Archive for the ‘Hardboiled’ Category

Quais du polar 2014: welcome to crime fiction

April 13, 2014 20 comments

quais-du-polar-2014In 2014, Quais du polar celebrates its 10th anniversary. It’s a festival set in Lyon and dedicated to crime fiction in books and films. (See the meaning of the name here) The whole city is about crime fiction during three days. There are conferences, exhibits, films, a great book fair and a walk turned into an investigation in the Vieux Lyon. James Ellroy was there for a conference and he was the star of the festival. I didn’t have time to participate in anything but go to the book fair. Compared to other salons, publishers don’t have stalls there, only independent book stores do. It is reserved to independent book stores from Lyon. If you look up book stores in Lyon in the yellow page, there are 95 results. They some are specialised in SF or comics, children lit, scientific books… Only a few of them participate to Quais du polar. Each stand corresponds to one book shop and the writers present at the festival are dispatched among them. I guess the book shops made good money during the weekend, there was a lot of people there. The atmosphere was like a swarm of crime fiction readers buzzing around stands, waiting to meet writers and chatting with book sellers. It’s always nice to be among book enthusiasts.

KotzwinkleTime to introduce you to a new French word: libraire. A libraire is a bookseller, a person who works in a book shop. But when I see bookseller I see vendeur de livres and not libraire because I’m under the impression that the selling part of the word is more important than the book part. When I hear libraire, I think of someone who loves books, reading books, being around books, talking about books and recommending books to others. The cash part of the story is only the ending, not the purpose. Books are not cans of green peas. A libraire is not a book seller. Libraire is a noble word that implies that the person in front of you is knowledgeable about books and will be all lit up if you share your reading with them. One of those owns the book store Au Bonheur des Ogres.  I was happy to chat with him again as last year he had recommended The Blonde and Nager sans se mouiller. I told him how the copy of Nager sans se mouiller I purchased from him in 2013 is now sitting on a shelf in Beirut thanks to the magic of book blogging and that I had LOVED The Blonde. He’s a true crime fiction aficionado, he oozes crime fiction enthusiasm, it’s incredible. You could spend hours talking to him about books. This year, he recommended The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, La place du mort by Pascal Garnier and Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. (Turns out I already had the last one). We’ll see how it goes this year.


Lauren Beukes was also there, she’s very friendly. I now have a signed copy of her Zoo City. It was on my wish list after reading Max’s review. I managed to snatch a signed copy of The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson for my in-law. I haven’t read him –yet— but in France, he’s published by Gallmeister. So I suppose he’s good. Even without his cowboy hat and plaid shirt, you’d know he’s American. He’s very friendly too.


I said earlier that publishers don’t have stalls at the book fair. They are involved in the festival, though. I really liked the ads for the publisher Points. Tu ne tueras Points… mais tu liras des polars. Literally Thou shall not kill but thou shall read crime fiction. There’s a pun on Points / point which is an old version of the negative form pas.


I had a lot of fun that afternoon and I hope I’ll have more time to go to conferences and exhibits next year.


Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences.

February 10, 2014 15 comments

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. 1934. French title: Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois. Translated by Sabine Berritz.

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it. I had her.

Cain_facteurFrank Chambers is our narrator. He’s in his twenties, has lived across the country as a hobo and ends up at Twin Oaks Tavern, a diner and gas station along a road. The owner Nick Papadakis needs help and hires him to serve gas and take care of cars. Frank isn’t interested in the job but the food is great and he needs a place to crash. That’s until he spots Cora, Nick’s wife. Between them, it’s lust at first sight. He discovers that she married Nick to have a place to live in. She doesn’t love him at all and she’s even disgusted by him. Frank and Cora have an affair and eventually decide to murder Nick.

To me, Frank and Cora are like wild animals. They don’t think about the future, they act to satisfy their immediate needs. He stays at the diner’s for food, she marries Nick to be off the streets. Once their need changes, they change of attitude. They have no gratitude, no moral compass. Nick is a nice guy, generous, welcoming. He may sound a little stupid but he’s a good man. Cora and Nick call him The Greek and look down on him because of his origin. (She doesn’t want to be called Mrs Papadakis) Racism is rampant there, and their attitude towards him illustrates what Gary said about racism. It’s when they don’t count. Nick doesn’t count. His death doesn’t count, he’s not their equal, is that so morally reprehensible to kill him? I saw Frank and Cora as cold blooded murderers and not at all as people accidentally led to crime. That’s what happens in Build my Gallows High, not in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As always, I have trouble writing about crime fiction. I have things to say but most of what I’d like to write about the plot and the characters is full of spoilers. My rule is not to ruin the book for another potential reader, so spoilers aren’t an option.

However, I have things to say about the French translation. I bought a paperback copy published by Folio Policier and the translation by Sabine Berritz dates back to 1936. I’m not judging Ms Berritz, she probably did her best given the context. It was a time when crime fiction like this was trash literature, when publishers didn’t hesitate to accommodate books for their public and when translators might not have had the wages and time necessary to do a thorough job. I’m just disappointed that Folio sells that great novel in such a poor translation. They could afford a new one, the book is less than 150 pages long. It’s not like retranslating War and Peace! When I reached page 16, I went to the Kindle Store to buy the original. The French version was unbearable. I switched between the electronic version in English and the paper version in French as I was on a plane and e-books aren’t allowed during take-off and landing. The French translation is bad, there’s no other word. Some things are ludicrous now but forgivable. For example, words like corn-flakes or bacon are in English and in italic, like miso in a book translated from the Japanese. Now, we have adopted these words in French. What made me really laugh out loud is the footnote to explain what Coca-Cola is. I had the same experience when I read On the Road in a 1950s translation. Again, it reminded me how our country got americanised during the 20thC. At least, that’s understandable given the time and even interesting, from a “historical” point of view. But what is absolutely unbearable is the tone of the translation: the overabundant use of argot that didn’t age well (boustifaille, c’est bath…); the explosion of exclamation marks when there are none in the original and worst of all, paragraphs mixing different levels of language for no reason.

« Ça n’me creuse pas l’estomac, ça! Ça n’me fera pas m’arrêter ici pour essayer de croûter. Elle vous fait perdre de l’argent cette enseigne et vous n’en savez rien » when the original is “Well, Twin Oaks don’t make me hungry. It don’t make me want to stop and get something to eat. It’s costing you money, that sign, only you don’t know it.” The “vous n’en savez rien” doesn’t agree with the previous “ça n’me fera pas”. A “vous en savez rien” would have been better, in my opinion. Then I noticed a « Je m’en retourne », which sounds like 19thC French poetry, not crime fiction, when the original is a simple “I’m going back”.

There are crimes in this book but the translation is almost a crime to literature as well. Please Folio, have someone retranslate this! This book is fantastic in the original and doesn’t sound as fantastic in French.

Max has read it recently and he’s a bit more positive than me about the characters. Have a look at his excellent review here.

Quais du polar: Lyon celebrates crime fiction

April 1, 2013 17 comments

Quais_PolarThis weekend Lyon hosted a festival dedicated to crime fiction named Quais du polar. Let me explain the name. In French, polar is a crime fiction category that covers Noir, thriller, hardboiled and pulp. Cozy crimes and whodunnits aren’t called polars. I have a category Polar on the blog since I never know exactly how to tag the crime fiction book I’m reading. So more precisely, a Raymond Chandler is a polar and an Agatha Christie isn’t. That was for polar. Now, what about Quais? In Lyon, we have two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. This means lots of banks and piers (Quais) in the city. In addition to this geographical consideration about Lyon, 36 Quai des Orfèvres is the address of the police department in Paris. So a festival named Quais du polar makes sense when it deals with crime fiction.

This event is a firework of crime fiction feasts. There are conferences with writers and publishers, a literary fair (more about that later), an investigation organized in the city, theatre plays, touristic tours, operas and films in the Institut Lumière, the place where the cinema was born.

We did the investigation with the children and I went to the literary fair. It was held in the Palais du Commerce, the beautiful buildings owned by the Chamber of Commerce, located Place de la Bourse. (Stock-exchange plaza). I mused about the irony to have a book fair in the premises of the corporate world. There, independent book stores had stands and each stand had writers present to meet readers and sign copies of their books. I’m not usually looking for signed copies of books, except for particular writers. I was really happy to discuss with Nancy Huston once, more to talk about our common love of Romain Gary than about her own books. This time I was on a mission; my mother is a huge crime fiction reader and with Mother’s Day coming soon, I had the perfect idea for a gift! So I got the signed books I wanted.

Quai_Polar_SalonTo me, the most interesting part was to meet with enthusiastic booksellers. (Sorry, sorry, writers… I never know what to say to you). The nicest one was the crime fiction aficionado from Au Bonheur des Ogres. The name of the book shop itself is attractive since it’s the first title of the Malaussene series by Daniel Pennac. (You can read a review of Fairy Gunmother another volume of this series here) This bookseller uses “tu” at first sight because we’re members of the great brotherhood of compulsive readers. He recommended a Spanish writer, Carlos Salem, and you’ll read about him soon. This bookseller helped Salem’s career in France, along with two other independent bookstores in Toulouse and Paris. I know because they are all mentioned in the acknowledgments of Matar y guardar la ropa, the book I purchased. Yes, as far as I know, the only murder that occurred during the festival is that of my book buying ban. I came home with:

  • Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem (Nager sans se mouiller). I’m loving it so far.
  • Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Three to kill, review here) I’ve never read Manchette and I’ve been willing to try him for a while.
  • The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. Also recommended by the friendly bookseller. I knew the name though, thanks to Guy. (See his review of Severance Package)


Swierczynski_BlondeI love crime fiction, I’ve always read this genre and I wondered why I hardly read any lately. I came to the conclusion that it stemmed from a language Chinese puzzle. I don’t know much about French crime fiction writers and I’d rather read English-speaking ones in English. And here come the difficulties: I enjoy reading crime fiction to unwind and reading crime fiction in English requires more concentration than in French. Plus, I came to question old translations of crime fiction classics, so reading them in French isn’t an option anymore. With hindsight, it seems quite stupid not to pick crime fiction on the shelf because of a bad concentration-fun equation. So I’ve decided to read recent polars in French; you’ll have to make do with billets without quotes (terribly frustrating at times) and probably poor ones too because I’m not very skilled at reviewing crime fiction.

I think the festival was a success, the place was full of people engrossed in conversations with booksellers, avidly reading their recent purchase on one of the side benches and writers seemed happy to be there. There were lines in front of the conference rooms, we crossed a lot of families and couples also doing the fake Chinese investigation in town. The Palais du Commerce is gorgeous, it gives a classy touch to the event and I hope these independent book stores gained new readers. I can tell you Au Bonheur des Ogres has me now, especially since they also deliver books.

PS: The book buying ban is a phoenix, it can be born again from its cinders.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

August 13, 2010 10 comments

  The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Translated by Boris Vian.

  It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

 These are the first three paragraphs of The Big Sleep. In three paragraphs, I was in the book, totally caught by Chandler’s style and the essential of the story is already there. A private detective is hired by rich Mr Sternwood and has enough of chivalry to help him on another matter, although his help is not clearly wanted. In between, many adventures happen.

Right from the start, we learn some of the basic traits of Philip Marlowe’s temper. He is utterly professional and chivalrous. He dresses properly to meet a new client and he would have helped the knight of the stained-glass panel, for the sake of the lady in distress. But maybe this knight was purposely slow to spend more time near the lady, who was enjoying his slowness for the same reason and both would have been really put out if someone had taken the initiative to help him. Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have thought of this possibility because he cannot repress the envy to save a damsel in distress.

Being professional and chivalrous seem to be his guidelines: his moral code is built to respect these two principles, even if it means breaking the law.


 Honestly, I’m struggling to write this post, always thinking that I’m either going to state the obvious or write something stupid. 

So I’m going to ask myself the basic question: Did I like this book ? The answer is YES, a thousand times yes. The Big Sleep is the kind of book I would have loved to read without stopping, by a rainy or very cold afternoon, curled up on a sofa with a huge pot of tea near me, if I still had the time to spend such afternoons. I enjoyed Chandler’s style and especially his odd and vivid way to describe people and places. I liked Philip Marlowe, the PI who doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t like cops’ wives. I’m curious to see how Chandler developed his character in the next novels.

 I want to read more.

 PS : A word about the translation. It’s excellent. I’ve always thought it helped to be translated by an actual writer, I’m not disappointed by Boris Vian. I’ve looked for quotes in English and compared them to the French translation, it’s perfect. Boris Vian managed to be faithful to Chandler and find the appropriate French expressions which give back the atmosphere of the English text.

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