Dennis Broe reports on the crime novelists' festival at Quais du Polar in Lyon, France.
This is Bro on the World Literary Beat and I’ve just come back from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon France, one of the world’s largest gathering of crime novelists – in France crime novels are called Polars. The hot topics this year included widening inequality, and crime novelists taking an interest in how much more sequestered the ultra-rich have become; the French rail strike, the last gasp of the unionized workers in France standing up to Macron’s anti-worker policies with the nationalized train corporation, the SNCF, one of the sponsors of the event. In Italy, the country focused on in the festival, the interplay between the global and local and the role of the state and organized crime; and the exploration in France of what are called ZAD’s Zones of Defense, environmental and social areas carved out by protestors, the most famous of which was invaded by the police a day after the panel concluded.
Crime novels and their cinematic equivalent – on the screen called the film noir – have often had a sympathy for the underdog and for working-class habits and ways of life. In the U.S. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich took the detective novel out of hands of well-to-do British detectives, and by creating the hard-boiled novel brought a new realism and class consciousness to the genre.
They were then followed at the time of the growing popularity of the paperback by another generation of American writers including Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes who were exceedingly critical of American society in the 1950s. An international panel at Quais du Polar, though, focused on crime writers’ explorations of a class not previously featured in the form – the super-rich, now sequestered in gated communities and rearing their youth as well in select schools that limit interaction with other classes.
Malin Persson Giolito, a Swedish author has written a book Quicksand which attempts to come to grips with why one of these rich teens goes amuck in her high school. Colin Harrison from the U.S., whose most famous book is Manhattan Nocturne, talked about the class geography of Manhattan and his experience of being at a gathering of the ultrarich for a wedding on Long Island, which also involved Black and Latino youth from the Bronx parking the cars of the invitees as part of an unequal way in which the two worlds interact.
Finally Gianni Biondiollo, from a working class background in Milan, discussed a book he has written about murder on the catwalk involving the fashion industry in that city called The Charm of the Siren. Biondiollo explained that he became a kind of sociologist to study the closed and wealthy world of Milan’s fashion industry. This involved a leap of imagination also since he is colourblind. Biondiollo and the Scottish author Ian Rankin with his eponymous Inspector Rebus both come from, as did many of the writers at the conference, working-class backgrounds, and their police detective characters exhibit that perspective but both also point to the way the now more bourgeois aspect of the form of the detective novel itself pigeonholes and tames working class perspectives by interpolating them under the sign of the police.
A subject that came up in several panels was the current strike of the cheminots, the railway workers, trying to protect their salaries and to protect the railway system from being privatized. This is perhaps the last great strike by what is left of France’s unions. Its most powerful sector at the moment is the public sector and it is the railway workers who led the other unions in winning a prolonged strike in 1995 that kept the French government from cutting back social welfare. The railway itself, the SNCF, was one of the sponsors of the conference and in a panel on the movement of 1968 titled Under the Pavement, the Polar, recalling the famous phrase from that moment, Under the Pavement, the Beach, there were mentions of support by two authors for the strikers which were widely cheered from the audience.
Dominique Menotti, who in her other life is a professor of economic history, writes mysteries about the current economic climate including The Lorraine Connection about murder and strikes in an electronics firm. She spoke about May 1968 and how the ripples of the movement shook French society until being extinguished in 1983 and 1984 under the so called socialist Francois Mitterand.
Her fellow author Serge Quadrappani, a translator and noir novelist whose mysteries are often set in Italy chimed in that the spirit of 1968 in Italy ended for him with the death of the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini on a beach just outside Rome. Pasolini, he claimed. was killed by the Italian police who had always regarded him as a troublemaker. Needless to see this speculation never made it into Abel Ferrara’s uneventful detailing of the director’s last day titled Pasolini.
That the support of these novelists for the strikers was greeted with warmth by the audience goes along with the fact that since the strikes began more of the French population has come out in favour of them, 42 percent in favor before and 47 percent after, despite the fact that many of the population will be driving or taking buses, because the strikes are two out of every five days and will last three months. This is so far the best organized protest against the Macron government’s picking off the working force issue by issue and sector by sector.
In Italy noir novels, polars, are very regional and each region has its own well-known author. The dean though of Italian noir, Massimo Carlotto, whose The Last Good Kiss is a veiled swipe at the Berlusconi era, did not come but did send his protégé Piergiorgio Pulixi whose Night of the Panther tracks drugs, the government and the mafia in the Northeast Veneto region, just outside Venice.
Carlotto has founded his own line of novels called Sabat/age which is designed to highlight through various authors working in various regions the ongoing relationship between organized crime and the state. The line itself in its continuing to deal with the political economy of crime is a kind of resistance in the noir novel to the main Anglo-Saxon emphasis at the moment on what is called “the domestic noir” best exemplified by Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train and which purports to bring a more female and psychological dimension to the genre, but which also tends to evacuate the social aspects.
As for the regions, Mimmo Gangemi, chronicler of the Southern region of Calabria at the tip of the Italian boot in his series titled The Little Judge, pleaded for the region to be seen as something other than just the home of the ‘Ndrangheta, the family centered mob. Gangemi also disputed the claims that the ‘Ndrangheta had become internationalized – but this denial was belied by a film shown at the conference Anima Nere, Black Souls. It opened with a family from the shepherding village of Aspromonte now involved in drug-running in Milan and very much internationalizing.
Maurizio di Giovanni talked about the food, sights and odors of Naples as seen through his detective Commisario Ricciardi who operates in the fascist period under Mussolini and works sometimes intuitively through the smells of the dead while Valerio Varesi whose River of Shadows is about the now largely de-industrialized Po Valley, the former center of working-class activity and who has been compared to the American Crime Writer whose subject is Louisiana James Lee Burke, cautioned and argued ominously that through the internet and globalization the Italian regions were becoming much more homogenized.
Finally, some French authors of crime fiction have taken to chronicling the phenomenon of what are called ZADs, Zones of Defense, people’s resistance sites organized around environmental and social issues where all kinds of counter-organizations sprout, similar to but more enduring than Zucotti Park in the Occupy Movement.
The ZAD to stop the building of the airport at Notre Dame des Landes this year was successful and the state has called off the environmentally intrusive construction. The occupiers wanted to stay on the territory and continue to develop it as an alternate site but the day after the conference the state began clearing them with tear gas and stun grenades.
Jean Bernard Pouy’s My ZAD in fact begins with just such a scene and was inspired by the resistance site organized to protest the building of a dam at Sivins in the Garonne section of Southern France. The other famous ZAD, now utterly and brutally cleared is the refugee camp at Calais. Pouy, an inveterate noir writer and anarchist explores the coming back from the dead of a 40-something Zadiste who, fired from his job and beaten, rallies to contest local corporate power proving that the social and political polar is not only alive and well but also vibrantly topical.