French crime fiction: five to discover

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French readers are voracious consumers of crime fiction. One in five books sold in France is a polar – a shortening of roman policier, which means crime novel. All the major publishing houses have an imprint or series specialising in crime fiction or noir novels, usually with appropriately black covers. Despite the large numbers of books translated into French for readers in France, French authors themselves sell very well in the country and are beginning to reach global audiences via translations and films or TV series. With the English release of Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex – a huge hit in France – and with crime drama Spiral impressing UK audiences on BBC4, we’re expecting a swell of interest in French crime fiction in 2013.

Of course there are authors like Simenon and Leblanc, from the last century, but what about the new wave of French authors. The English-speaking world has been a little slow to catch onto this trend, but a growing number of publishers are making French crime fiction more accessible in English. Gallic Books, Bitter Lemon Press, Le French Book, Serpent’s Tail, MacLehose, Europa, Arcadia Books and Vintage all have at least a few French crime authors in their stables. So which ones should you watch out for? These five all provide good starting points…

Le-FlochThe Nicolas Le Floch series by Jean Francois Parot
Parot is a diplomat as well as an amateur historian, specialising in 18th century Paris. His main character, Nicolas Le Floch, is a recruit in the police service of Louis XV (and later for Louis XVI) and the books follow his career progression and love life in the 20 years leading up to the French Revolution. As well as intriguing puzzles to solve in each story, the series is also renowned for its meticulous reconstruction of everyday life in 18th century France, including authentic food recipes from that period. Six of them have been translated into English so far, and although it might be best to read them in order, the best is probably The Nicholas Le Floch Affair. Here the protagonist finds himself implicated in the murder of his mistress and has to work hard to clear his name and maintain King Louis’ confidence.
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CrimsonCrimson Rivers by Jean-Christophe Grangé
Grangé is the top selling crime author in his home country and one of the few French authors to become successful in the US. This is not surprising, given his experience as an international reporter and his love of American thrillers. More reminiscent of Dan Brown than any of his fellow countrymen, his thrillers have international conspiracies at their heart, with protagonists travelling all over the world to solve the mysteries, usually in a race against time. Crimson Rivers is his best-known book to date, perhaps because it was also made into a film starring Vincent Cassel and Jean Reno. It starts off with a mutilated corpse found in a crevice in the French Alps near Grenoble. A parallel, seemingly unrelated case of a desecrate tomb soon turns decidedly nasty. Are the cases linked, and could the sinister Crimson Rivers cult be involved? If you like fast-paced, almost frenetic excitement, you will enjoy this author’s sheer energy and inventiveness.
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Syndrome ESyndrome E by Franck Thilliez
An engineer who has turned to thriller writing, Thilliez is fantastic at popularising the latest scientific discoveries, using them to chilling effect in his very intense, sometimes grisly thrillers. Mental health issues, deadly viruses or biological weapons of some kind are always involved in his well-paced stories. Soon he’ll be introduced to the English-speaking world with the translation of one of his books Syndrome E, which has also been optioned for film rights in the US. Lucie Hennebelle finds one of her ex-boyfriends has gone blind after watching a mysterious old film. Chief Inspector Franck Sharko is about to lose his job over his mental health problems, but then gets called in to resolve the case of five horribly mutilated corpses. These two broken, hurt people find each other as their stories converge, and begin a tender and realistically-described personal and professional partnership.
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DeathWoodsDeath from the Woods by Brigitte Aubert
Having worked for many years in the film industry, in 1997 Aubert unleashed the most surprising amateur detective the world has possibly ever seen: the quadriplegic, blind and mute Elise Andrioli, victim of a terrorist bomb. Elise is approached by a little girl, Virginie, who claims she knows something about a serial killer who preys on children in the woods nearby. Elise must overcome her difficulties in communicating and solve the mystery using only her brilliant mind and listening skills. One of the most unusual thrillers I have read in a long time.
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An Uncertain PlaceThe Commissaire Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas
Pen name of historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, Fred Vargas is perhaps the best known of the five, having won three CWA International Daggers. Her books defy any classification, her style follows no rules or fashions, but she is most loved for the creation of Commissaire Adamsberg and his quirky, dysfunctional team. These are not your run-of-the-mill police procedurals, some of them border on fantasy. You will confront the possibility of werewolves in Seeking Whom He May Devour, a serial killer who seems to live forever in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, and the plague in Have Mercy on Us All. Yet it is all handled in a masterly and truly unforgettable fashion.
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