French Crime Fiction

The mystery in France was developed very early and ranks with the American and British in terms of importance. In order to provide my readers with an outstanding review of the French mystery I have asked an expert and good colleague – Professor Ira Ashcroft - to write this guest column. Enjoy!

There are some specialists who insist that the first French fictional detective was Voltaire’s Zadig who described correctly the king’s horse and the queen’s dog, even though he had never set eyes on either, but simply used logical reasoning while observing their tracks (first published in 1747 - English editions are available - e.g. Zadig and Other Stories, Oxford, London, 1971). A very influential and fascinating character in French crime history was Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) who had been a police informer, a thief-turned cop, and who became the first head of the Sûreté (the French police Force). He was a great story teller, an innovator and probably a great exaggerator. He documented his life in an autobiography – Vidocq; Personal Memoirs of the First Great Detective (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1935). In reality the first French fictional investigator is Monsieur Lecoq in L’Affaire Lerouge (The Widow Lerouge, Scribner, N.Y., 1900). This mystery is usually considered the first full-length mystery novel (serialized in 1864). Emile Gaboriau was the creator and eight other of his mystery novels can be found on the web at Classic Reader.

Gaboriau was a master at keeping his readers in state of constant suspense; his novels show attention to detail, documentation and exactitude. They are a superb means to discover mid -nineteenth century Paris, its social history and its cultural geography. Lecoq, like the real life Vidocq, is a reformed criminal who became a policeman. After Lecoq and until the 1930’s, no policeman was portrayed in the French mystery novel. There were different investigators, but police had such a bad reputation in those times that it was too difficult to create a sympathetic character that was also a cop. The popular investigators were reporters such as Rouletabille in Gaston Leroux’ novels (three of them are included in the above - mentioned website and he also authored the play- Phantom of the Opera), or thieves like Arsène Lupin created by Maurice Leblanc (see Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, Ginn and Co, N.Y. 1938; Arsene Lupin, Super- Sleuth, The Macaulay Co., N.Y., 1927; and Arsene Lupin versus Sherlock Holmes, M.A. Donohue, Chicago, 1910). Leblanc’s novels were translated into many different languages. The murdering, evil bandit Fantômas, created by P. Souvestre and M. Allain, and hero of 32 volumes appealed to the French collective consciousness, constantly triumphing over the police, the shortsighted imbecilic representatives of the defunct– but still hated – Second Empire (see Fantomas, Morrow N.Y. 1986 or Messengers of Evil, Brentano’s, N.Y., 1917). It was not until the 1930’s that the first francophone detective– although Belgian, not French, comes on the scene. He too does not belong to an organized police force but is a private investigator. M. Wens is elegant, charming and witty created by Stanislas-André Steeman who made him the hero of a dozen novels, at least two of which were made into films by Clouzot (see also, Six Dead Men, Farrar and Rinehart, N.Y., 1932).The first francophone novelist to portray a cop, who is pleasant, intelligent and humane, and simply an ordinary man with an ordinary life, was the Belgian, Georges Simenon. His first novel to portray the famous Commissaire Maigret was Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett ( Penguin, London, 1963). Simenon wrote two series of novels and stories starring Maigret. The first series written between 1929 and 1933 has a fairly traditional mystery format, presenting a crime and its solution. The second series, started in 1939, comprises 82 novels and novellas which concentrate on the psychological analysis of characters and on creating a specific atmosphere. In addition Simenon wrote over 200 novels and short stories without Maigret. All of his work has been translated into English and a dozen other languages. At the same time another important mystery author, Pierre Véry, well known in France but virtually unknown in Anglophone countries, published 28 novels, many of them portraying a lawyer as the hero who first uncovers the criminal and then defends him in court (In What Strange Land? Wingate, London, 1949). In the same epoch a mainstream novelist, Claude Aveline, published a number of fascinating psychological mysteries (The Double Death of Frederic Belot, New York, H. Holt, 1940 and Carriage 7, Seat 15, Doubleday, N.Y., 1969). The first book in his series was very important, for its literary quality and its introduction, which ridicules those critics and novelists who denigrate the mystery novel.

The first French ‘roman noir’ by Léo Malet, a young surrealist poet appeared in 1943. The hero, Nestor Burma reappears in a series of mysteries, each exploring a different Paris district; he is the French version of the hard-boiled detective, cynical but also witty, streetwise, and geographically savvy. Several of these novels have been translated into English - Dynamite Versus QED (Pan London, 1991); Mission to Marseilles (Pan, London, 1991); Sunrise Behind the Louvre (Pan, London, 1991); The Rats of Montsouris (Pan, London, 1991); Mayhem in the Marais (Pan, London, 1991). There are also several websites dedicated to this ‘détective de choc’ as he is called jocularly in French.

For those who like parodies, San-Antonio (pseudonym of Frédéric Dard) wrote over 100 volumes in a very slangy French, stuffed with neologisms, known or invented by the author. Some have been translated into English (see The Strangler, G. Duckworth, London, 1968 or The Man of the Avenue, Hale, London, 1973). Albert Simonin and Auguste Le Breton are two other very popular contemporary novelists who present the same problem in that they use underworld slang extensively. Except for Le Breton there are few English translations of their work (see Le Breton, Rififi in New York, Stein and Day, N.Y., 1968 and, Law of the Streets, Collins, London, 1957) but several of their novels have been transposed into films such as Le Breton’s Rififi directed by Jules Dassin, or Simonin’s Grisbi, directed by Jacques Becker.

Starting in the mid twentieth century the popularity of the suspense novel in France grew. Authors like Boileau-Narcejac had several novels turned into very famous films, such as Vertigo by Hitchcock or Les Diaboliques by Clouzot. Some of the novels have been translated into English; Vertigo (Dell, New York, 1958) and Faces in the Dark (Hutchinson, London, 1955). Sébastien Japrisot is my all time favorite and I highly recommend Trap for Cinderella (Penguin, N.Y., 1979), The 10:30 from Marseille also called The Sleeping-Car Murders (Doubleday Crime Club, N.Y., 1963), The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and a Gun (Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 1967), One Deadly Summer (Plume, N.Y., 1997) and A Very Long Engagement (Plume, N.Y., 1994). Alain Demouzon’ s detective novels, hard-boiled like Mouche or suspense like The First-born of Egypt are characterized by his talent in rendering the atmosphere of a small, humid, cold provincial town. The readers ‘feel’ the humidity, the constant drizzle permeating the gray town. He also wrote a couple of novels in the style of Raymond Chandler, they are aptly translated as: A Rotten Deal and Farewell La Jolla. Another author who makes very interesting reading is Thierry Jonquet; the first translation of one of his novels, Mygale (City Lights Books, San Francisco) will be published in January 2003. For those who read French, his Les Orpailleurs and Moloch are superb. A very special author is Daniel Pennac, recommended especially for those who can appreciate the beauty, the sound, and the rhythm of the French language. According to "", the English translation of Pennac’s first book, The Scapegoat (Harvill Press, London, 1998) might not be appreciated by American readers. Also, Fairy Gun Mother (Harvill Press, London, 1997), Write to Kill (Harvill Press, London, 1999), Passion Fruit (Harvill press, London, 2001) are fun; they present more than just an interesting plot, they examine French modern society through the eyes of a strange but endearing family group. Jean-Jacques Fiechter’s Death by Publication (Arcade Publishers, N.Y., 1995) and A Masterpiece of Revenge (Arcade Publishers, N.Y., 1998) are well appreciated by Anglophone readers and loved by the French for their great criminal intrigues and for the atmosphere of mounting terror in novels without physical violence. On a very different note, full of violence and action (very unfrench) Jean-Christophe Grangé has a huge following and two of his three novels are available in English: The Flight of the Storks (Panther, London, 2001) and The Crimson Rivers (Harvill, London, 2001).

Obviously the mystery novel’s setting is extremely important; it helps to render the story more believable, more realistic. Often one can virtually explore different cities or countries via the genre. An important and interesting writer, Didier Daeninckx, has produced a number of mysteries set in the Paris slums. His focus is social protest but he also imbues his work with a strong historical sense (see, Murder in Memoriam, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1991, and A Very Profitable War, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1994). French readers who would like to ‘tour’ some French provinces could chose any of Pierre Magnan’ mysteries, to feel, smell and taste Provence. The Murdered House, (which received several prizes) Beyond the Grave and Innocence are available in English at the French Amazon website. Côte d’Azur, and more specifically Nice, is described by Michel Grisolia with great empathy: we can feel his love for his city. Although there are no translations yet, I recommend La Promenade des Anglaises to francophones. Marseille, the city of The French Connection fame, forms the background to Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Khéops and Chourmo; one translation exists, One Helluva Mess (Arcadia, London, 2000). There are several marvelous mystery novels describing many French provinces, rendering their flare, odor and taste; unfortunately most have not been yet translated. For those who enjoy reading in French see, Côte d’Azur: Maurice Périsset - La Boîte à matelots, La Belle de Saint-Tropez, Les Noces de haine; Patrick Raynal – Fenêtre sur femme, Arrêt d’urgence; Alpes Haute-Provence: in addition to Pierre Magnan (cited above) there is the splendid suspense by Japrisot, One Deadly Summer, ( Plume, N.Y., 1997), and also Francis Ryck who has many novels in English (see, Green Light, Red Catch, Stein and Day , N.Y., 1973; Woman Hunt, Stein and Day, N.Y., 1972; and Account Rendered, Collins, London,1975) . Bordeaux and its region: Maurice Bastide – Réactions en chaîne, Au bassin d’Arcachon; Lyon: René Belletto – Le Revenant, Sur la terre comme au ciel and in English, Machine( Grove press, N.Y., 1993) Normandy :Philippe Huet - Les Démons du Comte, he also describes Normandy’s greatest port, Le Havre in Quai de l’oubli; Brittany : Hervé Jaouen – Marée basse;

Readers more inclined towards historical mysteries might search the following website:  

Le Rayon du Polar 

There are several interesting historical mystery authors including Christian Jacq who writes on Ancient Egypt. He has written a trilogy starring the Egyptian Judge Pazair, La pyramide assassinée, La loi du desert, La justice du vizir, and in English, The Eternal Temple, (Warner Books, N.Y., 1996).  There is also Anne de Leseleuc who sets her mysteries in Titus' Gaul. For the period of the Middle Ages Viviane Moore is the recommended author; she has a great following and her novels are becoming very popular. Her hero, Galeran de Lesneven travels and unravels enigmas in 12th Century France, and shares with the reader fascinating facts about the building of the Cathedral of Chartres (Blue Blood, V. Gollancz, London, 2000), or visits other important medieval monasteries and towns (The Darkest Red, Victor Gollancz, London, 2001; The White Path, Victor Gollancz, London, 2002).  An eighteen century specialist, Jean-François Parot (unfortunately not available yet in English) has written two wonderful mysteries set during the reign of Louis XV: L’énigme des Blancs-Manteaux and L’homme au ventre de plomb. For the aficionados of the Great Revolution, Crimes de sang à Marat-sur-Oise by Colette Lovinger-Richard, is a fast- paced mystery in the royal/ imperial town of Compiègne. The great majority of these books have been published in the last few years and one can only hope they will find an English translator and publisher soon. The best recommendation for the nineteenth century is, L’Affaire Lerouge, mentioned earlier. There are others, but they are not available in English. For the buffs, they are, Georges J. Arnaud, describing Paris of 1830 in L’homme au fiacre, Le rat de la Conciergerie, Le voleur de têtes, and La congregation des assassins (in English he has published The Wages of Fear, Farrar, Straus, and Young, N.Y., 1952). Paris during the Commune is described in Le cri du people by Jean Vautrin, and Paris of the Belle Époque in Sanguine sur la butte by Renée Bonneau.

Readers might have noticed that very few women authors are cited in this column. The reason is simple - there were a very small handful of women detective storywriters until the last dozen years. Since then, many excellent women writers have appeared including Andréa Japp, Maude Tabachnik, Fred Vargas, and Yvonne Besson. Brigitte Aubert is the only one whose novels have been translated into English. She has written several excellent mysteries and a few horror novels. The following are available: Death from the Woods (Berkley Prime Crime, N.Y., 2001) and Death from the Snows - more horror than mystery - (Welcome Rain Books, N.Y. 2001). For additional information on French detective novels visit Le Recits Policiers.

The French were among the earliest mystery producers and the genre is still immensely popular there. The French prefer enigmatic and "dark" or noir stories. The term "roman noir" originates in the use of black book covers used early for published mysteries but the appellation fits reader taste well in that the French are attracted to issues about the dark side of society in their fiction. Their detective stories tend to focus on exposing societal and government corruption. They are "romans engagés" that usually have the clear goal of denouncing evil, creating a specific atmosphere, developing characters and creating a sense of style, rather than emphasizing plot. The mystery in France is hugely popular, of very high quality, and a treasure awaiting the discovery of many English-language readers.

Professor Ira Ashcroft is Chair of the Languages Department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.


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