If you’re an addict of detective fiction and murder mysteries, then you have a lot to choose from when it comes to Paris
Let’s start with the Maigret books and stories – seventy-five novels and twenty-eight shorts, written between 1931 and 1972 – by Belgian Georges Simenon (1903-1989), who moved to Paris in 1922 (though not all the stories are set in Paris).
The huge number of films and television adaptations of the stories are probably even better known than the books themselves. Simenon’s personal reputation has been somewhat clouded by rumours of wartime ‘collaboration’ – though he managed to avoid being questioned at the end of the war and lived in Canada and the US from 1945 to 1955, returning to Europe to live first in the south of France, then Switzerland.
There are too many stories to refer to them all individually, but someone did particularly recommend to me The Shadow Puppet (1956, newest translation 2014 ). Earlier translations appeared under the titles of ‘Maigret Mystified’ and ‘The Shadow in the Courtyard’. It centres on the beautiful Place des Vosges – the square beloved of ‘tourists with taste’ – whose former residents included a number of writers, including Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, Alphonse Daudet, and Madame de Sevigné (well, she was born there, anyway) whose famously witty and vivid letters to her daughter give us a wonderful portrait of seventeenth-century high society.
Perhaps it was the success of Maigret that prompted so many other writers to take up the Parisian setting for detective novels. Here are some worth looking at if you want to get to know Paris.
French sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefèvre – who write as Claude Izner – have written a whole series of stories based in different parts of Paris in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The sisters are both Parisian booksellers as well as experts on nineteenth-century Paris, so it isn’t surprising that their amateur detective, Victor Legris, also sells books as his day job.
Atmospheric and informative, as well as jolly good reads, they are, to date, Murder on the Eiffel Tower (2003, translated 2007), The Montmartre Investigation (2003, translated 2008), The Père-Lachaise Mystery (2003, translated 2007), The Marais Assassin (2004, translated 2009), The Predator of Batignolles (2005, translated 2010), Strangled in Paris (2006, translated 2011), and In the Shadows of Paris (2008, translated 2013). I’ve read the first three and, although not usually a great fan of murder mysteries, thoroughly enjoyed them for their depiction of Belle Époque Paris.
American Cara Black‘s ‘Aimée Leduc Mysteries’ – sixteen to date, almost one per year from 1999 – are set mainly in 1990s Paris, each one located in a different area of the city. I haven’t read them all, but those I have tried I found to be atmospheric, well-written and intelligent examples of the thriller genre. I particularly enjoyed Murder on the Île Saint-Louis (2007), partly because the Île is one of my favourite places in Paris, and partly because the story involves the Institut du Monde Arabe, one of my favourite buildings (and in whose cafeteria I once ate a dessert the deliciousness of which I have never experienced before or since …).
I’ve promised myself Murder in Belleville (2000) when I have time as that, too, is an area of the city I find fascinating – very multi-cultural and seething with colour and energy – though the absolute opposite of the suave and wealthy Île Saint-Louis. And Murder in the Latin Quarter (2009), which is the area of the city I know best. So, no matter which part of the city you come to love most, Cara Black has probably set one of her Aimée Leduc mysteries there.
Daniel Pennac (born 1944) is one of my favourite contemporary French writers. I met him once and he is just as charming in person as he is in his books. I knew his non-fiction work before coming to his fiction and love his comic take on the detective novel in his Belleville Quintet, consisting of The Scapegoat (1985, translated 1998), The Fairy Gunmother (1987, translated 1997), Write to Kill (1989, translated 1999), Passion Fruit (1999, translated 2001), and Monsieur Malaussène (1995, translated 2003).
A huge success in France, the books’ rather mad imagination centres on the vibrant immigrant disctrict of Belleville and the lives of Benjamin Malaussène, the archetypal scapegoat, and his tumbling family of siblings and half siblings who become involved in a series of crimes, with the finger of the law all too often pointing towards Benjamin. Added to the mix, for good measure, is Benjamin’s smelly, epileptic dog. One of my favourite bits in The Fairy Gunmother is when Benjamin, on the Metro, is reflecting on how simple life would be if he could ditch his ‘humanity’ and believe in horrible punishments – including the death penalty.
Here’s a fragment of his thoughts: ‘I’d like to belong to that great big beautiful Soul of Humanity, the one that firmly believes in punishment as an example, the one that knows who the goodies are and who the baddies are. I’d like to be the proud owner of a personally-held conviction. Jesus how I’d like that! Wouldn’t that make my life so nice and fucking simple?‘ I like it because it shows that, beneath all the fun and games, Pennac has some pretty serious stuff to say – particularly to young people. After all, he’s been a school-teacher in a tough part of Paris and has written some very sensible – light-seeming but with real depth – books on reading and education, as well as lots of stories for kids.
A modern-day mystery with a literary theme is A Novel Bookstore (2009, translated 2010) by French writer Laurence Cossé (mentioned earlier as the author of Bitter Almonds). Ivan Georg runs a very special bookstore in the Odéon area of Paris (suitably referencing Sylvia Beach’s famous literary bookshop in rue de l’Odéon). His stock is of a particularly high quality, being selected by a secret committee of eight people, all dedicated to promoting Literature with a capital L. But when strange accidents begin to happen to each of the committee members in turn, it’s obvious that something is rotten in the world of publishing and bookselling … even in civilised Paris. Because it upholds the idea of literary excellence in the face of mass-market trash, I loved this book.
There are plenty of other crime novels with a Paris setting, but I’ll just mention three from prize-winning authors. Have Mercy On Us All (2001, translation 2003) by Fred Vargas – some say it’s her best (yes, Fred is female) – who, like all the best crime writers, intelligently portrays the social realities of the present-day city. (This novel is quite gothicy and spooky as well.) Pierre Lemaître‘s Camille (2012, translation 2015) is the third in the Commandant Camille Verhœven trilogy.
Dominique Sylvain‘s Dark Angel (2004, translation 2013) – from another series – features retired policewoman Lola and Paris-loving American masseuse Ingrid (two almost comically contrasting characters). But the one I would recommend most is Arab Jazz (2012, translation 2014) by Karim Miské. He’s an Arab-French documentary film-maker and although this is his first novel, it won the English PEN Award. Reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity of Paris, and the mental straitjackets that can result from inhabiting restricted mind-sets, it’s full of literary, musical and film references (there’s even a ‘playlist’ at the back of the book for the story’s music). And Miské isn’t afraid to use humour, even when dealing with serious subject matter.
Paris-set crime writing is nearly always thick with atmosphere. The same rich evocation of place and people is to be found in Marcel Carne’s film Hotel du Nord, (1938) set beside Eastern Paris’s Canal St Martin. Starring the famous French actress Arletty, it’s an unforgettable story of love, murder and betrayal . Essential viewing for all noir fans.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series, which includes city-lit Paris featuring over sixty writers on the city.
She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.