Crime fiction seems to be most popular in the countries where crime rates are low – perhaps because it is easier to read about terrible things happening when the truth around you is not stranger and more horrible than fiction. But what about those countries where the police is treated with suspicion, where there is no tradition of private detectives and where there is little hope of real justice (as opposed to vengeance)?
There was a panel at Quais du Polar in Lyon about this very subject, with authors from Russia, Costa Rica, Israel and India represented. I bought both of these books in Lyon: Liad Shoham was there in 2014, while Kishwar Desai was there this year.
Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects
No conventional crime novel, this is a story of guilt and fears, of mistrust, of crossed wires in communication, misunderstanding, prejudices, jumping to conclusions and… the weaknesses of the police and justice system. Not an overtly political book (which is saying something, set as it is in Israel), but a very interesting look at the larger picture surrounding a crime, the impact it has on everyone involved.
Every single one of the characters has a flawed reasoning, although some of them have good intentions. Elie Nahoum is a middle-aged, old-school police detective who begins to fear he may have arrested the wrong person in a rape case. The ‘rapist’ has something more serious to hide and is being coerced by his conspirators to plead guilty to the crime. The rape victim’s father is keen to accuse somebody and give his daughter back her peace of mind. The police, the prosecutor, potential witnesses all look to their own petty interests, try to save face, face their own fears and refuse to admit their own guilt. When Elie voices his concerns, he is suspended from active duty (and his greatest fear with that is that his wife will expect him to do something more around the house, instead of their traditional gender division of labour – just to show you how old-school he is, and how the author gently mocks him).
So not at all what I expected, but a rich, enlightening read. Shoham has a more laid-back and chatty style than the other Israeli crime fiction writer I’ve read, the rather minimalist Dror Mishani.
#TBR7 in a change to the plan, because Raven waxed lyrical about another of Shoham’s books, which I now also want to read. He’s also a really lovely, humorous man, so here’s another picture of him at the Quais du Polar.
Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night
This could be a very depressing book, given the subject matter (the murder of an entire extended family, a traumatised young girl as a possible suspect, female infanticide and political corruption). But Desai has a deft, lively style and a thoroughly likeable, unconventional, disobedient middle-aged heroine in Simran Singh. A delight to read, but also a great debate about social issues in a country of great contrasts. My full review is on Crime Fiction Lover.
(So, yes, the #TBR20 is going reasonably well, have read 9 to date, but have a few books barging in now for immediate reviews.)
In this, my final (and longest) instalment in Lyon Quais du Polar series of posts, I will finally share with you some of the witty or memorable conversations I heard during the panel debates (and while waiting in the queues).
Panel 1: Freedom of movement, integration and new borders in crime fiction: Liad Shoham, Emmanuel Grand, Stuart Neville and Lauren Beukes
For all of these readers, the theme of frontiers/borders was not just random or a secondary consideration, but a deliberate choice. Whether we are talking the permeable borders within Europe and how that gives free rein to criminal gangs to ply their trade (Neville and Grand), the paradox of a country like Israel, built by immigrants, trying to deal with the new exodus from Eritrea (Shoham) or the blurring of divisions between the real world and social media (in Lauren Beukes’ dystopian novels set in the near-future), it seems that writers feel the urge to write about things that make them angry. The curtailing of liberties thanks to myths that our governments tell us (like the war on terror), the over-simplification of social problems (immigrants are the ones to blame) and creation of a new kind of slavery are all controversial themes which these authors felt compelled to present through personal stories. A novel cannot offer solutions to these issues, but it can highlight them through memorable characters and their realities.
Session 2: Recording for radio/ Interview with George Pelecanos
Talking about his latest creation, part-time investigator and Iraqui war veteran Spero Lucas: ‘I’ve gone on record as saying that the Iraqi war was not just and not necessary, but I wanted to let my characters speak for themselves. Spero is much ambiguous, reflecting what I heard from many vets: we were there to kill enemies and protect our brother and sister soldiers, not to liberate the Iraqi people or spread democracy. All that veterans want after the war is to return to normalcy, to the life they had before, rather than applause, medals and gratitude of the people.’
About Washington DC: ‘I never wanted to write about the government or federal city, I always wanted to talk about the real Washingtonians who have been there for generations. The city has changed so much in the last ten years: the black Southern city has been lost, and the whole of it will turn into Georgetown soon. I try not to be nostalgic. There’s nothing worse than middle-aged white nostalgia, and it is true that crime rates have gone down and there are more jobs than before. But the spirit of the place has changed, it’s become sanitised.’
About writing: ‘People tell you life is short, but it’s not. It’s long. When I was Spero Lucas’ age (29-30), I was working in restaurant kitchens. I just wanted to write a book to prove I could do it. But make no mistake: writing is a job, writers need to work all the time. It’s not something you do cos you’re lazy. If you’re lazy, you won’t make it as a writer. What does the future hold for me? Still ten years or so of script-writing, I hope, and then more books till I die. There’s only one thing that scares me more than death, and that’s retirement.’
Panel 3: Are scriptwriters the new novelists? (George Pelecanos – The Wire, Treme; Anne Landois – Engrenages or Spiral)
Both scriptwriters agreed that the new passion for quality TV series has put the writer back at the centre of things, even though the writing is much more collaborative. Fascinating contrasts emerged between French and American styles of approaching TV series, despite the fact that Anne admitted she was hugely indebted to The Wire for her approach to Spiral. ‘Time is money’ in the US means that there is not much time for writing up-front, and a lot of changes are made on the go. There is no time to be strategic and there was no awareness that they were writing a series which would get so much acclaim. There was no big picture, they were just working inch by inch, and if they were told to write another ‘Wire’ now, it wouldn’t be possible. French TV traditionally goes for longer 90 minute episodes, so Spiral was breaking new ground with shorter episode format, but they show two episodes at once per week, so that requires much more advance writing. Writers typically spend about 2 years planning the scripts before the director comes in (which is a huge innovation in itself, as most French cinema and TV is still very much director-led). Also, Spiral was commissioned by a private channel Canal +: since viewers are paying for it, they also have high expectations for quality of its programming.
Panel 4: Dancing Machine: Music and Crime Fiction
What music do they listen to when writing? Cathi Unsworth – Barry Adamson , Ace Atkins – blues, country and jazz, George Pelecanos – film soundtracks (instrumental, so words don’t clash with his own), Marcus Malte – traditional jazz, Paul Colize – huge rock fan but needs silence to create. However, they all agreed that music is important not just because they mention it frequently in their books, but in the way they use rhythms and sounds, even in the structure of the books themselves. Each novel has a specific tone, a certain aesthetic which fits well with a certain type of music, but we respond to music instinctively, even without understanding the meaning. How can we convey that emotion with words in novels?
Session 5: James Ellroy (with his French editor and translator)
Ellroy is a showman and he did not disappoint, with his tongue-in-cheek style and provocative statements. Yet he knows how to be a charmer: he said he was very grateful to the French people for raising him to icon status. Although he is a bestseller in many countries, his book sales are highest in France, perhaps because the French invented the term ‘noir’. Yet he is still obsessed with the crazy conjunction of men and women in LA and in the US, he is still full of respect andlove for the American idiom, he loves listening to the crazy shit of his fellow countrymen/women. He cannot write about anywhere else. He is currently working on his second tetralogy set in LA (to complement the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy), using many of the same characters, but set earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Second World War. How does he explain his productivity? Go to bed early, wake up early, lots of coffee, two bouts of work and two of sleeping per day, but also his Calvinistic work ethic. Oh, and ‘my mother always said I was born for the pulpit – and my pulpit is writing.’
By the Water-Cooler
Despite my mobile-phone-less state in Lyon, I was miraculously and luckily found by my friend Catherine from Le Blog du Polar du Velda. One of the most informed and widely read crime fiction bloggers in France, she has interviewed Ian Rankin, PD James, Denise Mina, William Ryan, as well as the best up-and-coming French authors.
Through her, I had the pleasure of meeting Mireille from Polardeuse , who is equally fluent in English and can broaden your knowledge of French crime fiction. When I asked them about the ‘next big thing’, a secret recommendation that they might have, they both suggested Petite Louve by Marie Van Moere – a debut novel about rape, violence and vengeance in Corsica.
Last but not least, the two ladies above also introduced me to Anne, who had come all the way from the UK to attend the festival. In some ways, she is the most admirable of all of us, for she doesn’t blog or write fiction herself. She has no ‘professional’ interest in crime fiction, but attends purely out of love for books and the craft of writing, or, as Virginia Woolf would put it, she is ‘The Common Reader’ (which is not that common at all…).
One final impression: Although I have heard some literary agents and publishers talk with some disdain about ‘uninformed and unprofessional’ reviews by book bloggers, all the authors I met were unfailingly polite and friendly with us. I think they are already a step ahead in their awareness of the buzz that can be generated via word of mouth and social media. And that perhaps people who are not part of the system can be more honest in their opinions, and are therefore sometimes more trusted by other readers.
One of the best aspects of literary festivals is that you get the chance to see and hear new authors you might otherwise never have discovered. Their personality (and in some cases, let’s admit it, their looks, yes, I’m thinking of Camilla Läckberg or Jo Nesbø) wins you over and entices you to try out their books. Combine it with the opportunity to buy their books on the spot in paperback (rather than the expensive hardback you often get at British literary festivals) and spend quite a bit of time chatting with them at the signing (and having your picture taken)… you have the recipe for a perfect day. Here are some of the new (to me) authors I have encountered this year.
For a long time we were told that crime fiction is not a viable genre in Israel: there are too many current tensions and conflicts in that area for people to want to read about them in their fiction as well. Initially, the only way to publish crime fiction was under an ‘American-sounding’ name, featuring cops and robbers very far removed from the readers’ own reality. In the last two decades, however, it has gone mainstream in Israeli culture and has given a voice to subgroups that often go unheard. That is just what Liad Shoham, a hugely popular crime writer and self-confessed legal geek, has set out to do: in his latest novel he discusses African immigrants from Eritrea and Northern Sudan, a hidden side of Tel Aviv that most of its inhabitants are completely unaware of. He is beginning to be translated into English. For a funny anecdote about the inspiration behind one of his recent novels, see this personal essay here.
Emmanuel Grand’s debut novel is about Ukrainian and Romanian immigrant communities in France: a life on the edge, people smuggling and other nefarious practices. Can this be handled sensitively, without descending into clichés and sensationalism? A topic I am particularly sensitive to, having suffered prejudice about my origins virtually all my life. We’ll have to wait and see.
Jérémie Guez is another author who deserves to be translated into English. The dark portrayal of the desperate youths of the Parisian banlieue in his first three novels have now given way to the post-war history of Indochina in his latest novel ‘Le dernier tigre rouge’. For a French review of this latest novel, see here.
Ace Atkins may be a bestselling author in his native United States, but I’ll be honest: I’d never heard of him before seeing him on the music panel. Living as he does in the Southern United States (Mississippi), professing a love for blues, jazz and gospel (the perfect backdrop for crime fiction and noir) and talking so wisely about the rhythm and music of language in a novel, I just have to find out more about him and read his work. He also talked about how listening to classical jazz for the Boston PI series he is writing for the Robert B. Parker estate helps him to access a different part of his brain and has led to a very different writing style.
Paul Colize is a prize-winning Belgian crime fiction writer, part of a new Belgian wave which is conquering the French-speaking world at least (together with Barbara Abel and Nadine Monfils). I’ve long thought that some of the best so-called French things come out of Belgium (Tintin, Spirou, Goscinny of Asterix fame, Jacques Brel and Stromae, for example), and when I heard Colize was also a pianist and that he wanted to be a Beatle at the age of 9, I just had to find out more. His novel Back Up is a romp through the musical world of the 1960s as well as a thrilling crime story. For an interview (in French) about his latest novel ‘Un long moment de silence’, see here.