Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.
So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.
I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.
2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes. The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.
2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).
Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).
After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!
I attended Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, which was my last year in France. I knew I was going to miss both the festival and the French authors, so I asked one of the booksellers at the festival for a book recommendation. I wanted a book set in Lyon but one that was not too twee, not too much of a ‘cosy crime with lots of recipes’ (although I love that city’s gastronomic culture). They recommended this thriller by an author I’d never heard of, born and bred in Lyon, who had died all too prematurely in 2015.
I later found out that Yal Ayerdhal (born Marc Soulier, but commonly known by the surname of his pseudonym alone) was predominantly a science fiction writer, winner of multiple literary prizes, as well as an eloquent activist for protection of authors’ rights. Transparences was published in 2004 and was the author’s first incursion into thriller territory, although there are some sci-fi elements to it which purists may find disturbing. The action starts off in Lyon (with its Interpol headquarters), but the murders are on a global scale and soon we are traipsing off to the south of France, the US, to Greece, Canada and so on.
Stephen Ballanger is a criminal profiler working for Interpol in Lyon, originally from Quebec (and therefore perfectly bilingual, which is an important plot point). He becomes obsessed with the case of Ann X, a young girl who was abused by her parents (and their best friends) and murdered all four of them at the age of twelve. She was put in a psychiatric institution but eventually killed someone there and tried to escape across the border. Although over the course of 12-13 years she seems to have engaged in a veritable murder spree (mostly people who tried to sexually abuse her or curtail her freedom in any way), nobody has been able to catch her… or indeed, even remember what she looked like. Details of her name or personal history have been redacted from her case file. Stephen’s collaborators believe she may have been recruited as a professional assassin by various spy agencies, but she also seems to be acting on her own.
So, just like in the Deon Meyer book I reviewed yesterday, we have a case of international spying and assassination, but this time we have a young, attractive female serial killer and a dysfunctional international team attempting to catch her (and none of the members of the team seem to trust each other, unlike Benny’s team). The sci-fi element of this book is that Ann X seems to be ‘perfectly transparent’, i.e. merge into the background, which means no one really knows what she looks like. Of course, she is a mistress of disguises, changing her hair and eye colour, her clothes and posture at will. But it seems that even CCTV and cameras are unable to capture her – and that seems far less plausible.
The book displays signs of what generally irks me about spy thrillers – the repetition. One killing after another, one chase after another, one near miss and then another. It’s only the location or the weapon that changes. I’m also not a great fan of complicated conspiracy theories, which seem to assume that governments and intelligence agencies are really competent. Yet there are some redeeming features, for example, the psychological manipulation between Stephen and Ann X towards the end of the book. Overall though, the book feels like it took on a theme that was a little too ambitious and didn’t quite do it justice.
Emma and I are blogging every day that this year’s Quais du Polar (our favourite crime festival) was due to take place, 3-5 April. Join us if you like! Emma’s billet for today also is Lyon specific – have a read here.
I’ve seen Deon Meyer at Quais du Polar a couple of times and he is a larger than life teddy bear of a man, so it’s quite surprising to see how hard-hitting and suspenseful his thrillers are. He once said that he regretted making his detective Benny Griessel an alcoholic loner, as he sometimes felt trapped by this portrayal. However, in this book, first published in English in 2014, Benny works very closely with his whole team, ‘a splendid representation of the Rainbow Nation’, as one of the characters remarks at one point. And he is almost completely happy with the new love of his life, singer/songwriter Alexa. That’s probably as good as it gets.
But not for long. Benny and his team soon get into hot water and have to use subterfuge to conduct their investigations. A British citizen goes missing from a top secret, luxury guesthouse on a wine farm not far from Cape Town. His bodyguards are shot dead. But was Paul Morris an innocent victim: his passport is brand new, as are his suitcase and clothes. The shell casings at the murder scene have a spitting cobra engraved on them – could that be the sign of an elite international assassin? And why are so many foreign intelligence agencies interested in this possible kidnapping?
At the lower end of the crime spectrum, Tyrone is a young pickpocket who is trying to fund his younger sister’s medical studies. It’s a typical case of the wrong place (or picking the wrong pocket) at the wrong time and soon Tyrone finds himself on the run, fearing for his sister’s life. The story culminates in a nerve-wracking chase on the metrorail between Cape Town and Bellville.
What I really like about Deon Meyer’s books is that they are always exciting, not at all preachy, but all the while providing an ample picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa, warts and all. Among all the breathless action, Benny is given to meditating about the place of law and order in society, and his own career in the police force during a time of tumultuous changes
…when you worked at Murder & Robbery, your role was spelled with a capital letter. What you did mattered. Part of his smugness was because he had started to run with the big dogs then. The living legends, the guys whose investigations, breakthroughs, interrogation techniques, and witticisms were passed on in seminars, tearooms and bars, with an awed shake of the head… But the longer he worked with them… the more he realised they had feet of clay.
It was a depressing process. He had tried to fight against it, rationalise it and suppress it. Later he realised that it was partly out of fear of the greater, inevitable disillusionment: if they were fallible, so was he. And so was the system.
Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans (although he speaks English fluently) and the translation has a lot of Afrikaans expressions, including Cape Flats vernacular. So much so that there is a glossary at the back. (Fortunately, if you speak English and German – or Dutch, many of the expressions will sound familiar and you can deduce them from the context)
The Quais du Polar in Lyon was the highlight of my year back when I was living in France (and even afterwards). However, everything is different this year and of course it been cancelled, as have so many other excellent literary festivals. So Emma and I, who spent many a pleasant moment there together, have decided to post a crime fiction review on each day when the festival would have taken place – the 3rd, 4th and 5th of April 2020.
We aim to include either books by authors who would have been present at the current edition of the festival or else books that we bought – and got signed – at that festival (you may remember I splurged quite a lot back in those days).
It would be lovely if you decided to join us reading and reviewing crime fiction books by authors with links to Quais du Polar on those days. A virtual celebration of the wonderful city of Lyon, its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage. You can find a full list of authors (in English) who’ve attended the festival in the past on this page. And you can even listen to recordings of panels from previous years.
An extrovert week is followed by a more introvert one, perhaps also coloured by the tumultuous events at work. Students occupied part of our building and impeded access to workspace, training rooms and even fire exits, and we had all the excitement of megaphones, human chains, trying to reason with them and then being evacuated and finding refuge in the library. While I have every sympathy with their fear that universities are becoming too similar to businesses, I am not fully clear what their aims are or how we could help them achieve those. But it does bring back memories of idealistic younger days when we protested against Communism and (sort of) won that battle, and of course there are parallels with the March for Our Lives movement in the US. I hope that this younger generation will achieve something before they get too disillusioned by the inertia and selfish interests of the older generations.
March 20th was the International Day of the Francophonie, so I spent the evening reading some French poetry, which was perhaps my first poetic love (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire). I have a slim volume which is a good introduction to more modern poetry published by Gallimard: Mon beau navire, ô ma mémoire: Un siècle de poésie française (1911-2011). Gallimard has equivalent anthologies for each century, and this one features both well-known poets (such as Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Aragon) as well as many poets that I am less familiar with.
This week I discovered the Norwegian crime series in 6 episodes Eyewitness on Walter Presents/All 4. Two teenage boys witness a crime at a sand quarry just outside their town and vow to keep it a secret, with all sorts of repercussions on their community and on themselves. It’s got great build-up of suspense and pacing throughout and manages to also be a love story, a tender mother and son/foster parents and child story, and to show how fallible and flawed even police detectives can be. Recommend, if you can access it. I very seldom binge watch, but I watched all 6 episodes over the course of just 2 nights.
I also succumbed to some bookish temptations. Upon hearing the sad news of the death of Philip Kerr, I borrowed one of the post-WW2 Bernie Gunther books from the library Prussian Blue, to see how Gunther copes with a post-Nazi world. I stuck to Germany when I ordered another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go Went Gone I so enjoyed. This time it’s Heimsuchung (translated by Susan Bernofsky as Visitation), about a century of German history seen through the ‘eyes’ of a piece of land outside Berlin and the people who lived on it. Last but not least, the Japan Society left a comment on my review of Japanese novellas, and drew my attention to a dual language anthology of contemporary Japanese writing that they have just published. Heaven’s Wind is translated and edited by Angus Turvill and might help me get back into reading Japanese in the original once more. There will be a Book Club meeting dedicated to this volume on the 9th of April at the Japan Society headquarters in London.
There will be a break in my cultural events for the next two weeks, as holidays and the mountains beckon. However, if you are in France and not skiing, then you really should go to the wonderful Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon, which this year takes place between 6 and 8 April. It will be my first time since 2012 that I won’t be able to make it, but I am sure Emma from Book Around will tell us all about it.
France, Norway, Germany and Japan (plus I’ve just finished reading a crime novel set in South Afrida): where have you been ‘transported’ this week?
Jelena Volić (Serbia), Bogdan Teodorescu (Romania), Eugen Chirovici (Romania), Indrek Hargla (Estonia).
A bit of a clanger at the start of the session! Although the moderator said it was an attempt to escape the dominance of Anglo-Saxon and Western crime fiction, he then proceeded by saying that Volić had been born in Budapest, at which she retorted: ‘No, another capital city starting with B – Belgrade.’ I suppose that just goes to show the ignorance about ‘Eastern Europe’ which is still quite common in the West – but then again, the room was packed, standing room only at the back while I sprawled out on the floor, so perhaps there was genuine curiosity and willingness to find out more.
The reason I put ‘Eastern Europe’ in quotation marks is because all of the authors remarked that this is very much a malleable concept rather than a geographical reality. Nowadays it has become more popular to say Central Europe, but without necessarily meaning it. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Estonia is more Nordic in feel and has very little to do with the Balkanic fellow panellists. So you couldn’t help feeling that the panel had been cobbled together purely because ‘well, you are all from that part of the world somehow’, without much thought or care going into the process or any attempt to find common themes.
The books themselves didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the East, either. Chirovici said his book takes place in the US and is all about the power of memory to falsify our recollections, nothing to do with the history or politics of Romania, past or present. Meanwhile, Hargla said his whole intention was to offer escapism, which is why he had gone for mysteries set in medieval times (the 15th century being also one of the most protracted periods of peace in Estonia’s troubled history).
So it was down to just Volić and Teodorescu to state that their books are making a political statement. Volić has written a crime novel set around the time of Srebrenica, because she wanted to show how ordinary humans cope with individual tragedies at a time of mass tragedy. She co-writes with German author Christian Schünemann and her books are primarily intended for a Western audience, as she thinks the Serbs are all too aware of the subjects she is addressing. There are no easy answers in a book which unflinchingly examines a country’s guilt, and attempts to forget or deny the evil acts of the past.
Teodorescu refers not to Romania’s past but its present-day issues in his novel Spada, which is the story of serial killer who targets criminal gypsies. Through the ambivalent public, political and media reactions to this killer, the author demonstrates just how easy it is to normalise the language of hatred, to raise the spectre of the ‘Demon Other’ and to lose any vestige of kindness and civilised behaviour in a democratic, open society in which 95% of people would describe themselves as ‘tolerant’. The book was published in Romanian a few years ago, but seems very timely with Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and now France and Germany possibly veering down the same path.
Victor Del Arbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Qiu Xiaolong (China).
The panellists started off by joking: ‘Welcome to the most depressing topic of the whole conference’, but in fact it was also one of the most fascinating topics, enabling us to see how totalitarian regimes have commonalities regardless of political leanings or culture. The moderator claimed that perhaps there was a Zorro instinct in each one of them, to uncover oppression and injustice through their fiction. While the authors themselves made no such pretentious statements, it was clear that giving voice to forgotten stories, to the vanquished, to truths which had been buried by the wayside was important to them.
Del Arbol said that espousing or allowing just one single truth is dangerous, that is what kills. He also considers himself Catalan, Spanish and European all at once and does not see why this should be a contradiction. Miłoszewski said that all countries have something in their past that they are less proud of, and that they want to remember only the glory days, but the role of the artist is to offer an alternative to the ‘official’ interpretation of the past, to remember the shameful incidents as well. That’s what true patriotism means. Otherwise, nostalgia for the golden past without any shades is merely nationalism. Fernandez also pointed out the conundrum of the perpetual outsider: in France is considered the Spaniard, in Spain he is considered too French. Qiu described his father’s humiliation as a member of the bourgeoise for daring to own a small perfume factory during the Cultural Revolution – and openly admitted he resented his father at the time for blocking any future career he might have had. He also told us how he was forced into exile in the US and had to start writing in English. This is the sad truth of all-pervasive state interference: ‘People don’t make the choices themselves – they have them made for them.’ He brought all this reluctant collaboration and ambiguity into Inspector Chen’s character.
Books and People
And here is my book haul – reasonably modest this year, as I was travelling with hand luggage only. One in German: the Thomas Willmann I mentioned in the previous post, two French authors (Marcus Malte and the only one I was missing by Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo, which also happens to be my favourite), three translations into French (Victor Del Arbol, Bogdan Teodorescu and an absurdist Russian novel by Olga Slavnikova), Ron Rash and David Vann in English (although they are much more expensive in France, of course, but I was keen to have them signed) and finally another Romanian author, Bogdan Hrib, with his first book translated into English (he is also Teodorescu’s Romanian publisher and there may be some exciting collaborations forthcoming, fingers crossed).
I got to meet many delightful authors, but got a little bit starstruck and forgot to take pictures. Apologies to the charming Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir for not pestering them for pictures. I was more than a little awestruck by Victor Del Arbol and David Vann, and I never got to speak to Cay Rademacher and David Young, but I did manage to take some pictures of the truly international Johana Gustawsson, the always bright and funny Dominique Sylvain (I believe it’s the 4th time I see here either in Lyon or Geneva) and newcomer – all the way from Australia – Jane Harper.
I was also lucky enough to receive an invitation to the preview of the first episode of the new (6th) series of Engrenages (better known as Spiral in the UK). I had already heard the main writer Anne Landois discuss her work in Lyon a couple of years ago, but this time she was joined by the producer at Canal+ and the actors playing the police officers Tintin and Gilou, as well as Judge Roban (the two women actors had other commitments). The series has been going strong for 12 years now, and the actors (plus or minus a few high-profile losses) have been together for pretty much the whole time and have become a tight-knit family. Anne said that she was constantly inspired by the actors to develop characters even farther, while the actors said they really felt they were part of something special, an emphasis on the personal lives of their characters as well as the investigation which is quite new to French TV.
Of course I cannot give anything away about the new series, otherwise they would have to kill me. Suffice it to say that the investigation will extend to the troubled Department 93 on the outskirts of Paris. Sadly, it is also Anne’s last season on the show, as it’s been a pretty full-time job for the past 10 years and she understandably wants to try something else. However, a new team of writers are already working on Season 7. Meanwhile, Season 6 will be out in September on French TV and hopefully soon afterwards on BBC4.
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.
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!
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.’
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.
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.
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.