French crime is starting to pay

French authors Fred Vargas and Pierre Lemaitre shared the CWA International Dagger

French crime writers are starting to appear in best-seller lists as they head a new wave to replace the Scandinavians

by Ken Seaton

FRANCE - and translated French authors - could be the ‘next big thing’ for crime fiction in English as the Scandinavians are being pushed off the best-seller lists.

Steel-hard, roman noir crime thrillers that show the underbelly of France are flying off bookshop shelves.

Called romans policiers or polars in French, these are books where beautiful victims wake naked, in a wooden crate high off the ground and surrounded by rats; where policemen find a line-up of shoes, with chopped-off feet still inside; where the victims are killed with a trident by a man who has been dead for decades. Where nothing is ever as it seems.

This is not the France sold by the French Tourist Board.

Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson were among the first wave of Scandinavian writers whose writing persuaded English readers to look beyond the vast wealth of English-language fiction and buy strong ­stories, even if they were translated.

They led to a wave of new authors with oddly accented vowels taking over the UK’s best-seller lists and dominating the TV screens. Now, readers are turning to writers from this side of the Channel.

The first significant signs came when the UK’s Crime Writers Association awarded the International Dagger for best crime fiction to two French authors, Fred Vargas and Pierre Lemaitre, and also to the translators who put their stories into English, Siân Reynolds and Frank Wynne. Ms Vargas won for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec and Mr Lemaitre for Alex. The CWA judges highlighted their “superb plotting, interesting actors, good dialogue and ability to upset our preconceptions”.

This is the fourth Dagger win for Ms Vargas who has been on British crime best-seller lists for years but it is a first win for Mr Lemaitre and the first time the award has been shared.

CWA director Alison Joseph said: “The crime fiction emerging from France is very exciting.”

Publisher Christopher MacLehose, who introduced Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg [Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow] and Stieg Larsson (64 million in sales for his Millennium trilogy) to British readers, said: “The question is beginning to be asked: will Anglo-Saxon readers now turn their attention to France, has the baton passed from Scandinavia?

“There are superb storytellers still in Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland, in Åsa Larsson and Håkan Nesser of Sweden, but for sheer quality the ­present-day crime writers of France – Antonin Varenne, Fred Vargas, Hervé Le Corre, Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Lemaitre – are unmatched.

“What is interesting about these writers is that there is no sameness in their work, they are utterly individual and, besides being exceptional storytellers, they are first-rate writers.”

In fact, he is so confident in Pierre Lemaitre’s story-telling that MacLehose is to publish the trilogy of stories that includes Alex. Called the Camille Verhoeven trilogy after the policeman in Alex (which was actually the second book of three), the first book, Irène, will be released in 2014 and the third novel, Camille, in 2015.

That means lots of translation work for Frank Wynne. Both he and Siân Reynolds were congratulated by Janet Laurence, the chairwoman of the CWA judges, who said that the International Dagger winners were “great books and great translations”.

Another judge, Ruth Morse, a University of Paris teacher of English Literature, credited them for ensuring “that the author’s voice was heard” and especially the “sublime weirdness” of Ms Vargas’ storylines.

Mr Wynne said the recent wave of crime writing from France “comes as British publishers, especially the independents, woke up to a younger generation of crime writers with powerful voices and a visceral style”.

He told Connexion: “Crime fiction readers relish a sense of otherness, they enjoy visiting new places, strange landscapes (as much psychological as physical). What most fascinates me – and I suspect my fascination is shared by readers – is that the new French writers are more intrigued by the why of crime than the how; they write novels which are not simply intellectual puzzles, but which have a depth of characterisation, and perhaps most importantly explore the ambiguous nature of guilt, of evil and of morality. They paint canvases not in black and white but in a murky, spellbinding grisaille.”

Pierre Lemaitre congratulated Mr Wynne, admitting that Alex was a “very complicated book” with several very different twists.

He said it “worked from the viewpoint of the reader” to change the way they reacted to characters. “Readers become involved with the characters and react positively to them. I wanted to ‘play’ with the readers and show them new sides to the characters’ personalities – have new angles of attack in the writing.”

Book snippets
= THIS month sees a book boom with the rentrée littéraire and details of the books in the running for the major prizes such as the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot. In all, 555 novels will be launched this month, according to Livres Hebdo, as publishers launch books at the same time to get extra media attention in the autumn, which is the major buying season. The Goncourt list will be revealed on September 6 and the Renaudot on September 9.

= FRANCE has around 2,500 independent bookshops – while the UK has just 1,000.

= BOOK prices are fixed by law by the publisher in France and cover both print and e-books. The maximum discount allowed is 5%. France charges 5.5% VAT on most books and e-books, but the EC has told it to levy higher VAT on e-books to maintain a fair market.

= LAST year 65,412 books were launched in France – up 1.7% from 2011 – with the No1 seller being Guillaume Musso’s L’Appel de l’Ange (Call from an Angel in English), which sold 496,900 copies.

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