French Crime: Compulsive Viewing and Reading

The main characters of Spiral

The main characters of Spiral: a brilliant collection of French stereotype

I read somewhere once that for someone of my personality type, relaxation at times of stress usually results in reading detective fiction. Oh, so true. Actually, I don’t need to be under stress. It’s pretty much my default mode, and I have to pull myself out of that mode frequently to get my other very necessary reading done. I recently put out a call on Twitter for suggestions for good crime fiction, and the consequences are still reverberating. Someone pointed me in the direction of Mrs Peabody Investigates, a great blogger on crime fiction and related stuff, as a result of which I have recently been devouring Jo Nesbo and Fred Vargas.

Jo Nesbo I had spotted in the bookshop, but had avoided because it was clearly on promotion and was being touted as the next Steig Larsson. Well, I liked the Larsson trilogy as stories, but the writing wasn’t great, and the editing fell apart in books two and three, so I wasn’t too eager to jump in on The Next One. Luckily I did, because the books are a good read, and I’m sort of getting to know the Oslo streets now.

Fred Vargas was very different. The name (a nom de plume) was initially off-putting (I know, I know, but this is my default mode alternative universe so I’m allowed complete irrationality) and I spent most of the first read of Vargas wondering if the translation was any good. The only solution was to buy the books in French to check, and it turned out the translation had been very faithful after all. Vargas just has a very distinct style, almost Theatre-of-the-Absurd, and it reminded me a touch of the Dürrenmatt novels I read 30 years ago.

It’s all good for me though, and I now have intellectual justification (language practice) for total immersion over the next few weeks. Even better on the French front, the wonderful ‘Spiral’ crime series has just returned to our screens for a third series. It’s got that gritty urban/banlieue look that the French do so well, combined with flashes of central Paris, and documents well the fascinating interaction of judiciary and prosecutors with the day-to-day police investigation in France. So different to the Anglo-Saxon system. Add to the mix the jaw-dropping level of corruption amongst the defence lawyers and prosecutors’ department, and it all makes for compelling viewing. I particularly love the Evil Chief Prosecuting Magistrate who is the most frog-like Frenchman ever to exist. And the valiant knight of a prosecutor the frog is trying to get rid of is a smouldering cliché of a French Lawyer. I’m sorry for reminding society that we used to call the French ‘frogs’, especially as I love them dearly with all their xenophobic foibles, but I was once called a ‘rosbif’ behind my back, so now we’re quits.

Do watch Spiral. It’s compulsive viewing.


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