I remember sitting down for a meal at a mystery writer’s conference once and chatting with some other mystery folks. When I said I was living in France, someone chimed in with, “Oh, yes, I know a French writer, she’s that woman with a man’s name.” She was referring to Fred Vargas (Frédérique is a woman’s name in France, too). Vargas is a French historian and archeologist whose police thrillers are so successful in and outside of France that she tends to be the one French crime fiction writer English readers vaguely remember. The list usually stops with Vargas. Having lived in France for 27 years, I thought it might be easy to expand upon it for others at the conference before realizing that, alas, many are not translated. But those that are, well, are women. Dominique Manotti’s political thrillers, Chantale Pelletier’s police procedurals, and two or three of Brigitte Aubert’s numerous titles have been published in English, although you may or may not be able to actually find their books.
This realization came as a bit of a surprise to me. France has a rich history of modern crime fiction that dates back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when a certain François Vidocq, who headed up the Napoleonic state police at the time, wrote police procedurals about bad guys and the victim or wanton women. However, female writers have not historically received the same recognition and the roles women held in noir prior to the 1990s were largely conventional. It’s only been in the past three decades that female French authors have gained recognition--and with that recognition, new opportunities and roles for fictional females in crime fiction.
When I founded and began translating crime fiction titles for Le French Book, I had to consider books that offered something different than what was currently on the market and available to English speaking readers. Two of the three authors I chose were women. In The Paris Lawyer, Sylvie Granotier writes from a woman’s perspective in a primarily male legal world. The main character is a female rookie lawyer in a country where men dominate criminal law, and only now are women starting to make their place. However, the book is not about this struggle, but about this particular woman’s search to unravel the mystery in her own life.
Another one of the authors we chose is another Frédérique--this time Molay--who writes a male detective who critics in France have called feminist because he is, well, just a sensitive guy in a real world of love and heartbreaks and, well, good guys and bad guys. Both these authors play with (or ignore) the convention of a male hero and a female victim or femme fatale.
As a huge fan of crime fiction, I was drawn to these works because the authors’ disregard for convention made the characters more complex and the plot largely unpredictable. Both books are recognizably crime fiction--there’s a reason Molay is called “the French Michael Connelly”--but it can’t be denied that the wave of French female authors makes for fresh possibilities in the genre.
Anne Trager is the founder of Le French Book, a digital-first publishing company that translates the best of contemporary French fiction into English. She is writing a short series of posts for She Writes based on her experiences from the venture. This month Le French Book is highlighting Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer and is throwing a virtual launch party. Enter the Go to France Sweepstakes (yes, we are giving away a trip to France) and lots of free gifts and prizes. Check it out at www.theparislawyer.com.