The French police novel, free of genre constraints
Having gone, in a few decades, from "train station literature” to best-seller status, the contemporary French police novel has successfully freed itself from the constraints of its genre to allow singularly creative authors to emerge. A brief overview, on the occasion of the Quai du Polar Police Novel festival, held in Lyon from 29th to 31st March.
Published on 21/03/2019
Beloved of French readers – in 2018, one in five novels purchased in France was a police novel according to the National Association of Publishing –, For several years now, crime writing has been one of the most popular literary genres in publishing. In this burgeoning sector, "Made in France" works are vibrating with new energy and now play a prominent role among the classic English and Scandinavian works which have filled the shelves of bookshops since the early 1990s.
The latest example: the 2018 Princess of Asturias Award, often described as the Spanish Nobel Prize, was awarded to the French crime writer Fred Vargas for his life’s work, which the jury praised for its "universal significance ". In the wake of the author of Have Mercy on us All (“Pars vite et reviens tard”) – his greatest success, published in 2001 and having sold 985,000 copies –, a generation of contemporary authors are renewing the tropes of the genre, gradually attracting an audience beyond staunch fans of noir novels. They embody, each in their own way, a multifaceted genre which takes a raw look at the evils of society.
From the “noir” series to the “white” collection
Since the appearance of the French word “polar” in the 1970s to describe first in cinema, then in literature, productions featuring the police world, the genre has been intimately linked with a singular colour, that is black or “noir” in French, a link which is reflected even in the names of the collections dedicated to it: “Série Noir" (Gallimard), Rivages/noir (Rivages), Actes noirs (Actes Sud).
However, although it is linked to the police novel, the noir novel remains a genre dedicated more specifically to the marginal edges of society. When there are no police officers in a “polar” or “police novel”, its characters still navigate the dark waters of organised crime, trafficking of all kinds and terrorism. The ambitious diptych Pukhtu by DOA (2015 and 2016) is an iconic example of this. Its clinical description of the state of the world leaves little room for hope: for this author, whose name, in the form of an acronym, is itself a reference to an American film noir dating from 1950, Dead On Arrival by Rudolph Maté, noir literature must bear its share of pessimism, because “in a true noir novel, there is an event which creates chaos, and, at best, we return to the chaos of the start".
If the universe described is bleak, the narrative structure of the genre, based on the investigation and attempt (successful or not) to resolve an initial conflict, has something universal to it which allows it to mingle in certain ways with other genres. The Malaussène series (also known in English as the Belleville Quartet), published from 1985 to 1999 by Daniel Pennac, perfectly embodies the way in which French police novels shift between forms. Initially published as part of Gallimard’s “Série Noire” with The Scapegoat (“Au Bonheur des ogres”) in 1985, followed by The Fairy Gunmother (“Fée Carabine”) in 1987, the adventures of scapegoat Benjamin Malaussène were continued as part of Gallimard’s mainstream literary “white” collection beginning with Write to Kill (“La Petite Marchande de prose”) (1990), without ever abandoning the mix of police intrigue, zany action and verbal inventiveness that gave them their unique flavour. Another icon of this flexibility of form, Pierre Lemaître, who began his career with police novels conceived as tributes to icons of literature (James Ellroy in Irene (“Travail soigné”) in 2006) or cinema (Alfred Hitchcock in Blood Wedding (“Robe de marié”) in 2009), before moving towards the picaresque and winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Great Swindle (“Au revoir là-haut") (2013).
Social and political critiques
For these authors who work in the noir novel tradition, the exploration of the underworld is the ideal vector for turning an uncompromising gaze on the contemporary world. Among them, Jean-Bernard Pouy considers the noir novel above all as as “an activistgenre” where genuine social and political criticism occur. This ferocious and openly libertarian energy found an outlet in the character of anarchist detective Gabriel Lecouvreur, known as "The Octopus", the hero of a series of nearly 300 crime novels published since 1995 and penned by, among others, Sébastien Gendron, Caryl Férey and Didier Daeninckx.
In browsing through the best contemporary French crime novels, the reader is exploring a map of the evils that eat away at our planet from the inside. In this vein, apartheid forms the backdrop for Zulu by Caryl Férey (Quais du Polar Prize in 2009) transforming a tense and violent thriller into a fiery social commentary which interrogates global North/South power relations. In Pure (“Pur”) (2013 Grand Prize for Police Literature), Antoine Chainas offered a raw depiction of a France tempted by extremism and abuses of security powers. All of these are examples of the provocative political force with which French authors send ripples through the world of crime writing.
For a long time, when it comes to police novels, the French worked in the shadow of more visible nations. The new generation of authors seems to have succeeded in reversing this trend: the emergence of what are now veritable classics revealing the power of their imagination has played a major role. Fred Vargas’ works, haunted by ancestral fears – wolves, epidemics – seem to draw as much from investigative tales as from fairy tales. With their oppressive forests and cryptic enigmas, these singularly poetic novels merge the Rouletabille-style investigations of a Gaston Leroux with the macrocosm of dark, violent contemporary crime writing.
Now, French authors are no longer afraid to confront their peers or to blend genres to bring the police novel to other worlds. The success ofTo Animals War (“Aux animaux la guerre”) by Nicolas Mathieu in 2014 perfectly reveals the unbridled energy which animates the genre. This portrait drawn against the backdrop of an economic crisis and the closure of a factory brings together the lyricism of a social chronicle, a realistic portrait of a disenfranchised population and the tropes of a classical tragedy.
In the face of Scandinavian crime writing whose style and characters struggle to appear fresh, the French police novel shines with its multifaceted characters and its use of narrative techniques directly derived from sources as diverse as classic literature and TV series. A pioneer of the style, the author of Blood Red Rivers (“Rivières Pourpres”) (1998), Jean-Christophe Grangé, constructs his many mysteries like drama series to keep readers as engaged as viewers of a crime show.
No wonder, therefore, that cinema and television alike are increasingly looking to these addictive and original works for inspiration. Jean-Christophe Grangé, like Jérémie Guez (author of The Last Red Tiger (“Dernier tigre rouge”), 2014) and Elsa Marpeau (The Eyes of the Dead (“Les Yeux des morts”(, 2011) regularly work as cinema screenwriters. As far as television is concerned, To Animals War and the best-seller by Joël Dicker, The Truth about the Harry Québert Affair have recently been adapted for the small screen. This is another way of showcasing contemporary French crime writing internationally.
The Institut français is a partner of the Quais du Polar festival. It organises the arrival of 17 foreign publishers, programmers and directors of cultural events as part of its Focus Livre programme.
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