Reviewer’s Diary – Barry Forshaw

Knickers in Newcastle

There may have been a brisk wind from the Tyne around my nether regions, but it certainly kept me wide awake for a fun Newcastle Noir crime festival in May organised by the kinetic Jacky Collins, whose modest size is in inverse proportion to her energy levels. Avoiding the city’s famous clubbing scene (with deafening discos on every corner – the bouncers wouldn’t have let someone of my age in even if I’d wanted to get down wit’ da kidz), I rubbed shoulders – but no other body parts — with crime fiction crème de la crème from the UK (including Sophie Hannah and Celtic monarch Val McDermid), Norway (Varg Veum’s creator, the amiable Gunnar Staalesen), and the four principal female crime writers from Iceland, with whom I shared a wine-and-cocktail-fuelled meal – the Icelandic Crime Queens, in fact (as in the photo: Jónína Leosdóttir, the Anglophile Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, Sólveig Palsdottir and Lilja Sigurđardóttir). Another highlight for me? Surviving a very lively Brit Noir panel with Sarah Ward, Helen Cadbury, SJI (Susi) Holiday and Amanda Jennings. And I even managed to cross the Tyne to Gateshead and the impressive arts centre the Baltic, with its traditional nesting kittiwakes decorating the exterior with birdlime. Back across the river, I was reminded forcibly just how little Newcastle lasses wear for a night out on the town, however low the temperature — with skin-tight dresses made of 12 inches of material, tottering on seven-inch heels. I realise that I’d become more of southerner than a northerner when one minimally dressed young Newcastle woman – unprompted — obligingly (and acrobatically) flashed her underwear at me. I muttered: ‘Very nice,’ but wasn’t sure that this was the correct response…. maybe I should have asked my festival hosts about the protocol in such cases?

The Bloody French

My panel at this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculiar crime festival in Harrogate was originally called ‘The Bloody French’, but has (I find) been renamed with the more academic-sounding ‘France Noir: Le Roman Policier’. Well, I am ‘Professor Forshaw’, I suppose. And I’m looking forward to this one, as I have three interesting writers, all of whom I’ve met (not to mention the witty translator Frank Wynne). Bernard Minier’s first novel was The Frozen Dead in 2011; his books have enjoyed both acclaim and several literary prizes in France. And a ringer in the panel is the British writer SJ Parris (a.k.a. Stephanie Merritt), whose historical crime novels are set in Paris. And there’s the wry Pierre Lemaitre. Lemaitre wrote his first book in 2006, and his scarifying novels Alex and Irène have gleaned great critical praise. His bestseller The Great Swindle went on to win France’s biggest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Crime à la Français

In the early 21st century, French crime fiction is in good shape – as it was a century ago. An iconic figure from an earlier era is elegant thief Arsène Lupin, who featured in a series of novels (20 in all) by Maurice Leblanc. However, from the first major crime author in translation – the influential, prolific (and, as he told us, sexually athletic) Georges Simenon — to eccentric modern talents such as Fred Vargas, the history of crime fiction from France has been both striking and unorthodox. And now we have Monsieur Lemaitre.

Speaking to the amiable Lemaitre, self-conscious about his English (which is a damn sight better than my French), I found him slightly bemused by the considerable praise Alex had accrued in the UK. ‘I really had no idea it would be so well received in your country,’ he told me. ‘It’s a very French book. Thank God the British really appear (against the odds) to be Francophiles!’

How easy is it to reinvigorate a shop-worn formula? One way is to shoot each shop-worn effect full of adrenalin. The other is to inject subtly innovative elements into the detail, subverting the clichés. Alex is a book that has it both ways, and succeeds in having its cake and eating it – yes, we’ve had the brutal kidnapping of a young woman before (Hans Koppel’s bleak She’s Never Coming Back and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, to name but two), but the victimised woman here is very different from her predecessors. And although the details of her kidnapping and incarceration are familiar — as is the desperate police search to find her — Lemaitre has something very surprising up his sleeve. But was this enough to explain the feverish word-of-mouth that this book engendered?

Worthy of all the fuss                                     

Alex is an intriguing young woman who is introduced to us in something of a state of flux. She appears to be constantly attempting to change her identity – and her appearance — for reasons that are obscure, but seem more playful than calculated. After a flirtation with a man in a restaurant, she is assaulted and bundled into a white van where she undergoes a savage beating. The scenes of the kidnapping that follow are handled with disturbing force by the writer – however, unlike (say) the Hans Koppel mentioned above, the effect is not dispiriting but relentlessly gripping. The man tasked with Alex’s rescue is Commandant Camille Verhoeven, and we might be forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again’: tormented copper, personal tragedy, uneasy with subordinates. This detective, however, is something new: Verhoeven is Napoleon-sized and congenitally stunted — and Lemaitre skilfully communicates the thought processes of a man driven by his stature to prove himself bigger than those around him in everything except height.

Familiar elements aside, it was quickly apparent that Lemaitre was worthy of all the fuss. In Frank Wynne’s sympathetic translation, various subtle detonations of the crime novel are handled with aplomb, such as an examination of the nature of identity (as represented by the enigmatic Alex). And Alex herself turns out to be the author’s ace-in-the-hole, for reasons that will not be revealed here. By page 200 you may believe that you’re moving to a pulse-raising conclusion. But you will be wrong; in some senses, the novel has only just started…

As for my Theakstons France Noir panel with Lemaitre, Bernard Minier and S J Parris, I’m grateful (in advance) for the comforting presence of translator Frank Wynne. Just in case anyone slips into French…

Barry’s latest books are Brit Noir, Sex and Film, Detective: Crime Uncovered and (co-edited with David Stuart Davies) The Sherlock Holmes Book.