Today’s readers are becoming insatiable and expanding their tastes with works in translation. Perhaps this has something to do with mass audiences being exposed to blockbuster thriller films based on foreign books and the rise of subtitled shows on television.
While last month we highlighted the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction with “Murder in a Cold Climate”, the slow but steady rise of French crime writers deserves further exploration.
For a long period, very little French crime fiction was being translated.
But as more talent is emerging from France and subtly made known to the English-speaking public, works of some of the best contemporary French crime writers are gradually published in English. French authors are gaining a reputation for their brilliant storytelling and writing crime fiction in creative and interesting ways. So much so that they are now seen as not only writing the best in the crime genre but in translated literature as well.
Before we get on to contemporary French crime writers, it’s worth taking a look at this article by Sue Neale (Warwick University) that gives an introduction into French crime fiction beginning with the memoirs of Vidocq that inspired Balzac and Edgar Allen Poe. For another perspective on the history and development of French crime fiction, read this article by Professor Ashcroft (Wilfrid Laurier University).
In both articles, you’ll find mentioned Maurice Leblanc and Georges Simenon as major contributors to the crime genre. They are well known the world over as their novels have been translated into many languages.
Maurice Leblanc created his Arsène Lupin series in the early 1900’s. As French police were quite unpopular, the character of Arsène Lupin is an endearing thief who outsmarts the police and deals with justice in his own way.
Now, on to one of my favourites, Georges Simenon who came on the crime writing scene in the 1930s. Yes, I know he’s Belgian not French but we’re talking Francophone here. Besides, he was the first author to have a policeman detective, Inspector Maigret, as a main character in a mystery novel. With Maigret the disdain felt for policemen dissipated as he was portrayed with humanity, intelligence and understanding.
A prolific writer, Simenon wrote hundreds of novels many of which featured Maigret of course. However, he was also very skilled at writing atmospheric novels that dug deep into the psychology of his characters.
So now that we have covered the background of French crime fiction and discussed its two big names in the past, Leblanc and Simenon, what about today’s French crime writers? Who are they?
Dear reader, I’m glad you asked. Eleven have sprung to mind. This is by no means a comprehensive list but names that have cropped up here and there for various reasons.
You’ll find them below, each with a little summary and links to find out more. I hope they peak your interest and incite you to give them a try if you haven’t already.
With many years experience in the film industry, Aubert is now among France’s top talented writers of suspense fiction. She was born and still lives in Cannes. Aubert is widely known for her book “Death from the Woods” whose main character Elise, left physically devastated by a terrorist attack, is entangled in solving murders.
Read the review for “Death from the Woods”.
“Zulu” winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008 and set in post-apartheid South Africa, is Férey’s first crime novel to be translated into English. It was later made into a film starring Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom.
Until his death in 2010, Garnier was a leading French literary figure who wrote novels, short stories and children’s books. He used characters from ordinary provincial life and sparkled his dark tone with beautiful imagery and dry wit. Only two of his works have been translated into English with “How’s the Pain?” being one of them.
Read more about Garnier and four of his works.
Before setting up his own news agency, Grangé was an independent international reporter. His bestseller in France, “Blood Red Rivers” was later made into the film “Crimson Rivers” starring Vincent Cassel and Jean Reno.
More information on Grangé along with a list of his books can be found here.
Two sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, both booksellers on the banks of the Seine and experts on 19th century Paris, write under the pseudonym of Claude Izner.
Their Victor Legris series has ignited imaginations with the Left Bank bookseller who solves Parisian mysteries on the side. Favourites include “The Marais Assassin” and “The Predator of Batignolles”.
A former teacher of literature, Lemaître was deemed a “storytelling genius” by his UK publisher. In 2013 he was joint winner with Fred Vargas of the Crime Writers Association (CWA) International Dagger for his book “Alex”. 2013 was his lucky year as he also won France’s prestigious literary award – the Prix Goncourt. “Alex” featuring Commander Verhoeven will be made into a film directed by James B. Harris.
Jean François Parot
A former diplomat, Parot started writing as a hobby but soon took it seriously and created the Nicolas Le Floch mystery series set in the 18th century.
Starting her career as a journalist, Sylvain has written 13 crime novels. “Passage du Désir” has been published in English as “Dark Angel” and features Lola, a retired policewoman who is called upon for help by Ingrid, a vivacious American in Paris.
Thilliez was a computer engineer before he started writing. Engrossed in the dark side of northern France, his thrillers are realistic and interwoven with social issues. “Syndrome E” is his first book published in English with movie rights already sold. A bestseller in France, it’s a scientific thriller focusing on the investigation of two detectives.
Winner of Prix Quai du Polar/20 minutes, Varenne is described as a stunning crime writer. “Bed of Nails” is his first book in the series about the Paris underworld.
Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a folklorist, archaeologist and medieval historian uses Fred Vargas as her nom de plume. She has won the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger three times for her work. Her “Commissaire Adamsberg” series has granted her bestseller status in France.
If you want to indulge in a bit of reading from the Francophone world, various works of the above authors can be found and bought here:
Are any of these authors among your favourites in French crime fiction? Can you think of other authors to add to this list?