European crime fiction in the crosshairs

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The Politics of the Crime Novel
Jean-Bernard Pouy

Véronique Rohrbach

Lausanne, Archipel, Essais
Volume 13, juillet 2007, 144 pages

Etienne Borgers
Translated by Jeffrey Tabberner


It was her dissertation for a Master's on French literature at the University of Lausanne which led Véronique Rohrbach to write her work Politique du polar (The Politics of the Crime Novel). It starts from the recognition of the existence of an element of social criticism within detective fiction since its origins in the US, and more particularly in the French néo-polars that appeared in the 1970s as a literary continuation of the protests of May 1968. Véronique Rohrbach examines the factors which bring together the authors belonging to this political tendency, and certain political constants to be found within their novels. These works can often be seen as extensions of their political activism, whether real or sympathetic, sharing a certain vision of modern French society and highlighting its problems and contradictions.

The author's overview of the evolution of the crime novel, from its beginnings, traceable to a number of sources, and her examination of the sub-species deriving from it are more than welcome for the general reader, who is thus able to understand and engage with the field under analysis, the modern detective novel. Particularly noteworthy is her attempt to give a definition of the hard boiled crime novel, its limitations and its particularities. This approach to reaching a definition is also quite successful. It is as pertinent as it is necessary, since numerous analysts and essayists, even recent ones, often evade the problem of defining the realm of the noir novel, that is defining the terms which characterise it. In addition, they use the term ‘noir' in a variety of contexts, thereby adding to the confusion. And I won't even discuss the extremely vague meaning that the word ‘polar' has taken on recently in France. Fortunately, this is not the case with this essay.

What is made equally clear is the desire of French authors involved with the néo-polar and its derivatives, to exploit the whodunnit (a genre belonging to popular literature, and looked down on by officially-accepted writers) by seizing its most promising sub-genre (the freest in literary terms, and the most socially innovative), the roman noir. Via this sub-genre, young contemporary French authors (Daeninckx, Vautrin, Fajardie, Pouy, Raynal and others) maintained their political commitment and activities, in spite of the disappointments of the post-1968 period. They did this without using it to produce propagandist works, or ‘committed' (engagé) in the Sartrian sense, (nor ascribing to these terms the importance they were given at that time). At the same time they wished to be seen as ‘literary rebels' in their rejection of the limited ambitions of current officially-accepted literature, and of its individualistic ethic.

Moreover, Véronique Rohrbach justifiably underlines the ambiguity of the position held by these French neo-polar authors, who, on the one hand, challenge the aims of current traditional, officially respected literature (with their cream covers), in order to better define themselves and strengthen their anti-establishment position being linked to a despised literary form, whilst on the other hand in part buying into the methods and formal literary research of the opposing camp. This enables them to raise the literary quality of the novels they produce, the writing quality of which has improved compared with mainstream French literature of the nineteen-fifties.

The second part of the essay analyses, in 45 pages, the committed position adopted by Jean-Bernard Pouy – in the real sense of that term, that is to say in claiming himself uniquely responsible for the sphere of influence of the roman noir, to the exclusion of membership of any other body (Pouy going so far as to reject the title of author, preferring to call himself a writer of roman noirs). And of course, his real political commitment springs from the small left-wing groups of the nineteen-sixties – ironic traces of which one often finds in his novels. This irony is directed against petty quarrels amongst various coteries, and the authoritarian ideologies which can result from them. However, as the essay shows, Pouy is an author who never denies his social background, or his left-wing anarchist analyses of present-day society. He stands up as an aggressive and effective defender of popular literature against traditionally valued literature. This all takes place within the examination of a few of Pouy's novels, some interviews, and texts by other interpreters elsewhere.

In spite of the strong constraints of university regulations, Véronique Rohrbach's text is easy to read, and certainly of value. Like many recent essays written under the aegis of university language departments, The Politics of the Crime Novel is an analysis which avails itself of current sociological attitudes, in seeing literature strictly as an area of social debate. This it certainly is, but it is other things too. Moreover, given the subject chosen, which calls up notions of challenging authority and social and political criticism, it is clear that this sort of attitude can bring to bear an interesting light on the hard-boiled whodunnit in France, through its motivations, its aims, its areas of concern, and a sociological profile of its principal authors. All these are aspects in which Véronique Rohrbach's essay is more than satisfying.

Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that she examines the field of the roman noir , and looks at its character as well as its unique qualities compared with other genres of crime fiction, will encourage all true lovers of polars noirs to ask themselves serious questions whilst expanding their thinking, if only when faced with the bitter and irrational criticism directed against it by those upset by her desire to research human and social truths – and even ethics.


A general comment in conclusion. It would be interesting for literary analysts of the modern persuasion to link literary analysis with research into the literary origins and the values of a genre, its evolution and above all of the value of the writers concerned. This would permit the identification of the flow of influences within a common sub-genre, thus going beyond a simple historical account. When speaking of genre literature we talk of literature; why, therefore, this increasing reticence in analysing its literary value as well, whilst claiming to do so using certain criteria limited to the genre under examination?

Ideally, we await a series of serious studies, which in examining the crime novel, use history, sociology and literary analysis (with value judgements), the whole presented in a cohesive manner, and no longer separated by the methods employed, or with exercises undertaken by single-field specialists.

As a second step, we should extend research and comparisons to include the foreign noir literature (which has experienced a renaissance since the nineties, being subject to many influences and criss-crossing national sub-fields of noir literature), and their social and literary characteristics. The richness of the genre deserves such treatment.

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