HOT OFF THE PRESS

Authors turn out fascinating thrillers offering insights into French society

Authors Pierre Lemaitre and Michel Bussi turn out fascinating thrillers that offer insights into French society

CAMILLE

By Pierre Lemaitre, translated from French by Frank Wynne

MacLehose Press/Paperback/320 pages/ $27.99 before GST/ Major bookstores/****

AFTER THE CRASH

By Michel Bussi, translated from French by Sam Taylor

Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Paperback/432 pages/$27.99 before GST/Major bookstores/****

French writers are slowly reclaiming the genre of noir as publishers and readers look beyond Nordic thrillers.

Translations of top-billed Scandinavian authors of the grim and grotesque such as Jo Nesbo (most recently The Son, last year) continue to appear on bookstore bestseller lists, but there has been a definite swing towards pushing French writers since last summer's blockbuster thriller by debut author Joel Dicker, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair.

The book was a lead title for Penguin Books in the United States and Britain's MacLehose Press.

MacLehose Press is an imprint of Quercus Books, which discovered one of the biggest Scandinavian crime kings of all time - the late Stieg Larsson, known for the Lisbeth Salander series which began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Another discovery by MacLehose Press is France's Pierre Lemaitre, who has written eight novels, at least five in the thriller genre, and received nine writing awards from France, plus the much coveted Crime Writer's Association International Dagger Award in 2013.

Past nominees include Nesbo and Larsson.

This summer, MacLehose Press is pushing the third book in Lemaitre's series about Inspector Camille Verhoeven, a comically diminutive police officer with a gift for sketching and cursed to be unhappy in love.

Camille (published in French in 2012) is a fascinating, exquisitely executed tale of vengeance and violence as the protagonist hunts down the armed robbers who savaged his lover before gunning down a jewellery store.

Foreign fiction offers windows into new worlds and Camille does this while staying true to the tropes of the genre.

There is the world-weary investigator breaking the rules in order to serve justice, but the French system works very differently from the American and British investigations readers are familiar with via Hollywood and cable television.

French police appear to work more closely with the judiciary, which makes Camille's betrayal of this relationship not a foregone conclusion of the genre, but an actual, unforgiveable surprise.

Lemaitre's writing is reminiscent of the great British writer Ruth Rendell, who also juxtaposes criminal acts and their resolution with meditations on society and philosophy.

Both tarnished hero and outright villain are allowed a narrative presence and their contrasting voices are translated so smoothly by Frank Wynne that the book seems to have been written for the reader in English.

One flows with the story and awakes, startled, at its conclusion, ready to track down the first two books in the series, Irene and Alex, translated over the last two years by the same publisher.

Another prolific and much-decorated French writer picked up by a British publisher this year is Michel Bussi, who has won 15 literary awards in his country, but is little known outside.

After The Crash (published in French in 2012) is a riveting suspense story that spans 18 years and the contrasting investigations of two men desperate to establish the true identity of a young woman who, as a baby, was the sole survivor of a plane crash in 1980.

She has been fought over for years by two families, the wealthy de Carvilles and the dirt-poor Vitrals, and the solution to the mystery will mean life or death for the young woman.

A well-constructed page-turner with twists that rock and shock to the end, After The Crash also opens readers' eyes to the deeply embedded socialist sympathies of French society.

The principles of liberty, equality, fraternity are valid and real in Bussi's fiction, which means the resources of the rich de Carvilles fail to work in their favour. Right or wrong, public sympathy is with the Vitrals all the way.

Other translations to look out for this year include last month's re-release from Bloomsbury of The Night Watch by Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and stuns with a nightmarish, heart-breaking story of a young man caught between the French Resistance and the Gestapo in occupied France, first published in 1969.

Then there is the May release from Random House, Dog Will Have His Day by the stylish and under-appreciated Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, multiple winner of the C.W.A. International Dagger.

France has long inspired writers of thriller and mystery - the first-ever detective story The Murders In The Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe was set in Paris. And from the 1930s to the 1960s, the famous Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine periodical often featured the translated works of Georges Simenon and his character, Inspector Maigret.

The shift to Scandinavian writers began in 1992 with the success of Danish writer Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, followed by the bestsellers of Henning Mankell in the early Noughties.

Now the pendulum swings back again, publishers sniffing around France with the eagerness of truffle-hunters seeking a big haul.

C'est la vie, as they say in France. Or "c'est la mort" to be more accurate. Death sells and death from France sells well.

If you like this, read: The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds (2014, Vintage, $33.45, Amazon.com). An opera singer wakes to find a tree has appeared overnight in her garden and asks her three neighbours to solve the mystery.

akshitan@sph.com.sg