Despite the name, the origins of noir are largely rooted in the American hardboiled fiction of the 30s and 40s. When French publisher, Gallimard, founded its famous Série Noire imprint in 1944, it focused on translations of thrillers by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The number of French writers on the list grew, but the influence of the US remained strong; many authors translated American crime novels alongside their own work, or wrote under American-sounding pseudonyms. The US is still a source of fascination for many French crime writers; we’ve just published a short, shocking story of high school massacres, Carnage by Maxime Chattam.
The 1970s saw the birth of the ‘néopolar’ (the new crime novel), with writers such as Jean-Patrick Manchette using the form to critique French society and explore existential questions. His tale of a hitwoman working her way into small-town life, Fatale, was published by New York Review Books last year.
Thierry Jonquet took a similarly political, darkly satirical approach. Serpent’s Tail have reissued his twisted revenge tale, Mygale, under the title Tarantula: The Skin I Live In, to coincide with the release of Almodóvar’s film adaptation.
There’s an overlap with cinema in the work of many French noir writers. The novels of Tonino Benacquista, award-winning screenwriter of gritty 2005 film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, are published by foreign crime specialists, Bitter Lemon Press. The English title of his most recently translated novel, Badfellas, plays on the Scorsese film, and the story transports a Sopranos-esque American crime family to a witness protection programme in Normandy, cleverly tying together the tropes of the genre with an unconventional setting.
Benacquista’s darkly comic observations of crime in everyday, unglamorous settings (far from the smoky LA nightclubs we’re used to seeing) have much in common with one of our own noir writers, Pascal Garnier. This year, we’re excited to be bringing out three of his novels, The Panda Theory, How’s the Pain? and The A26. The plots may feature hitmen and road trips, but the settings are supermarkets, service stations and campsites in provincial France, the cultural references decidedly Gallic.
Like Manchette and Benacquista, Garnier drops his criminal protagonists (charming sociopaths in the Ripley vein) into unfamiliar places, outsiders looking in. In How’s the Pain?, 'vermin exterminator' Simon breaks his journey in the spa town of Vals-les-Bains, where he meets Bernard, the naive drifter who becomes his accidental accomplice. We see the town and its people through Simon’s ironic gaze. The cast of unremarkable characters are plunged into extraordinary situations, whose incongruity can be very amusing.
It’s this shifting tone, conveyed with beautifully pared-back prose, that’s Garnier’s hallmark. With their stark violence and tendency towards the surreal, his novels have echoes of Tarantino or the black comedy of the Coen brothers. You often don’t know whether to laugh or cry, leading some to label his genre the roman gris, with touches of brightness lightening the grim outlook of noir.
With Fred Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries and Dominique Manotti’s studies of corruption regularly lauded at the CWA International Dagger Awards for crime fiction, French noir writers are taking centre stage. While prolific Belgian writer, Georges Simenon, whose work spanned several decades of the twentieth century, remains the best-known Francophone exponent of noir (and provided its most famous detective character in Maigret), his literary inheritors are proving it’s not just the Scandinavians who can do dark.