Harrogate Dispatches #7: French Noir


crime-logo-e1434622076626Great crime writing knows no borders and one of the many fortuitous aspects about time at Harrogate’s Old Swan hotel is the opportunity the panel discussions provide to shine a light on all aspects of the genre: including novels which don’t originate in English. Taking the stage for France Noir were Pierre Lemaitre (Travail soigné aka Irene), Bernard Minier (The Frozen Dead), SJ Parris (her latest Giordano Bruno mystery, Conspiracy, is set in Paris in 1585) and translator par excellence Frank Wynne.The group enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion on what makes their lead characters tick (being out of time with the world for Minier’s; being seductive, but not in a sexual way, for Lemaitre’s); the pros and cons of translation, and their favourite and not-so favourite work by other writers … it was a “Non” for Agatha Christie from Minier but a fantastique from Parris for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (yes, all of it!).

The debate came to life around the question of why French noir is – or is seen as – so violent. Lemaitre’s, “Ellroy is a saint?” comment raised a laugh, though he also suggested that the tastes of French readers could be blamed, too. However, Minier said that if it was thought that French readers liked their books bloody, then we might also take a moment to consider the work of Shakespeare. For Parris, who writes historical fiction, it was a more practical answer: she is writing about a time that was simply more violent; death was more common and if there was a murder then there were no police to investigate it, unless the victim was considering an important person.

A tip of the hat should definitely go to Wynne who not only provided great insight into the translation process (and should be applauded for his campaign on getting more Georges Simenon translated into English) but who also live-translated the comments of Lemaitre and Minier with speed, frankness and nuance. Bon travail!

Robert Hull



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