Crime Fiction and Politics

Val McDermid wrote an article recently about crime fiction and politics. She argues that quite a lot of modern crime fiction is left-wing (voice of the little people, the poor, the oppressed), while thrillers (with their international conspiracies, nasty foreigners  and arrogant governments) are more right-wing. While there are many exceptions to prove her rule, it’s true that most crime fiction is by its very nature political, because ‘crimes are an attack against society and the status quo’ (Michael Connelly). It tends to fall down, however, when the authors sets out too deliberately to make a political statement, when the message obliterates the story.

This has provoked, needless to say, a flurry of controversy, and I’m not going to add to the conversation here, other than to say that in both thrillers and crime fiction, the detecting hero is idealised (has to be!) as caring about ‘everyman’, thinking that ‘everybody counts’ equally… which to me does sound rather leftie. Meanwhile, in countries that have had authoritarian regimes, the police is regarded with fear and distrust – and crime fiction of nearly any stripe becomes unpalatable.

French audiences are quite keen on political thinking in their crime fiction, so there were many questions about this at Quais du Polar. I thought I’d summarise some of the most interesting debates and quotes here. The author pictures are all from the official programme, while additional (wobbly) pictures are my own.

Queue to get to see the panel on the Americas.
Queue to get to see the panel on the Americas.

From the Panel: The Americas 

CONNELLY-Michael-c-Hacquard-et-Loison-Opale1-200x300Michael Connelly – US: I’ve been lucky to be able to write about Harry Bosch for so many years, as my books show a man evolving in a city that’s evolving (LA). The man has certainly changed much faster than the city has. I don’t set out to make political statements in my books, but invariably, when I look back on them, they are political in some way. I am a ‘reformed journalist’, I’ve left non-fiction behind, because I believe that fiction allows you to uncover a higher degree of truth about life and people.

ST-JOHN-MANDEL-Emily-c-Philippe-Matsas-Opale-Ed.-Rivages-Copie-200x199Emily St. John Mandel – Canada : Because noir novels look at the margins of society, the underbelly, the notion of ‘margin’ itself is a political statement. Not everyone is making it, not everyone is successful – according to society’s definition of success. Illegal immigration, people without papers, economic collapse in 2009 – it’s a shadow world most of us don’t get to see and I felt a strong urge to write about it.

LINS-Paulo-c-Lucia-Murat-200x214Paulo Lins- Brazil: From the end of the dictatorship in Brazil in 1984, it’s only now that we’re entering a period which bears some resemblance to real democracy. We’ve opened up to the US and Europe, international trade relations have improved, a middle class has emerged and many have moved above the poverty line. But it does mean that criminals have adapted – the very local gang wars in the favelas have now become more organised crime, engulfing all of the country, not just certain neighbourhoods. We like to blame crime on drug dealers, but there’s also plenty of trafficking of weapons, and, sadly Brazil is one of the three most violent countries in South America, alongside Colombia and Venezuela. It’s hard not to feel at times that things are not changing for the better. It’s the regular families that suffer most, those are the people I want to write about. Whenever your child leaves the house, you tremble for his or her safety. Yet, in spite of all that, I do remain positive and have hope for my country.

TAIBO-II-Ignacio-c-J.-Foley-Opale-Ed.-Rivagesjpg-200x133Paco Ignacio Taibo II – Mexico: Mexico is a blend of third world and first world. There are more cinemas in Mexico City than in Paris, more students than in New York. At the same time, there are 160 people being killed by police every month. There is such urban fear, pressures from poverty, electoral fraud, no moral values, it’s a quagmire. Writing novels is my attempt to make sense of something surreal and absurd. However, reality is so much stranger and less believable than fiction in my country that I can’t help feeling at times that I am like Walt Disney…

PADURA-Leonardo-c-Philippe-Matsas-200x300Leonardo Padura – Cuba: It’s hard to write crime fiction in Cuba, not because of censorship, but because most of the crime is about pickpocketing, thefts, these small cons to survive, not assassination. It’s simply not worth killing anyone, as people are all equally poor, so I cannot have more than one corpse per novel. It’s clear, however, that Cuba is changing: differences are starting to appear between rich and poor, small businesses are taking off, people are moving to Havana to find their fortune. I’m not sure where all this is heading, but it will be reflected in literature eventually, it just needs a little more time to follow suit.

From the Panel: The Burden of History

HistoryPanel
From left to right: Tom Rob Smith, Yasmina Khadra, Michel Bussi, Attica Locke.

 

LOCKE-Attica-dr-200x250Attica Locke – US: The idea for The Cutting Season came to me when I attended a wedding on a plantation in Louisiana. The idea of visiting such a place for fun struck me as incongruous, and I had a visceral reaction of pain and sadness when I got there. Then I saw all the migrants from South America working on this ‘theme park’ and realised that all we’d done was exchanged one shade of brown for another. I don’t have to try to be political, it comes naturally to me. So, instead, I focus on the story. What I want to do is shift the lens a little, get readers to view things through someone else’s eyes.

KHADRA-Yasmina-c-E-Robert-Espalieu-200x300Yasmina Khadra – Algeria: I come from a family of macho Arab/Berbers and was forced to join the army at the age of 9. I grew up fully expecting to die for my country, fought for eight years against terrorism, collected my colleagues by the spoonful following explosions and felt survivor’s guilt when I finally retired from the army. Why was I the one spared? I started writing to justify my continued existence… and to serve my country in a different way. Books are all about raising awareness, waking people up, while television (advertisements, consumption society etc.) is all about lulling people into a false sense of security, putting them to sleep.

BUSSI-Michel-c-Philippe-Matsas-200x300Michel Bussi – France: I have no pedagogical or educational mission. I write to entertain, but in those first couple of books (set in Normandy), I try to convey my love for my native region and its emotional scars dating from the D-Day landings. I am a geographer by profession, so for me it’s all about the setting.

SMITH-Tom-Rob-c-James-Hopkirk-200x293Tom Rob Smith – UK: I’d never have dared to set my books in such an unfamiliar environment as Stalinist Russia, if I’d not had an experience in my youth of writing a soap opera for Cambodian television. I found out that some stories feel truly universal, that they transcend cultural influences and borders. Of course I did a lot of research (mostly based on books and archives, rather than actual travelling), but it’s all about finding that emotional connection.

From the Dialogue between Ian Rankin & Val McDermid: The Passionate Thistle

One last sound check with the interpreters.
One last sound check with the interpreters.

 

Val-McDermid-new-photo-c-Charlie-Hopkinson-200x133Val McDermid: Isn’t it funny how we only mention politics in a novel if it is leftwing politics? No one says anything about ‘look what right-wing views Patricia Cornwall displays in her latest book’? I’m naturally a very political creature, so of course it finds its way into my books. But if I were to set out to do it deliberately, that would be dangerous, it needs to service the story and the characters. The best crime novels have politics with a big P and a small p in them (like Sara Paretsky, McIllvaney).

Of course the Scottish Referendum will be reflected in Scottish literature. You can’t live in Scotland and not engage with it in some way. It’s like writing a book about 1914 and not mentioning the First World War. I’m always astonished, however, when people ask my opinion about current affairs. After all, I just sit in my room and write. I don’t have a dog in this fight, though I have an opinion. But so does everyone else, why should my opinion count for anything more than theirs?

RANKIN-Ian-c-Ulf-Andersen-200x134Ian Rankin: I naturally gravitated more towards urban problems, so was initially attracted more to American authors (British crime fiction at the time was more cosy, set in picturesque villages or amongst the middle classes, things I couldn’t relate to). I seemed to end up reading a lot of James-es (Ellroy, Lee Burke, Sallis) – they didn’t have to be called James, but it seemed to help.

Traditionally, Edinburgh was viewed as the nice place, while Glasgow was the one beset with social problems. I didn’t grow up in Edinburgh and seldom visited it until I went to university, but I wanted to show something about the city beneath its pretty tourist facade. 30 years later, I’m still trying to discover and understand the complete city, it keeps on changing. Edinburgh is like the Tardis – much bigger on the inside.

As for the referendum, we Scots are cautious people, we weigh things up very carefully, so it was a struggle between heart and head. I tried to show that in my new novel as the difference of opinion between Rebus (who votes No) and Siobhan (who votes Yes). And the debate is continuing, it refuses to go away, a whole generation has now become politicised.

Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this loooong post, you deserve something pretty to help you prepare for the long Easter weekend (if you celebrate Easter): the German tradition of decorating Easter trees.

Ostern
From ffh.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Favourite Moments in Lyon

I’ve written a pretty exhaustive report on the panels and encounters with writers (including quotes) for Crime Fiction Lover, so I won’t repeat myself here. Let me tell you instead some of my personal highlights.

Profile21) Max Cabanes

A few of you have noticed and complimented me on my new Avatar on Twitter. This is a very idealised portrait of myself drawn by Max Cabanes, one of the foremost artists of bandes dessinées (graphic novels or comic strips, hugely popular in the French-speaking world but with no perfect equivalent in the rest of the world), winner of the most prestigious prize in the field, the Grand Prix du Festival d’Angoulême in 1990, and a contributor to Charlie Hebdo. I had already bought his latest work, the adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale (I had dithered previously over whether to buy this or the collected works of Manchette … ended up getting both for myself for Christmas).

LyonVenue5However, I stupidly forgot it at home, right next to where I’d packed my suitcase, so I couldn’t get him to sign it (and BD artists always draw something when they give their autographs). So I kept walking up and down in the very busy main hall, trying to find a solution (they had none of Cabanes’ other volumes). Finally, I bought another copy and explained the whole dilemma to him. He was so lovely and chatty, we ended up talking for 20 minutes or so. He went to Paris initially to become a ‘serious’ artist and sculptor, claimed he wouldn’t sell his soul to BD, until he discovered he loved telling stories… and that it helped pay the bills much more effectively. He did admit that it was much more difficult for young artists today to break into the field and make a living out of it (and he had advice for my older son, who likes writing and drawing his own BD).

Fatale1Finally, although I knew that it takes at least a year to produce a normal sized graphic novel, I was stunned to discover just how long it took Cabanes to adapt Fatale – nearly 3 years! That’s because he is meticulous about his research, every little detail has to be perfect, and, even though Manchette is very cinematic in his writing, you still have to select the best ‘moments’ to illustrate. So, worth every euro, I think! He also told me he is reviewing his reworking of ‘Princess du sang’ by Manchette and will have a beautiful re-edited version published in autumn.

Meanwhile, I have a spare copy of Fatale to give away, so let me know if you read French and have a hankering for it…

2) Informal Encounters with Humans

Meeting some of the big names of literature can be an intimidating experience, especially when you are just one of the hundreds who are assaulting them at such events. Plus, I have the tendency to get uncharacteristically tongue-tied and shy (afraid I can’t think of anything intelligent to say, something they haven’t heard thousands of times before). So it really helps when you bump into them informally or somehow manage to catch them at a time when they are not being jostled into place for their next panel or signing. [It must be very tiring for them, to be honest, as the timing is very tight and you have to run from one venue to the next.]

NicciFrenchMost crime writers I’ve met are delightfully unpretentious, warm human beings. I gushed to Sean French and Nicci Gerrard (of Nicci French fame) that I’ve been a huge fan ever since I heard them speak about the Moomins and the Martin Beck series at the Henley Literary Festival 6 years ago and congratulated Nicci on her brilliant initiative to allow family of dementia patients improved access to NHS hospitals.

StanleyLockeYou have to balance this, however, with the danger of being considered a stalker. I happened to come across Attica Locke powdering her nose and was not sure if I should approach or not. I’m glad I did, though, because she is funny, down-to-earth and politically engaged. She was signing books next to one half of Michael Stanley – namely Stanley Trollip – from South Africa (of Inspector Kubu fame) and you couldn’t have asked for nicer neighbours at the table. Stanley explained the very collaborative writing process with Michael Sears as ‘like an old married couple, we may bicker but we haven’t got divorced yet’. A bit like Kubu and his wife Joy, then!

LouisePennyAlongside personal hero(ines) such as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Sylvie Granotier, I also got to meet Louise Penny.  I only discovered her series about Quebecois inspector Armand Gamache 2 years ago (thanks to Margot Kinberg), but she has become one of my favourite authors with her inimitable blend of cosy location, unforgettable characters, cracking plots and profound questions about the human condition, personal relationships and the nature of beauty and creation. She is so gracious, beautiful and generous: I want to be like her when I grow up!

LyonSpring23) Online Friends and the City Itself

But what would even a beautiful and gourmet city like Lyon be without the people you meet there? I got to spend some time with the charming Lyonnaise-by-adoption Emma, who blogs in English and has done an excellent write-up of the event.

Last, but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting once more my blogging friend Catherine, whose pictures of the event are much more professional than mine. She knows more about British crime fiction than any other French person I know, plus she is my constant source of reference for French and other crime.

LyonVenue4I’ll tell you more about Saturday night’s Murder Ball and the city-wide Murder Mystery Trail in a future post, as well as the books I bought and the new-to-me authors. I’ll probably drone on and on about this event until you’ll start wishing I’d never gone there. I don’t get out much, you see – this is my one big event of the year, so bear with me…

In return, please keep me informed of all the other great events in the UK and US that I’ll be missing this summer!

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Tracey Walsh?

TraceyAfter a rather busy start to the New Year, fraught with drama and sadness for my adoptive home France, it’s time to return to an old favourite of mine: being nosy about other people’s reading habits. Time to meet another online friend – welcome, Tracey Walsh! Tracey is one of those people who always seems to have just read those books I have only just heard about – and her recommendations have taken me to many new places. She reads, blogs and tweets tirelessly about crime fiction and has even created a fantastic map of the UK with her personal crime fiction favourites on her Crime Reader Blog.  You can also find Tracey on Facebook.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I have happy childhood memories of Enid Blyton’s “The Five Find Outers” as my first mystery series. Then, in my teens, I binge-read dozens of Agatha Christies, with my favourites being the Miss Marple books. Later still, ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier and Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series confirmed me as a lifelong crime fiction addict.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

My preferred genre is psychological thrillers, because I love being immersed in twisty plots that examine the characters’ motives and relationships, the darker the better. Within this genre I have enjoyed several ‘domestic noir’ novels recently, for example Paula Daly’s ‘Keep Your Friends Close’ and Julia Crouch’s ‘Tarnished’.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

‘I Let You Go’ by Clare Mackintosh. I absolutely loved this book, which has one of the best twists ever. It was also memorable, because I found myself thinking about the characters even when I wasn’t reading, and imagining what would have happened had they made different choices.

bookpileTraceyIf you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
This would come down, not for the first time, to a toss of a coin between Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books and the Roy Grace series by Peter James. And the winner is…Peter James. There are ten books in the series (soon to be eleven) starting with ‘Dead Simple’, which has probably the best opening to a crime book I can remember.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

‘No Other Darkness’ by Sarah Hilary – the follow up to one of the best debuts of last year, ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Also, ‘Death in the Rainy Season’ by Anna Jaquiery – the follow up to ‘The Lying-Down Room’, a haunting literary crime novel.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I really only read crime so that’s all I’m likely to recommend. I love recommending new authors to my friends, most recently the debut books by Paula Daly (‘Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?’) and Colette McBeth (‘Precious Thing’). It was particularly rewarding to introduce my Dad to the Roy Grace books by Peter James. I bought him the latest two in the series for his 80th birthday last year.
As a departure from reading the books I’m looking forward to seeing the stage play of ‘Dead Simple’ in Manchester soon.
Thank you, Tracey, I love your unabashed crime addiction and eagerness to explore new writers as well as old favourites. The Dead Simple play sounds like a good reason for planning a trip to Manchester! Excellent choice for a desert island series, as well. I notice that everyone tries to find really long-running series to take with them, for fear of running out of reading matter.
This series depends on your willingness to participate, so please don’t be shy if you would like to tell us about your reading passions. For previous posts in the series, please check out this link. 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Vanessa Delamare?

VanessaThis time we travel to Canada to meet the delightful Vanessa Delamare and hear how she developed an appetite for a life of crime (fiction). Vanessa is not only bilingual in both her reading and blogging habits (look here for her enthusiastic reviews in both languages), she is also the organiser of QuébeCrime, an unrushed and intimate crime fiction festival set in beautiful Québec City. You can also find Vanessa on Twitter, where she is also busy setting up a new website and Twitter account for QuébeCrime.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I don’t remember exactly which book got me hooked, but I have clear memories about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I couldn’t tell you the story in detail now but I still feel that sense of malaise when I think about that book. It felt good to me as a child, knowing a book can give you such feelings of fear and stress, but at the same time, you’re safe at home. I also remember reading a lot of Agatha Christie’s  books and preferring Miss Marple ! But after a while, I wanted something more modern. It was then that I discovered Patricia Cornwell. At the time, I was working with computers and I could tell that what Lucy was doing was credible. I’ve asked a nurse about the medical stuff and she told me that was accurate too. I loved that accuracy in fiction, unlike in a TV show where the geek presses a button on his keyboard to show pictures when everybody else would use their mouse! So I discovered that I could learn new things whilst also having fun reading. I then moved on to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. What a pleasure to learn historical things too! I just love the diversity in crime fiction.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
Yes and no. I do seem to read a lot of noir fiction – I really appreciate tartan noir, nordic noir… all that is noir. But after a few of those novels, I need to read a historical crime fiction book or something more technical, just to change. I’ve even learnt to appreciate spy fiction, which is not really my cup of tea. It might be the only sub-genre that wouldn’t be my first choice, but I really loved Terry Hayes’ ‘I Am Pilgrim’. And now I’m reading David Khara’s ‘The Bleiberg Project’ and it’s really good (about spies and WWII and crazy science…) In fact, as long as a book keeps me on edge or interested, I’ll love it!
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

In truth, there’s quite a few books I really enjoyed this year (those I gave 5/5 on my blog) but as I must name a single book, I’ll go with Donato Carrisi’s ‘The Whisperer’. It’s Carrisi’s first book and it’s excellent. Quite often, debut novels have a certain clumsiness or lack of confidence, but not in his case. I might be a gullible reader but at one point I just shouted “no way!” and I love that: to be completely led by the nose. 

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Ah, I’m always asking that of writer, so now it’s my turn to not really know how to answer (serves me right I guess!). I could say Maxime Chattam, a French writer I really admire, but I’ve already read all of his books, so it might be a bit annoying to already know the end of each story. It’ll be the same with Chris F. Holm’s ‘The Collector’ series, so I’ll have to go with an author whose books (some of them, at least) I have yet to discover. It could be Ian Rankin or Pierre Lemaitre (and I can’t thank you enough for recommending the latter to me!), but perhaps in the end I’ll take Val McDermid’s numerous books. I really liked the suspense she puts in ‘The Torment of Others’ and what better way to counter the stillness of a desert island than with something thrilling?

VanessaShelvesWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Well, I’ve bought a lot of Pierre Lemaitre’s books, so I guess that’ll be my next focus! I’ve also just discovered David Khara, a French author that I really enjoyed, so I’ll read his second book in the trilogy featuring Eytan Morgenstern with pleasure. I’m also currently reading Lisa Unger’s ‘The Whispers’, about a newly widowed wife and mother who after a car crash can see/hear people in danger or dead, a kind of psychic who helps the police. It’s a fast and enjoyable read, so I think I’ll love the next book too. In fact, my TBR is so big I don’t know if I’ll be able to read all in the next few months!

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Fantasy! I’ve tried more ‘noble’ literature but I found it boring (who am I, why am I, etc.). I’ve occasionally tried Goncourt prize winners, but I find them disturbing (in a bad way): too many sickos, too much gloominess. With fantasy, I can travel to other worlds, discover other cultures. I’m really fascinated by the imagination writers must have to be able to make a non-existent world come alive.  My first encounter with the genre was Harry Potter (like a lot of people, I guess). Then I read Game of Thrones (so good!) and even Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander. Well, it might not be pure fantasy but it’s neither crime nor boring fiction! From time to time, however, I do find a literary book that will spark my interest: I enjoyed ‘Rû’ by Kim Thuy or ‘La main d’Iman’ by Ryad Assani-Razaki. [Sadly, neither of them are available in English yet.]

Thank you, Vanessa, for your refreshing candour and ever-present enthusiasm about books! And a great shout-out for French crime fiction too.  I’m starting to save up money already for a possible future trip to QuébeCrime. What have you read/ loved from Vanessa’s list of authors? 

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction and if you would like to take part.