The French have always had an intriguing relationship with the crime novel, their attitude very distinct to that once found in Britain or the United States. Which you might argue is very French in itself; but there’s no doubt that the French have often appreciated foreign crime writers before they were recognised in their own countries. Noir is a French word, of course; and I’ve been drawn to the fact that crime novels there are also known as les polars, (thought to be an abbreviation of roman policier), a phrase that simultaneously conjures up the icy chill of that region and the best examples of the genre.
I don’t speak the language (to my shame), but whilst the only French crime fiction I’ve read has been in translation, this does mean you’re exposed to some of the best. Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels remain a masterclass in neat, perfectly formed prose. I’d also recommend Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, the very definition of cool, stripped-back noir (and featuring a surprising cameo from the decidedly un-hardboiled city of Worcester); and Didier Daeninckx’s Murder in Memoriam, which tackles a complex episode in French history, the death of several hundred Algerian protesters during a demonstration in Paris in 1961. And I’m currently in the middle of Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex, a twisty, unconventional thriller about a woman who may not be in as much peril as she first appears…
One more addition to the list is Pascal Garnier, who (as is often the case) I recently came across by accident in a local bookshop, via a misshelved copy of his book The Panda Theory. Both the title and the blurb caught my imagination; I filed his name in the back of my mind until, a couple of weeks later I found Garnier’s novel How’s the Pain? in the library. The book tells the story of a road-trip to the coast made by Simon, a terminally ill ‘pest controller’, and Bernard, his naive young driver.
I liked Garnier’s precise, neat writing from the beginning, and the understated black humour that ran through the book. Garnier impressed me enough to borrow two more of his books. Moon in a Dead Eye is something of a curiosity, a story about a near deserted retirement village threatened from the outside. It has an effective, palpable sense of menace but also feels somewhat unfinished. I saved the best till last – I found The A26 to be the most impressive of the three books, and not just because it’s the only crime novel I’ve read that’s named after a French motorway (one that stretches from Calais to Troyes, in case you’re interested, and is also known as the ‘Autoroute des Anglais‘).
The A26 is set in the early 1990s, during the building of the motorway. The plot revolves around the complex relationship between Bernard, a man suffering from terminal cancer, and his sister Yolande. In 1945, accused of ‘collaboration horizontale‘ with a German soldier, Yolande was dragged from her house and taken into the town, where her head was shaved (a humiliation meted out to thousands of women at the end of the Second World War). The writing which describes this act, and its consequences, is among the most shocking of the book. ‘It was the drop of water falling on her newly shaven head which had hurt her the most, a deafening sound like the stroke of a gong which had stayed with her ever since… On leaving the Cafe de la Gare, after they’d let her go, plop!, a large drop filled with all the absurdities of the past four years.’
Yolande has not left the house since that time. Instead, she watches the world through a small hole in the wall. ‘In the entire house this was the only opening on the outside world. Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.‘ Her only contact with the outside world is through her brother, with whom she lives in appalling squalor. Their relationship sits at the centre of the book, and is eerily drawn; their closeness borders on claustrophobia, its origins lying in a shared childhood that is also described in the book.
But this is a relationship that is under threat. Just as the building of the motorway brings upheaval to the area, and threatens Bernard’s job with the SNCF, so his illness threatens his ability to care for Yolande. The approach of death also changes Bernard – ‘the anguish of doubt gave way to the strange nirvana of certainty. It was a matter of weeks, days, then.‘ Bernard suddenly finds new meaning in the smallest detail. ‘It was there, rounding out with yellow light each of the droplets of rain starring the windscreen… and in the dance of the windscreen wipers, which reminded him of the finale of a musical comedy. ‘
With this realisation, Bernard’s thoughts also turn murderous, as he tries to take control of a life violently snatched from his grasp. His actions set the ending of the novel in motion, although its roots are buried much deeper, as Yolande has once again to come to terms with the world beyond her home. The climax unfurls with a precise and fatal inevitability; and, like Daeninckx’s Murder in Memoriam, gives an object lesson in how the unresolved crimes of the past can infect the present.
In The A26 and his other novels Garnier takes some of the standards of crime fiction – the hit man, the isolated community, the serial killer – and twists them into new and surprising directions. A fine afterword by the translator of How’s the Pain? describes Garnier’s interest in everyday, unglamorous settings, and also how his ‘cultural references [are] decidedly Gallic.‘ This is very true, but Garnier’s books have a resonance beyond his own country, and deserve to find a much wider audience – dealing as they do not only with ordinary people pushed to extraordinary extremes, but also the mix of comedy and tragedy that makes up all of our their lives. C’est la vie, as someone once said.