as objective and true. There are always multiple narratives, and I try to reclaim those stories that often get lost. I find John Dos Passos a great inspiration for recreating living history, and White Jazz by James Ellroy also succeeds in doing that – it’s one of my favourite novels and I dream someday of writing something that is half as good as it. Crime is interesting because of what is says about the society and time in which it took place. I have no interest in serial killers – he is the least interesting aspect of a story, I am more interested in how the victims became victims, how the deaths and fear affects people and the investigators.
About his political beliefs:
I don’t think anybody is interested in that. [Upon being told they are] I feel like a taxi driver sounding off about things… Yes, I am a socialist as part of my DNA. I just believe that everybody is equal, a very simplistic view of socialism, and we should all behave as such. We just choose not to do it. The working class community I come from, built around certain industries, no longer exists. I don’t intend to show a nostalgic picture of it – there was plenty wrong with it too – but I think people nowadays are yearning for a return to basic decency.
Old World, New World: Parker Bilal (Egypt/Sudan), Colin Niel (French Guyana), Caryl Ferey (Argentina/Chile), Nairi Nahapetian (Iran), Olivier Truc (Lapland)
The panel moderator was late for this session, so Caryl jumped in and pretended to replace him. This was a very good-humoured and fun panel, perhaps because most of them knew each other and everybody spoke French (including the very cosmopolitan Parker Bilal).
PB: Makana is a Sudanese exiled in Cairo and that POV of an outsider is very useful. I try to paint a picture of the region and look at the roots of the Islamic crisis we see nowadays.
CF: I am largely self-taught, never listened to much in school, so I have to really read up on things once I decide upon a country to set my novels in [he has set books in NZ, South Africa, Argentina and now Chile.] I love to read those things that no one else bothers about: Ph. D. theses, geographical and historical texts, and then go and visit those countries and be able to ask better question.
NN: I came to France as a child, but after 15 years I was allowed back into Iran and started doing factual reports on it (as a journalist). But I found myself veering more and more into fiction – especially once I was no longer allowed back into the country. I try to combine the Persian style of storytelling with about 1% of facts – the opposite of journalism, which is about the maximum of facts. Of course, in Iran there is the ‘moral police’ in addition to the normal police, and I try to describe daily life, far removed from the image you get of the country from the Western media.
OT: I’ve always been attracted to meeting people and having in-depth conversations, but my editor would never agree to my immersing myself in the field for 6 months. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do some documentaries about the Sami people and about the reindeer police. Fiction appeals far more to emotions than reason. It’s not truth itself which is important, but the texture of reality. You have to use the facts in service to your story.
CN: I worked for many years in French Guyana, a fascinating region with many ethnicities, 50% unemployment, booming population growth, cocaine trade constantly recruiting people and refugees from the civil war in Suriname being rejected by most of the country. The French administration refused to call them refugees: they were called people temporarily displaced from Suriname, as if that label made things better. I rely on facts and use a lot of sources other than personal experience, but ultimately it all has to be credible rather than true. We have to feel close to the characters described, even if they are living in very different conditions from us. I really want to present a mosaic of the cultures and characters inhabiting that territory and how much more complex things are than the easy stereotypes we like to use about a country. You might call my technique ‘pointillism’, presenting a gradual portrait of a country, without taking sides or judging or trying to prove something – that’s not the scope of fiction.
I will risk boring you this week with no less than three posts about Quais du Polar in Lyon. I’m afraid that if I were to condense all the news and pictures into just one blog post, it would become an EXTREMELY long one. So, Part 1 will focus on the people I met and pictures I took; Part 2 will be about the embarrassingly high book pile I acquired; Part 3 will be about the panel discussions. If you aren’t interested in any of this, I apologise and invite you back to my blog next week, when normal service will resume. You can also find some snippets of information about authors’ secrets and more pictures on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
This year I fell in love with…
Genial, good-humoured and incredibly productive Craig Johnson, creator of Walt Longmire, who explained what a challenge it was to have enough murders to investigate in the least populated county of the least populated state of the US (Wyoming). Prior to Lyon, he had been in Nantes for a reading and was surprised to find helicopters flying overhead and police in riot gear all around – a far cry from Wyoming, indeed!
Big teddy-bear of a man, Deon Meyer, who is cheery and not at all alcoholic and lonely like Benny Griessel. He got a whole auditorium to practise pronouncing Benny’s surname correctly and explained that he had used the name of his favourite high school teacher (now deceased). Because Benny was only intended to be a small side character initially, he didn’t think it would be a big deal. However, his teacher’s son (who also shares the name) told him recently that he is thankful for that, as it’s a great conversation opener when he picks up bikini-clad beauties on the beaches of Cape Town, who are reading Deon Meyer novels.
Sara Gran, whose Claire DeWitt novels I had only recently discovered, but who came highly recommended by the likes of Stav Sherez and other crime writers whose opinion I trust. Unruly, unusual, feisty and atmospheric, Claire is a restless soul (much like Gran herself) and moves from New Orleans to San Francisco to Las Vegas in her adventures. Sara herself is from Brooklyn, as is…
Jax Miller, whose debut novel I have yet to read but have heard fantastic things about. She was so open, friendly and funny, completely unvarnished in her opinions, but knowing how to make an appearance. I want her as my best friend, Robert de Niro accent and all!
Irish charmer John Connolly, who had been seated somewhat unfortunately right next to JJ Connolly, to confuse the festival-goers even more. Luckily, Michael Connelly wasn’t here this year (he was last year), or it would have been like a quick-fire intelligence test for readers. He kindly forgave me for not having any books (in French) for him to sign, but I hope to see him again at crime festivals in the UK, when I can get a book in English.
David Peace looked like a kindly uncle, slightly bewildered by all the fuss people made of him, and certainly far too gentle-looking to be writing the bleak, trenchant prose of the Red Riding Quartet. But then he got up on stage and read from ‘Red or Dead’, his latest book, about Bill Shankly, the manager who brought F.C. Liverpool out of obscurity to Premier League and European glory. And his rendering of the repetitions and cadences were sheer poetry, with a lovely Yorkshire accent, which he hasn’t lost even after so many years of living in Japan. The backdrop of the Trinity chapel of the Lycée Ampère was perfect for the reading: both red and for the dead.
Sophie Hannah was great fun, never one to mince her words, and very serious about her Agatha Christie endeavours and efforts not to step out of the cannon. I was also startled (and flattered) that she actually knew me by name. Of course, we have interacted on Twitter, but I imagine she has had many such interactions with readers and reviewers, so I was expecting nothing more than a polite nod rather than a cheery hug.
Leye Adenle from Nigeria and Janis Otsiemi from Gabon, perhaps the two best-looking and best-dressed crime authors of the whole Quais du Polar. I must have been so dazzled that I was stupid enough to forget to ask to take a picture of either of them!
Anthony Horowitz, my older son’s favourite writer, wrote him a lovely message in the book he had given me to sign, and was very kind about my rather disastrous initial attempts at taking a picture of him. Recognising my son’s Greek name, he then told me that he spends half the year in Greece, about an hour away from where my son’s godparents live.
Other moments to treasure: thoughtful and friendly encounters with French writers such as Franck Bouysse, Colin Niel, Nairi Nahapetian, the effervescent Caryl Ferey. Trying to find a mix of Italian and Spanish in the recess of my memory to communicate with Dolores Redondo (another wonderful hug which I shall remember). The new South African revelation Michele Rowe (what a gracious and funny lady). Talking about Japanese cults and yakuza with Jake Adelstein (former Yomiuri Shinbun reporter in Tokyo). Asking for (and receiving) a flattering portrait of myself from BD artist Titwane.
It’s unfair to select just these authors, as practically everyone else we met were delightful and fun. And then, of course, there was the wonderful city of Lyon itself, meeting two of my favourite bloggers, Emma and Catherine, and chatting about our favourite topic (you can guess what that is, right?) and even some cars fit for James Bond. Here’s a little selection of pictures.