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Quais du Polar Day 2: James Sallis, Michael Connelly, Ron Rash and others

March 31, 2019 10 comments

You will probably never guess it from my billets about Quais du Polar but this year, the focus is on Nordic crime fiction. Lots of writers from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark are invited to the festival. Since I’m not a great reader of Nordic fiction I chose to attend other events.

Sorry if anyone expected billets about Nordic fiction. 🙂 You can always listen to the conferences on replay here. But let me share with you my second day at Quais du Polar.

My first panel featured Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Ingrid Astier and Monica Kristensen. The theme was Great landscapes and Noir fiction. It echoes to the conference I recently attended about Nature Writing. We were in the room Tony Garnier at the Palais de la Bourse.

Ron Rash writes novels set in the Appalaches and nature is an important part of his protagonists’ way of life. Colin Niel writes crime fiction novels set in French Guyana. You can find my billets about his books here and here. He used to work there as a environment engineer and contributed to the creation of a national park.

Ingrid Astier wrote a surf novel set in Tahiti, French Polynesia. She spent a few months there, to understand the land and talk to the natives of the area. Her book focuses on a special and very dangerous wave that surfers want to ride in Tahiti.

Monica Kristensen is a scientist, a climatologist and the first woman to have led an expedition to the South Pole. She writes crime fiction novels set in the North Pole in Norway.

What I enjoyed about the panel was the good interactions between the writers or how they bounced on each other’s ideas. They listened to each other and even if each of them told stories related to their books and their specific natural environment, they managed to find common points between the issues described. One of the issues is how to combine human activities that ensure that the populations living there can work and make a decent living and protect the environment. Tourism is not always a good solution. They pointed out how our relationship with nature is different according to who we are. Colin Niel said that hiking in the Amazonian forest with soldiers is not the same as hiking there with natives.

They seem to have a common goal with their books: give a voice to the local populations, make their voices heard. And you should have heard Monica Kristensen talking about polar bears! I would have loved to hear her trade bear stories with Craig Johnson.

A very interesting moment with these four authors.

The second event I chose was a mix between jazz and literature. It was set in the Opera of Lyon and James Sallis and Michael Connelly talked about jazz and their literature. Here’s a picture of the premises, for you to have a feel of the jazz club atmosphere.

A quartet played songs between bits of conversation between the two guests, artfully guided by a journalist. It was a wonderful moment, good music and also a great conversation between two writers who truthfully enjoy jazz.

Sallis is actually a specialist and he has written books about jazz music. They made the link between jazz and their work, how it influences their style. Sallis made interesting comments about the music we had just listened to and the process of writing. He pointed out the lead of the song and its patterns and how the quartet improvised from it and came back to the lead and pattern. He said that writing a book was a bit like that. The writer has a lead, he pokes around this idea, plays with it and comes back to it. They have pattern in their writing. He said that music helps him get in the right zone for writing, in the state of mind that will engender his literature. Fascinating stuff.

The third event was a panel with Ron Rash, James Sallis and Chris Offutt about the “Great American Noir novel”, at the Chapelle de la Trinité. Gorgeous place, isn’t it?

They connected well, interacting cleverly, answering the questions of the journalist. They seemed happy to be there, discussing their working habits. Rash and Offutt both write books set in the Appalaches, where they come from. They evoked the nature there and the culture of the inhabitants. Both say that they keep writing about the same place, hoping that if they dig far enough, they’ll reach the universal and be relevant to readers coming from different backgrounds. Sallis has moved a lot in his life and he said that writing about a place was a way for him to absorb the place, to understand it and get to know it deeply.

The three of them have a close relationship with nature and want to stress on the importance of the natural environment on the men who are settled there. Nature influences people’s way of life and their culture, whether they are conscious about that or not. It was a lively conversation with writers who were willing to share, to give us clues about their writing.

I had a lovely time listening to these great writers. I’ve never read Chris Offutt but since he’s published by Gallmeister, I’m sure I’ll like him.

What I love about Quais du Polar is that the writers are not on an obvious promotion tour. Of course, they may be invited to talk about their last book and they sell and sign books. But they are also invited to discuss themes that are in line with their work but not always direct promotion. It avoids readymade comments about their book to questions journalists ask over and over again. They have to play another partition, they have a chance to chat with likeminded writers and that makes it more enjoyable to the public.

Book haul of the day:

A whodunnit in the Proust world written by an academic specialized in Proust. It was wrapped in a nice tote bag designed by the publisher Viviane Hamy. I’m sure cat lovers who will read this post will appreciate it.

Day 3 will be about criminology and about translations.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 1: Brian de Palma, Michael Connelly and a good book haul

March 30, 2019 5 comments

The 15th edition of Lyon’s crime fiction festival started on March 29th, 2019. It is a large festival dedicated to crime, with a giant book store, numerous conferences, investigation games in the city, several escape games and films at the Institut Lumière, the museum of cinema. (The cinema was invented in Lyon, where the first film ever was made.) It is set in different historical buildings in the city center, giving the attendants the opportunity to see places that are usually closed to tourists.

It lasts three days and I plan to take advantage of the three days.

First, I attended interview of Brian de Palma and Susan Lehman who wrote a crime fiction novel together, Are Snake Necessary? That’s the translation of the French version of the book, Les serpents sont-ils nécessaires? I don’t know the actual English title because the book is published in France but not in the USA. This means that, although it was originally written in English, it has not found its publisher in the US. Amazing. To be honest, this interview was disappointing. The journalist had obviously prepared her questions and knew de Palma’s filmography well but he kept deflating questions with jokes, never really answering anything. Susan Lehman tried to compensate for his lack of response but it was not enough to make of this meeting an engaging conversation.

Then I went to the cinema to see the preview of a documentary about Michael Connelly and Los Angeles. Olivier Marchal, a French former cop and crime fiction filmmaker flew to Los Angeles to visit the city, the places mentioned in Connelly’s books and to meet with the real-life cop who inspired Harry Bosch. I have never read anything by Connelly but the documentary was excellent, showing Connelly and Marchal driving around Los Angeles. Connelly talked about Harry Bosch, his work and his love for LA. Olivier Marchal is a great fan of Connelly’s and he was like a kid in a candy store who has met their favorite star. It gave a special atmosphere to the documentary as his enthusiasm and awe are visible. It will be on the French television soon. Connelly was in the movie theatre, discovering the film at the same time as us and he spoke to the public a little bit. He seemed quite approachable for such a successful writer.

After this good time at the cinema, I went to the bookstore at the Palais de la Bourse (The Chamber of Commerce) and wandered among the various stands, all belonging to independent bookstores.

Of course, my wallet didn’t come out of this unscathed but I had a lot of pleasure buying books, discussing with passionate libraires and other readers. Here’s my book haul:

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer. I’ve never heard of him, it was an impulse purchase based on the cover and the name of the publisher. Usually what Métailié publishes is excellent, so I trust them on this one.

I also chose to buy Serena by Ron Rash in English because I knew from his previous visit to Quais du Polar that he reads his book aloud to himself when he writes. He started writing with poetry and moved to novels and short fiction later. He likes to check the sound of his prose. Since I had no trouble reading his Burning Bright collection of short stories, I thought I’d get this one in the original.

For the first time, James Sallis is at Quais du Polar. I’ve never read anything by him, except Drive. I’m curious about Moth (Papillon de nuit in French) and the New Orleans setting appeals to me. I’m curious to compare his New Orleans to the one pictured by James Lee Burke.

Reading Michael Connelly seemed obvious after watching the documentary. It made me curious about Harry Bosch, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the first of the series, The Black Echo.

I enjoyed Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette and I had the chance to tell her how good her book is. She signed my copy of Les larmes noires sur la terre and I’m looking forward to reading it, even if I already know it will be bleak.

Tony Cavanaugh is described as the Australian Michael Connelly, so we’ll see how I like his book. He was very friendly with his public and stunned to learn that the young couple in front of him had come from Lille (700km away) just to attend a book festival. Yes, we French love our crime fiction.

It was a good day to take time at the bookstore and chat with writers. I’m glad I could tell Bogdan Teodorescu how much I loved Spada. (Still no English translation in sight, apparently, no publisher wants it.)

My program of Day 2 is a panel with Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Monica Kristensen and Ingrid Astier about landscapes and Noir. Then a jazz and literature hour with James Sallis and Michael Connelly. Then a panel entitled Eternal flame, the great American Noir novel, featuring James Sallis, Ron Rash and Chris Offutt.

If you want to see the whole program of the festival, you can visit their website. All the talks, interviews and shows are available on replay here.

Away From Men by Pascal Dessaint – excellent crime fiction set in Toulouse

March 28, 2019 4 comments

Away from Men by Pascal Dessaint. (2005) Original French title: Loin des humains. Not available in English.

Last year at Quais du Polar, Pascal Dessaint was signing books at a stand and I asked him to recommend one of his books to me. He picked his fourteenth book, Loin des humains, saying it would give me a good idea of his work. Pascal Dessaint lives in Toulouse and according to his bio on Wikipedia, he loves to hike and is passionate about environmental causes.

Loin des humains is set in Toulouse and was published in 2005. The action takes place in September 2004, one year after the heat wave of 2003 and three years after the AZF tragedy. On September 21st, 2001, the chemical factory AZF exploded near the city center of Toulouse. The blast was of 3.4 on the Richter scale, 29 people died and 2500 were wounded. Two thirds of the windows of the city of Toulouse were destroyed. Needless to say, it left scars on the city and its inhabitants.

The book opens on Jacques Lafleur who decided to tackle the bramble branches that have invaded his sister Jeanne’s garden. He’s there with a pair of pruning shears when his murdered taps on his shoulder…

This will cost Capitaine Felix Dutrey his last days of holidays. His colleague Marc calls him to come back early and lead the investigation about Jacques Lafleur’s murder.

While the police are doing their job digging in Lafleur’s life, Rémi, who works in waste collection center finds Jacques Lafleur’s journals. They date back to the summer 2001. He starts to read them voraciously and Lafleur’s words and way of life make a certain impression on him. When he hears the news about Lafleur’s murder, he decides to act…

Loin des humains is a well-crafted crime fiction novel. Jacques Lafleur is quite a character. He’s a wanderer, a hiker, a bum. He travels and hikes. He usually come back to France to spend a few weeks at his friend Mariel’s place in Ariège. She’s a nurse who lives in a remote house in the mountains. His journal of the summer 2001 was written there.

Jacques came back to Toulouse in September 2001 and stayed with his sister Jeanne since the AZF tragedy. Their brother Pierre also lives in Toulouse with his wife Valérie and their son Quentin. Pierre is a snake specialist and has a vivarium full of dangerous snakes in his backyard. Jacques and Pierre have a complicated relationship. They used to be close but don’t seem to be on speaking terms when Jacques’s death happened. Why?

Loin des humains is a well-written and multi-layered crime fiction novel. The point of view shifts between the police team, Rémi’s and Jacques’s diaries. The police team (Félix, Marc and Magali who has just come back from her personal tragedy) always speaks in the first person, embarking the reader on their side. Rémi’s chapters are told by a omniscient narrator. And Jacques’s voice is conveyed by his journals. It gives the reader clues about the dynamics between the siblings. Jacques hikes in Ariège and it Dessaint writes beautiful pages about the nature there. Remember, he loves to hike too.

The whole book has a great sense of place, Toulouse and the nature in Ariège are part of the characters’ DNA and influence their lives. The police team characters are developed enough for the reader to get attached to them. I liked Félix’s voice, his life on a boat on the Canal du Midi and his relationship with Elisa. Rémi’s looming presence adds to the plot. And the siblings are odd enough to pick the reader’s interest.

Really, who wanted Jacques Lafleur dead?

No Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson – A great polar

February 17, 2019 7 comments

Not Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson (2015) French title: Sans lendemain. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I discovered Jake Hinkson at Quais du Polar and here’s the short biography he gave them for the festival’s website: I was raised by Christian fundamentalists in the mountains of Arkansas. I used to smuggle forbidden crime novels into Bible camp. If Jim Thompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel, I would be their offspring.

Now that you aware of this, you won’t be surprised that Hell on Church Street was a disturbing story set in a Christian fundamentalists’ community in Arkansas and that No Tomorrow is also (mostly) set in Arkansas and that a fundamentalist preacher plays an important part in the story. No Tomorrow starts like this:

The person being warned against going to Arkansas is Billie Dixon. We’re in the summer 1947 and she works for a B-movies studio in Hollywood. She’s in charge of selling or renting their films to local theatres in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. She’s trying to sell films in a part of the Bible Belt.

As you can imagine, Billie Dixon doesn’t take this friendly advice and drives to Stock’s Settlement, Arkansas. The name of the town itself sounds like rural America. She discovers that the town is under the rule of a preacher, Henshaw. He is against cinema and Claude Jeter, the owner of the only movie theatre in Stock’s Settlement is out of business. There’s no way he can rent films to Billie’s employer.

She decides to go and meet Henshaw in a futile attempt to convince him that films are harmless entertainment and that he should allow them in Stock’s Settlement. This is how Billie Dixon meets her femme fatale, Amberly Henshaw. She’s the preacher’s wife and seems imprisoned in her religion-driven life. Bille and Amberly are attracted to each other and have one-afternoon stand.

It will be enough for Billie to come back to Stock’s Settlement to see Amberly again and get entangled in her predicament. Clearly, the preacher is in the way of their relationship and how convenient could it be if he died?

Imagine a lesbian affair in 1947 in Arkansas, a place where homosexuality was a criminal act at the time. (According to Wikipedia, homosexuality was a criminal act in Arkansas until 2002. In France, it was decriminalized in 1981.) Imagine the small town atmosphere and the contrast between Billie’s Hollywood life and Amberly’s life in Stock’s Settlement, a place where they’d rather have a mentally challenged elected sheriff flanked by his sister as a secretary than actually elect the sister as sheriff, something impossible because she’s a woman.

No Tomorrow is a great reading trip, taking you in the realm of classic Hollywood, neo-noir, with murders, road trips and femmes fatales. I think that the French cover reflects the atmosphere of the book, a polar that crime fiction aficionados will probably like. I don’t know if the designer of the American cover actually read the book. It totally lacks the vintage atmosphere that is at the core of Hinkson’s novel. If you saw the two covers in the bookstore, which one would draw your attention?

I read No Tomorrow in one sitting, like you watch a good movie. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France in 2018 and Jake Hinkson is published by Gallmeister. As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is outstanding. She always manages to transfer the American language vibe into French.

Highly recommended.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

November 25, 2018 13 comments

Our Book Club had picked The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg for October. It’s the first volume of the Erica Falck series. We are in Fjällbacka, during the winter and Alexandra Wijkner was found murdered. She was discovered by Erica Falck, a former classmate who is back in her hometown to tidy her childhood home after her parents were killed in an accident. Erica is a writer of biographies. She’s on a deadline to finish her book and working in Fjällbacka, far from the distractions of Stockholm works for her. She doesn’t have any family left there, her only sister lives in Stockholm too.

The plot centers around the personality of the victim, her loveless marriage to Karl Erik, her relationship with her parents and the strange events that happened in her early teenage years. Erica and Alexandra were best friends until her family suddenly moved out without telling goodbye to anyone. Has Alexandra’s murder anything to do with her past and how is the powerful Lorentz family involved in this story? That’s the murder plot.

The police in charge of the investigation is led by an insufferable chief called Bertil Mellberg and the inspector actually doing the ground work is Patrik Hedström, also a former schoolmate of Erica’s. He used to have a huge crush on her when they were younger.

Erica gets involved in the investigation, while finishing her book, starting to write a new one about Alexandra’s murder and dealing with her sister’s problems and her terrible brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Patrik and Erica get reacquainted and their relationship hops on an uncontrollable sleigh of soppiness, with fluttering hearts, ovaries in overdrive and cooking-is-the-way-to-a-man’s-heart seduction moves.

I found the story easy to read, not very original but entertaining even if I have guessed a key element in the mystery. And believe me, this is not a good sign because I never try to solve the murder when I read crime fiction, I have more fun enjoying the ride. The mystery part was OK but déjà vu, in my opinion.

The other elements around the investigation have been done before too. Erica’s sister is victim of domestic violence and the romance is too cheesy for my tastes. I guess it’s so successful because you can relate to Erica who is an average citizen. The only fun character is the awful chief of police. For the rest, I had the feeling that it lacked characterization and that the plot was too weak. It doesn’t compare well to other series like the ones written by Anne Perry, Louise Penny or Fred Vargas.

I’d say it’s good for a train journey or a plane trip but nothing to write home about.

Now a word about the French translation. I thought it was weird. Sometimes the syntax leaped out of the page. But what surprised me most were old-fashioned expressions like se lever à l’heure du laitier (to get up with the milkman), the use of baise-en-ville to describe the overnight bag Erica takes for her date with Patrik. tata instead of tatie (auntie), casse-croûte instead of sandwich. The translators are Lena Grumbach and Marc de Gouvernain. I’ve already read translations by Lena Grumbach since she also translates Katarina Mazetti but I never noticed anything about her translations, so I wonder if this old-fashioned vocabulary was in the original. Strange.

The Dry by Jane Harper

July 31, 2018 13 comments

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016) French title: Canicule.

After reading the second volume of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series (see my billet), I decided to read the first one as well. Good for me because The Dry was even better than Force of Nature.

The main character is Aaron Falk, a federal police officer working in the financial division. He’s usually after white collar criminals. When the book opens, Aaron Falk is in Melbourne and he’s about to go back to his hometown Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and their son Billy.

Kiewarra is a rural town, Luke was a farmer and all farmers are struggling to survive because of a terrible drought. The town is dying, the lack of income from the farmers affect the local shops and this drought seems endless. Luke was apparently at the end of his rope and killed himself and his family. Only baby Charlotte escaped the slaughter.

Falk hasn’t been home for twenty years and he goes back reluctantly. When he’s at the funeral, a picture of Luke, him, Gretchen and Ellie appears in a slide show. It brings back the year when he was 16, the year Ellie was found dead in the river, the year he was wrongly accused of the murder, the year his father and he had to leave town and settle in Melbourne.

After the funeral, Luke’s parents, Barb and Gerry come and talk to Falk. They want him to investigate Luke’s death, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. Barb wants Falk to investigate Luke’s finances, to see whether he was so close to bankruptcy that he’d kill his family. Gerry wants to know whether it has anything to do with the unsolved mystery of Ellie’s death. Indeed, when she died, a piece of paper with FALK written in her handwriting was found in her pocket. Why? Aaron didn’t have a witness to confirm his alibi and Luke and he decided to lie about where we were and be each other’s alibi. They said they were together. Gerry knows they were lying and now he wonders if his son killed Ellie back in the day.

Aaron agrees to investigate and takes a few days off. He’d love to go back home, to his orderly life in Melbourne. But he stays because of all the good times he spent at the Hadlers’ when he was a kid, for all the warmth and affection Barb gave him freely, something he needed, having lost his mother at birth.

Luckily, Raco, the newly appointed police chief of Kiewarra thinks that the Clyde police force in charge of the case was all too happy to file it as a suicide. For Raco, details don’t add up. The way Karen was found sprawled in the hallway of their house, the way Billy was killed after what looks like a chase in his bedroom, the way Luke’s body was lying in his truck. And why spare baby Charlotte? And why use different cartridges than the usual?

Raco and Aaron join their forces to start an unofficial investigation. Did Luke killed his wife and son before turning his shotgun against himself? If he didn’t, why were they murdered and has the killing anything to do with Ellie’s death?

Aaron’s presence in Kiewarra is not welcome and his coming back stirs hatred and brings back old secrets. What happened to Luke and his family? What happened to Ellie? Will this new drama allow Falk to have some closure about the terrible events that changed his life?

I loved The Dry. Jane Harper created an atmospheric novel. It shows a small town with secrets and festering hatred, a town where news travel fast, where strangers remain strangers for years, where things remain under wraps because they all need each other at a time or another, so why stir trouble and risk being an outcast and out of the town’s support system? The drought exacerbates everything because this rural community suffers from the lack of water and farmers risk to lose their farm. Things could blow up any time.

Highly recommended.

Please find Bill’s very informative review about The Dry here.

PS: Follow up of my Australian English chronicles. On Goodreads, a question about The Dry was “What is a ute and what is a huntsman” I’m happy to report I know what they are and that I have passed a new stage with pokie, arvo, aggro and ammo. 😊 Unfortunately, I don’t understand why the book is entitled The Dry and not The Drought. Any help with that?

This also qualifies for the AWW Challenge. See here.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

July 16, 2018 13 comments

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017) French title: Sauvage

Force of Nature is the second volume of the Aaron Falk crime fiction series by Jane Harper. Five men and five women from the company BaileyTennants are sent on a company retreat in the Giralang Ranges. The two groups have to hike during several days, looking for banners, going from one campsite to the other until they make it to the arrival.

The problem is…only four women come back and Alice Russel has disappeared. Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are worried about this because Alice was the whistleblower in the case they’re working on. Daniel and Jill Bailey, the managers and owners of this family business are involved in money laundering for wider criminal networks. Falk and Carmen are only cogs in a giant investigation and they were about getting crucial documents from Alice about the Baileys’ business.

Does her disappearance have anything to do with their case?

Jane Harper weaves a masterful net of relationships between the women. They are mismatched. The group leader is Jill Bailey, as a member of senior management. Alice Russel, the one who disappeared is here with her assistant Bree McKenzie. Lauren Shaw went to a special boarding school with Alice Russell and they’ve known each other for thirty years. The last participant is Beth McKenzie, Bree’s twin sister.

All have a specific relationship with Alice. Alice is known as an ice queen bitch, so the others might have her reasons to wish for her disappearance. Jill muses:

Being around Alice was like owning an aggressive breed of dog. Loyal when it suited, but you had to stay on your toes.

There’s some resentment between her and Lauren, she tends to bully Beth. Jill’s side business in the firm is threatened by Alice’s interactions with the police. The book is constructed in such a way that the reader alternates between following the police investigation and the rangers’ researches to find Alice in the bush and following the women’s hike and discover how things went wrong. At the beginning, the device bothered me a bit but it proved excellent because it broke the monotony of the investigation and broke the palpable tension I felt when I was following the women’s hike. The bushland setting contributes to the tension of the story as it is rife with dangers. In a way, it talks to our deepest fear, the ones we heard of in fairy tales when we were little, the fear to get lost in the forest.

It was strange, Jill thought, how much the bushland started to look alike. Twice she’d spotted something – once a stump, the other time a fallen tree – which she was sure she remembered from earlier. It was like walking in a semi-constant sense of déjà vu.

The bushland is another character, it’s not human but it sure helps move the plot forward and add on the feeling of urgency and of threat.

It’s a clever crime fiction novel, one I’d recommend as a summer read. Harper’s style is efficient, to the point but not very literary. There are better crime fiction books than this one, as far as literature is concerned. However, it’s an excellent reading time.

On last note, I bought a copy in the original and it gave me another opportunity to work on my spoken Australian English, after Anita Heiss and Marie Munkara. And I am puzzled by the Australian habit to shorter words like bikie or barbie. I’m getting used to the short words with an “ie” as a suffix though. However, I had to google spag bol because I couldn’t figure out what they were eating. (It doesn’t help that visually, bol is bowl in French)

Force of Nature is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer Challenge.

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