The publication of Barry Forshaw’s sterling critical overview Euro Noir represents a significant acknowledgement that something remarkable is happening to crime fiction. Across mainland Europe murder is firmly on the agenda. In print, on TV, DVD, and in the cinemas the genre is undergoing a creative renaissance.
For decades commissioning editors remained resolute in their conviction that translated fiction was an unprofitable niche market with no possibility of crossing over into the mainstream. This long standing reluctance to issue significant amounts of English language versions of European texts was perplexing when confronted with data which reveals the phenomenal sales figures for George Simenon’s work.
Emboldened by the unexpected success of Scandinavian fiction publishers are now casting their nets wider, looking across the continent for new authors to introduce to the British market and finding a genre in rude health. Similarly, TV stations chasing the next breakout cult hit have looked at what Europe has to offer and been rewarded with a bounty of shows offering bold storytelling, dynamic characters, exciting locations, and layers of rich social commentary. Fans of European series have embraced Braquo, Inspector De Luca, and Spiral with the same passion already given to The Killing, The Bridge, and Wallander. BBC4’s foreign language slot is a permanent fixture in the broadcast landscape and it has been joined in the pursuit of excellent TV from the continent by Sky Arts, More 4, and FOX UK.
An exciting time for fans of Noir, the movement is continually being refreshed with intriguing variations; Nordic, Latin, Neo, Gallic, and Tartan. Recognizing the cultural significance of a renewed interest in European crime fiction Institut Francais has launched Noir is the Colour. a month long series of events celebrating France’s contribution to the genre.
An oasis of French culture based in the heart of central London, Institut Francais‘ raison d’etre is the promotion of Gallic cultural practices and the facilitation of a dialogue between our nations based on shared values. Initially founded in the early twentieth century to teach the French language it now exists as a space offering appreciation of and engagement with the arts and current affairs. Routinely presenting a cornucopia of varied and dynamic talks, seminars, screenings, and demonstrations the institution’s ever changing schedule never ceases to be anything less than intriguing and is frequently supremely enlightening.
The staging of Noir is the Colour is first and foremost an opportunity for fans of the genre to embrace their enthusiasm, meet fellow aficionados, quiz their favourite authors about a particular scene or plot point, and possibly forge new friendships. Not explicitly stated, in addition to celebrating the contemporary scene the festival must surely have been set up in part because of France’s unique relationship with the genre. It’s not every country that can lay claim to having its cultural DNA woven into a stylistic category. Possessing a harder, slightly more cynical edge to its Scandinavian counterpart, French crime fiction has never fallen out of vogue. Continually cool and dancing to its own unique beat, the Gallic approach to the genre is currently gaining new fans thanks to FOX UK’s screening of Braquo‘s third season. How did this nation become midwife to a genre that nearly two hundred years later continues to entertain people all over the world?
A combination of real life events and canny publishers catering to shifting public tastes placed France at the vanguard of an emerging literary movement and ensured its influence has remained constant. Long before Arsène Lupin battled Sherlock Holmes in the marketplace for the title of Europe’s most popular fictional sleuth an American born author with a taste for the macabre was midwife to an entirely new genre and made sure that no matter what iterations may materialize in the coming centuries it’s heart would always beat with Gallic blood coursing through its veins. Edgar Allan Poe’s Paris based Murders in the Rue Morgue invented the modern detective story and established France as the spiritual home of crime fiction. A grotesque story that played on then prevalent fears of urbanization, it was published as science was establishing its credentials and challenging religion’s supremacy. In C. Auguste Dupin Poe created a template for fictional sleuths that is still in use, scintillating and unconventional, prone to philosophizing and psychologizing but ultimately reliant on deductive reasoning.
Away from the printed page, the founding of the Gendarmerie and Sûreté represented trailblazing initiatives in approaches to policing necessitated by the new breeds of criminality that had begun to emerge as society moved away from a predominantly rural infrastructure and migrated towards the newly expanding cities. Transformations in law enforcement coupled with a rise in literacy led to an increase in interest about the men keeping the streets safe. Poe’s use of a city he had never visited as a backdrop for a trilogy of stories featuring Dupin was due to his having read press reports about the effectiveness of this new form of civic protection.
Despite some inaccuracies, including sassafras grass growing on the Seine’s banks, Murders in the Rue Morgue was a best-seller in America, France, and the UK. The near simultaneous transformation of the printed press into widely distributed mass media meant for the first time citizens had access to affordable newspapers and serial magazines. Frequently sensational, this new form of literature required a constant stream of salacious content to satisfy its readership and editors soon found that one way to please its audience and drive opponents out of business was with the inclusion of real-life and fictional tales of criminality and judicial process. An early beneficiary of France’s new found enthusiasm for accounts of wrongdoers being brought to justice was Eugène François Vidocq. After being made head of the Sûreté several volumes of ghost written memoirs were published, inspiring characters in Balzac’s novels Le Père Goriot and Le Député d’Arcis . Victor Hugo drew heavily from the public image of Vidocq, the former villain who became France’s most notorious police officer, whilst writing Les Miserables. Two archetypes, one fictional and the other based on a real-life public figure, the merging of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Vidocq into Inspector Bucket the detective in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House represented a significant milestone in the history of crime fiction and ensured that as the generic template traversed the globe and evolved into different forms it would forever more have indelible French fingerprints.
To kick-start a month long critical appreciation of the genre in terms of its current and historical legacy Institut Francais opened the doors to its recently renovated reading room and invited the always entertaining author of Euro Noir to chair a discussion about the French approach to crime fiction. Readers of Barry Forshaw’s work or anybody who has seen him give a talk at another event will testify that his knowledge of the genre is without equal. Justly renowned for several benchmark texts including Nordic Noir, British Gothic Cinema, and British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, his work is work is always filled with a mixture of appreciation, affection, and tempered criticism. In print and on stage he is a supreme communicator, pitching his discussion at precisely the right level. Seemingly acquainted with every major author working in the field at the moment, his warm and witty style of questioning backed up with an encyclopedic attention to detail means he gets fuller, more rounded replies from interviewees.
To explore the extent which British and French approaches to the genre may have taken slightly different paths, the speakers included Prix Goncourt winner Pierre Lemaitre, John Harvey recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in Crime Writing, and Irish born translator Frank Wynne.
The term ‘Noir’ is rich with meanings, some culture specific. A conceptual category filled with associations, the connotations relating to crime fiction varies dependent on cultural context. Harvey first became acquainted with noir via double bill screenings of classics at a local repertory cinema and cites The Killers directed by Robert Siodmak and featuring Burt Lancaster as a personal favourite. Proving that he most definitely knows his onions, Harvey spoke about the importance of post War French intellectuals in defining the categories parameters.
Offering a live demonstration of the translator process Frank Wynn relayed Pierre Lemaitre’s comments. In mainland Europe the distinctions between crime and noir are not so clear cut. Defining Noir in the English literary sense to a French readership is fraught with obstacles. The term may have originated on the other side of the channel but it has very different meanings when applied to literature. Lemaitre conceded that the oft used French term Romans Noir cannot be confused with the Anglo conception of Noir. Despite some overlap they are related but ultimately separate approaches to crime fiction. Tipped by those in the know to be the next Stieg Larsson, Lemaitre offered an informed perspective on a literary scene about to ignite this side of the channel.
Educational but not polemical, the first Noir is the Colour event perfectly set the tone not only for the rest of the festival but also as an introduction into the world of contemporary French literature. On a warm summer evening against a backdrop of thousands of French texts in a beautifully restored library fans were given a rare opportunity to learn about where ideas for crime novels came from, how a translator approaches the material she or he is working with, writer’s perspectives on the inclusion of violence and when they feel it’s time to rein in the descriptions of physical assaults.
Several fans were heard expressing a wish for this to become an annual event, surely the ultimate compliment. As the literary marketplace becomes ever more cosmopolitan and new authors from the mainland are introduced into the crime sections of our friendly neighbourhood bookstores the need for a second festival grows. The best kept secret in the crime fiction scene, fans should not miss out on the opportunity to attend any of the remaining talks.
The latest titles from all the authors appearing at Noir is the Colour can be ordered from Amazon:
For more information about Noir is the Colour contact:
Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT
Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/