Graeme Macrae Burnet’s favourite Euro-noir novels
I’ve often been asked why I chose to set my first novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau in the nondescript French town of Saint-Louis. The answer is quite simple: the setting itself was the idea for the novel; the story and characters came later. On a chance visit to Saint-Louis a number of years ago, I was captivated by the sense of unchanging routine and claustrophobia I observed (or perhaps projected) there. As a reader I like to feel transported to the locale of whatever I’m reading and the best writers and crime novels do just this. Here are four favourites:
The Blue Room by Georges Simenon
Simenon has a peerless ability to conjure a strong sense of place from the sparsest sentences and a few astute observations. His novels are set as far afield as his native Belgium, the US and Africa, but, to my mind he is at his very best casting his eye over the interactions of small-town cafés and bars and the characters who inhabit them. It’s hard to select a single novel from the around 200 Simenon wrote, but The Blue Room has recently been reissued and is a fine demonstration of the author’s craftsmanship.
The novel opens with Tony Falcone and his mistress, Andrée, ‘light-headed, their bodies still tingling’, on a post-coital high following their monthly tryst at the Hôtel des Voyageurs in the village of Saint-Justin, but it is the description of the sights and sounds from the terrace below – ‘the stew simmering in the kitchen, mingled with the faintly musty smell of the fibre mattress’ – that truly brings the scene to life. As with all Simenon, the action unfolds from this opening scene with a doleful sense of inevitability, but it is his evocation of the setting which really lingers in the mind.
The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Reading Robbe-Grillet is a bit like looking under the bonnet of a car: only really necessary if you want to be a mechanic. What is The Erasers like? Imagine someone dropped a Maigret novel from a tenth-floor window then shovelled the shattered pieces into a book. The novel ostensibly concerns the murder of a professor in an unnamed French town. A detective investigates. But there any resemblance with a conventional crime novel ends. You don’t know who is who; in what order events have taken place; or even if the events described have really happened. It’s disorientating, but it makes you question the nature of the way we tell stories and how we understand them. It’s a bit like that time you agreed to eat a handful of raw chillies for a dare: it wasn’t a lot of fun, but you’re strangely glad you did it.
Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling
For readers of a certain age, Nicolas Freeling’s name will be forever associated with the Van der Valk theme of the 1970s TV series, but as a writer he is now largely and unjustly forgotten. It’s a pity because his Amsterdam-based detective is every bit the equal of Simenon’s Maigret when it comes to unorthodox methods. Freeling was English but lived a cosmopolitan life, and his novels feel very European. In Double-Barrel, Van der Valk is seconded to the dreary northern Dutch town of Zwinderen, where a series of poison pen letters have been sent. Van der Valk duly investigates, but Freeling’s real purpose is to reveal the hypocrisy lurking beneath the Calvinist small-town mindset. Van der Valk ends up playing Peeping Tom himself, implicating himself, and we the readers, in the voyeurism of the town’s population:
Watching a person through binoculars – even if that person is simply cleaning his teeth under the kitchen tap – creates a strong emotion. You are ashamed and excited… With binoculars you are the submarine commander, the assassin, the preacher in the pulpit. God. As well as, always, the pornographer. A strong hot emotion.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment is the great grand-daddy of crime novels. It’s a big beast, baggy and capacious, but at its heart is the relationship between the murderer Raskolnikov and the wily detective Porfiry, who rather than confronting his quarry allows his guilt to compel him to confess. It’s exactly the way that you would expect Maigret or Van der Valk to operate. What is perhaps less commonly commented upon is the fantastic vibrancy of Dostoyevsky’s Saint Petersburg. From the very opening pages we are immersed in a city strewn with the depraved, destitute and insane; a city of stifling heat, crammed alleyways, riven with the ‘unendurable stench of the pubs’. It’s like wandering through a Hieronymus Bosch canvas with a madman as your guide.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel His Bloody Project is longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. He will be at Bloody Scotland for the Writing in Exile event on September 11th at 1:30pm.
The latest blog from The Booktrail:
Out of all the Bloody Scotland panels taking place this year, the title of this panel really excited me. It isn’t about writers banished from their homelands, in some literary sort of prison, but writers who have chosen to set books in foreign lands.
Well, I do like a bit of this on the booktrail and so I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the places mentioned. Hamburg, Iceland and France. A trio of travelling temptation.
Step aboard the plane and off we go…
Horror in Hamburg (on Booktrail)
Hamburg – Craig Russell is the creator of the Jan Fabel novels set in Hamburg. Both himself and his character are very interesting people. Craig, for example, speaks both German and English and has a strong interest in post-war German history. He won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year at 2015’s Bloody Scotland so the man has form. Good form.
Jan Fabel is also hardcore – he’s an Erster Kriminalhauptkommissar (Principal Chief Commissar), and is head of the Mordkommission (Murder Squad) of the Hamburg Police. He’s a rare and exciting mix of cultures: half-Scottish, half-German and like his creator, is very keen on history. He was even a historian before becoming a policeman.
It’s the Hamburg twist with the German historical background that roots Jan Fabel in a very evocative and revealing time and place.
Intrigue in Iceland (on Booktrail)
You don’t want to cross Michael Ridpath – he is known for his Fire and Ice series. Both will burn you in different ways. Iceland-born, Boston-raised homicide detective Magnus Jonson is the perfect mix of cultures.
The landscape and culture of Iceland is evoked in many intricate ways. In ‘Where the Shadows Lie’ you’re introduced to the famous Sagas and the magic of Tolkein’s legacy. In ‘66 Degrees North’ there’s the chill of the Iceland financial crisis to tackle. Book three ‘Meltwater’ clouds you in the mystery and the smut of the erupting volcano Eyjafjallajökull. ‘Sea of Stone’ transports you back to the volcano and to a small farm outside of Bjarnarhöfn. This is the small town with a Shark Museum in real life! Now that is quite a tour of one country in only four novels. I can’t imagine where he’ll take us for book five.
The French Kiss of Death (on Booktrail)
2016 Man Booker longlister Greame Macrae Burnet’s first book The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is set in a small French town on the French – Swiss border. Saint Louis in Alsace is described as ‘non descript’ and more of a transit town in the novel.
Manfred Baumann lives there and is a bit of a loner. He is awkward in almost all social occasions and so spends much of his time on his own watching a waitress, Adèle Bedeau, at the local bar. When she goes missing, Manfred’s life also changes. A missing person in a small town causes unwanted attention to come calling.
Rural France is evoked with style here – the timelessness of Saint Louis contrasts with the unfolding drama. A man living there on both the edge of society and the edge of rural France, ensures that the location mirrors the drama and reflects the sense of an outsider looking in.
So going into Exile means Horror in Hamburg, Intrigue in Iceland and a French Kiss of death in France. All forensically examined in the Scottish city of Stirling.
Away the noo…
This is the fourth post of the Booktrail blog takeover for a series of posts exploring where setting shapes a number of novels from authors attending Bloody Scotland this year.
Visit the booktrail for maps, travel guides and reviews for the books featuring in Bloody Scotland.