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.

 

 

 

 

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WWW Wednesday 18 Jan – What are you reading?

I saw this on Hayley’s book blog  Rather Too Fond of Books and I was so impressed by the quality and quantity of her reading that I thought I would join in for once. (I may not be able to make a habit out of it).

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

________________________________________________________________________

Currently Reading:

My reading speed has decreased of late, as all the global news is having a bit too much of an impact on me and sucking up my time. So everything I write about here will probably take me more than a week. However, I usually manage to have more than one book on the go and this week it’s:

exiledKati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled

From the blurb: Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

My verdict: Interesting to see Anna on her ‘home turf’, which no longer quite feels like home, making comparisons between Finland and Serbia, and also witnessing the refugee crisis first-hand. It’s a much warmer, personal tale rather than the police procedural of the previous books in the series. This was sent to me by Orenda Books quite a while ago (it came out in November), but I hadn’t got around to reading it. Although it’s a Finnish writer, all of the action takes place in Serbia, so I don’t think I can count this towards #EU27Project.

axatFederico Axat: Kill the Next One (transl. David Frye)

From the blurb: Ted McKay had it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. Then the doorbell rings. A stranger makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer who, like Ted, wants to die. After executing these kills, Ted will become someone else’s next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain.

My verdict: You can see why I could not resist this premise – very intriguing. Of course, I don’t expect things to go according to plan. It will all get very nasty, I’m sure. Written with dry wit (as far I can tell, I’m only two chapters in). This one will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

fallinawakeAlice Oswald: Falling Awake

In her seventh collection of poetry, Oswald returns to her classicist training: Orpheus and Tithonius appear in the English landscape, there are surprising encounters with nature on every page, there are riffs on instability and falling (don’t we all feel that at the moment?). These are poems to be read aloud. Which is just as well, since I have this on e-reader and I always struggle with the formatting of the poems on the page, so I am progressing very slowly with this one. But it’s had no end of poetic distinctions: winner of the 2016 Costa Poetry Award, shortlisted for the 2016 T. S. Eliot Award, shortlisted for the 2016 Forward Prize. Part of my plan to read poetry every week.

Recently Finished:

Coincidentally, two books with orange covers.

bombsBrian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together

From the blurb: Fourteen-year-old Hamish Law has lived in Little Town, on the border with Old Country, all his life. He knows the rules: no going out after dark; no drinking; no litter; no fighting. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the people who run Little Town. When he meets Pavel Duda, a refugee from Old Country, the rules start to get broken. Then the bombs come, and the soldiers from Old Country, and Little Town changes for ever.

My verdict: I borrowed this one from the library for my son but took a peek at it, after I heard that it won the Costa Book Award for Children’s Literature. I don’t usually read much YA, I find it a little too twee at times and chasing trends. And although this has the dystopian background that is so prevalent nowadays, it is less about playing dangerous games or fighting in an arena, and feels more like living in Stalinist Russia. More realistic, and a sympathetic look at the plight of refugees.

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions

intrusionsFrom the blurb: Detectives Carrigan and Miller are thrust into a terrifying new world of stalking and obsession when a distressed young woman bursts into the station with a story about her friend being abducted and a man who is threatening to come back and ‘claim her next’.

Taking them from deep inside a Bayswater hostel, where backpackers and foreign students share dorms and failing dreams, to the emerging threat of online intimidation, hacking, and control, The Intrusions pursues disturbing contemporary themes and dark psychology with all the authority and skill that Stav Sherez’s work has been so acclaimed for.

My verdict: For a day or two, I was too terrified to approach my computer again and engaged with extra caution on social media. It’s a plausible and terrifying scenario that Stav Sherez brings to life here. I thought I had grown sick of the serial killer meme in fiction, but this is a very different twist on it. The initially hopeful but ultimately sad, transient population of London really got to me and I love the author’s poetic style. Side note: I would love to read more of Geneva’s own poetry and her mother’s.

Up Next:

For review:

stasiwolfDavid Young: Stasi Wolf

From the blurb: East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image. Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive . . .

Really enjoyed the first book in the series ‘Stasi Child’, so I can’t wait for this one, even if it brings back some traumatic memories of reprisals.

From my Netgalley reduction imperative:

outlineRachel Cusk: Outline

From the blurb: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

Beginning with the neighbouring passenger on the flight out and his tales of fast boats and failed marriages, the storytellers talk of their loves and ambitions and pains, their anxieties, their perceptions and daily lives. In the stifling heat and noise of the city the sequence of voice begins to weave a complex human tapestry.

I am the one who gets to hear all of the life stories on planes, trains and buses, and the anthropologist in me is fascinated by everyone, so this sounds perfect. I’ve read mostly non-fiction by Cusk, so am curious how this will go.

Finally, for the #EU27Project:

nomenNo Men No Cry – anthology of Lithuanian women’s literature

A collective of women writers, translated for the first time into English, aiming to portray ‘the experience of contemporary woman, experience that is closely related to actual cultural and historical phenomena and which contemplates a woman’s search for identity and highlights a woman’s ironic stance towards traditional female values, such as marriage, childbirth and home-making.’ I know so little of Lithuanian literature (and so little has been translated), so this looks like a good base for exploration.

Traumatic Memories: David Young’s Stasi Child

stasichildDavid Young’s new series set in 1970s East Germany just about qualifies as historical crime fiction, but the history is so recent that the scars are still prone to reopen and suppurate. Personally, I found this book quite an emotionally draining experience (some things were just too familiar, even though I did not grow up in East Germany but in another Soviet satellite state). But for those who have a sufficient distance from the events, it is a thrilling and entertaining tale. The background feels quite fresh, as it’s not been used too much in crime fiction to date.

Young takes a number of historical facts, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, youth work camps for ‘difficult’ children and escape tunnels to the West, and spins an enthralling and claustrophobic tale out of them. If anything, one might reproach the author with trying to tackle too many of the grim GDR realities at once, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at this story, a common enough failing with debut authors. He does, however, blend the multiple storylines quite skilfully, and there is no arguing with the sinister atmosphere of paranoia and fear which he creates.

Karin Müller is everywoman – as her name (a very common German name) indicates – a police officer trying to survive in a tough world. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East – almost unheard of at the time. So why is the Stasi getting involved, are they trying to cover up something? Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about Jäger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband Gottfried, a good man, a teacher with Western sympathies, from whom she feels more and more estranged. The author does an excellent job of conveying that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to trust anyone, which was a permanent fixture of Communist dictatorships.

Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

There are some elements which stretch belief here (the tricks which Karin and her team have to resort to at times, the lengths to which she is prepared to go for the sake of the investigation), but overall it’s a cracking little thriller, with a fantastic cover to boot. I’ve also heard it’s been recently optioned for a TV series – and it does sound perfect for that, so here’s hoping it gets made.