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The rise of French crime & thriller authors

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

Detective stories and crime novels have long fascinated readers around the world as they offer unique insights into peculiar psyches and a world of outlaws. Complex plots go hand in hand with suspense to keep the reader entertained while also providing piercing wisdom as to the challenges of society. Currently, authors from the United States, Norway and Sweden are leading the march but French authors are nevertheless getting out there, spreading their ink.

Crime novels count many subgenres which all emerged during different historical time periods.

The first true crime fiction novels were written in the 19th century. Forerunner to detective stories include revenge, horror and ghost stories. However, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is considered to be the first crime fiction writers, and he invented many of the main characteristics of the genre. He introduced the “locked room mystery” in which a crime is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances. A brilliant yet eccentric detective must then solve the baffling crime in the place of the incompetent police, and the story is narrated by a naïve friend, constantly in awe of the detective’s genius mind. The need for a rational explanation, and not necessarily for justice drives the detective to solve the case. The police, who initially assume a position of scepticism, are in the end humbled by the detective’s innovative solution. Poe’s famous hero Auguste Dupin (Double Murder in the Rue Morgue) is the ancestor of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Connan Doyle (A study in Scarlet), Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie (The mysterious Affair at Styles), Rouletabille by Gaston Leroux (Le mystère de la chambre jaune), and Commissioner Maigret by Georges Simenon (Pietr-le-Letton).

Detective stories were extremely popular during the 1920 and 30s in Europe and the United States as these years were marked by big social change and an economic boom leading to the rise of the middle class as well as an increase in literacy rates. In France, libraries and editors even created special collections such as Le Masque or L’Empreinte entirely dedicated towards the publishing of crime fiction novels.

Yet the popularity of detective novels eventually ended up loosing some steam. In the United States, the Great Depression of the 40s and the Prohibition created an atmosphere of tension, violence, lawlessness and insecurity. Over there, crime fiction novels naturally evolved towards a more brutal style of writing, now known as “hard-boiled crime fiction”. American authors in the likes of Dashiell Hamnett (The Maltese Falcon), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) invented a highly cynical, sarcastic and tough male figure. The figure was also often an ex-police officer, single or divorced and sexually attractive. Hard-boiled texts featured much more graphic violence than previous detective novels, and action scenes started to replace the earlier focus on problem-solving. Psychology also has an important place and the works moved away from conventional Manicheism. Within hard-boiled crime fiction, several subgenres could additionally be found: thrillers, spy novels and noir fiction.

Where hard-boiled crime stories are dramatic, thrillers and spy novels are typically emotional, focusing on fear and doubt. A single hero/heroine, a partnership or a small group of experts battle a foreign power, a criminal organisation or a merciless genius’ intent on ruling the world. There is a great deal of action, usually involving serious weaponry and explosions. Some of today’s most celebrated French thriller authors are Maxime Chattam, Karim Miské, Bernard Minier, Ingrid Astier, Sandrine Colette, Cedric Bannel and Franck Thilliez.

In classic noir novels, the protagonist is not necessarily a detective but instead either a victim, a suspect or a perpetrator. The protagonist is also self-destructive and regards society from a pessimistic point of view, leading to an in-depth criticism of the morals and values in place. The word “noir” was used for the first time by the Paris-based publisher Gallimard in 1945 as the title for its Serie Noir imprint. Contemporary French noir authors include Antoine Chainas, Jean-Bernard Pouy, Caryl Ferey, Ahmed Tiab and Dominique Manotti.

“Crime novels are stories from the margins, about social dysfunctions and that’s what fascinates me” Dominique Manotti

Other highly praised novels by authors such as Fred Vargas and Pierre Lemaitre cannot be pinpointed to a single subgenre. They both won the CWA International Dagger, an award given by the Crime Writer’s Association for best translated crime novel of the year. While Fred Vargas often works with professor and translator Sîan Reynolds, Pierre Lemaitre usually works with Frank Wynne.

Crime novels clearly imposed themselves as a protest literature. Initially considered to be a ‘mainstream’ genre, they eventually gained critical acclaim. Sociologists have also wondered why so many crime novels became best-sellers and it appears that they form the ideal framework for stories containing social criticism. They reflect upon the specific anxieties of a country and they offer an in-depth evaluation of the norms in place and the desired ideologies. With the years, France created many more collections dedicated to the publishing of the genre and its popularity spread to cinema, television and graphic novels. Moreover, festivals such as Quai du Polar in Lyon, Polar de Cognac and Beaune International Thriller Film Festival embrace these sombre worlds and offer the opportunity for many fans to discover or meet key figures.

This year, at the Quai du Polar taking place from the 29th to the 31st of March, Michell Bussi, Antoine Chainas, Bernard Minier, Sandrine Colette, Colin Niel, Ahmed Tiab and J.B Pouy will, among many other French and international authors, be present.

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