Going all the way back to where noir started would take us too far, but ‘modern’ French noir definitely began in the 70s with the emergence of the néo-polar (new thriller). This was a noir that engaged with social and even political issues, it was essentially leftist, and drew on Rousseau, in that the bad guy always had the excuse that society had made him that way. Authors in this area include Jean-Patrick Manchette, Didier Daeninckx, Thierry Jonquet, Jean-Bernard Pouy.
This néo-polar dominated noir fiction until the middle of the 90s, even if writers such as Sébastien Japrisot and Pierre Magnan and so on didn’t quite fit into the trend. And then at the end of the 90s two incredibly talented writers appeared, both quite different from each other, who breathed new life into the genre. I’m talking about Fred Vargas and Jean-Christophe Grangé.
Grangé was the pioneer of thriller writing in France. His complicated plots include science, mystical elements and gore, and he has a powerful imagination, pushing the limits of what’s believable. He was very influential: in the area of the market that he opened up we now see such talents as Franck Thilliez, Maxime Chattam, and Henry Loevenbruck. And on the other hand you have the poetic, slightly out-of-joint universe of Fred Vargas, deeply personal writing with such a cast of characters that her books still stand alone.
But really what characterises French noir today is its diversity, its lack of unity. After all, what do the Hitchcockian intrigues of Pierre Lemaitre have in common with the clever plot twists of Michel Bussi, the masonic thrillers by Giacometti and Ravenne, the demanding novels of Marin Ledun and Hervé Commère, the completely original Dominique Sylvain, Olivier Truc’s ‘ethnic’ crime fiction set in Lapland, or Karine Giébel’s psychological suspense?
Unlike Scandinavian noir, where you can maybe find a certain consistency in the care taken to paint contemporary Nordic societies, French noir has become a genre in which anything is possible, which is going down increasingly bold and original paths. I’ll leave it to readers to decide which path I myself am travelling on – which isn’t to say that I don’t have a sense of where I’m going or how I plan to get there… but the rest is silence.
Bernard Minier is published by Mulholland