Dennis Broe reports from the Quais du Polar conference in Lyon, and discusses some examples of noir novels which depict and criticise the environmental depredation and social inequalities which lie at the heart of the modern capitalist world
Noir fiction is distinguished from simple crime fiction by adding a darker element that often reflects a darker worldview than simply solving a crime. It has now brought more mainstream crime fiction into its orbit, and was on display again this year at what is probably the world’s top international convention of the form, the Quais du Polar at Lyon.
Polar is the French term for noir fiction, and is distinguished from the policier, which deals with the police investigation of a crime. The policier often has a more restricted worldview, where to catch the criminal ends all wrongdoing, while the polar suggests a world of perpetual crime and corruption, often referencing (and critiqueing) capitalism, directly or indirectly.
Several countries were present and different areas and layers of corruption unfolded in the works of the authors from each. The festival honored Scandinavian noir, which most thoroughly incorporates a social critique with a crime investigation – seen in the Varg Veum novels of the Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen, and currently on series TV in the second season of the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, both of which deal with what is viewed as the seat of corruption in the Nordic countries, the energy industry.
The Anglo authors, American and British tend to conceive their work in narrower terms, as Manchester chronicler Joseph Knox described his book Sirens as a cry against gangland exploitation of women, while Chris Offutt and Ron Rash both center their crime novels on Appalachia, the poorest region in the country. Rash, a poet and novelist, spoke about how the destruction of the language has gone along with the destruction of the resources of the region and outlined his project of attempting to preserve regional dialect and thought in his novels.
The noir novel, film and television series is now a major product of the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland. Each has expanded the traditional British crime story or murder mystery to encompass a more global portrait of these societies, while adding the tougher and more class-tinged elements of the American hard-boiled novels by Hammett and Chandler.
All five countries ‘punch above their weight’ in the area of literature. Sweden, for example. is by population the 92nd largest country in the world, yet has the 8th most books translated into other languages, while Iceland, with only about 330,000 people, boasts a Nobel Prize winner in literature. Just as everyone in Los Angeles has a film script in the trunk of their car, everyone in these countries has a novel in their desk, perhaps due to the persistence of long winters where there is no light and often nothing to do inside but write. Iceland’s Ragnar Jonasson’s novels center on an isolated region in the northern extreme of that country and all have titles referring to this total blackout – Snowblind, Whiteout, The Darkness. Jonasson related that he writes in the long winters so that he can be outside during the summers where, in contrast, there is continual sunshine and no darkness.
Perhaps the origin of the use of the noir novel to tell untold truths about the society lies in the still unsolved death of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, in 1986. Palme was a fierce critic of US domination, one of the first to recognize Cuba and other Third World struggles for liberation, and proponent of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Multiple theories circulate around his death and who would have reason to assassinate him, with the Millennium and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson for a long time on the trail of the killer, and with cover-up rumours fuelling a notion that the Scandinavian democracies, famous for their welfare state and pacifist polices, have become corrupt servants of the global order.
Larsson’s notes have been picked up by fellow journalist Jan Stocklassa whose The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Notes and the Hunt for an Assassin, written in the docu-fiction style of a Truman Capote or Norman Mailer, contains 30 pages of Larsson’s own writing. It supposedly goes some way toward exposing a conspiracy involving the Swedish far Right, and Stocklassa claimed at the conference that the murder will probably be solved in the next few years.
Scandinavian noir in its contemporary manifestations is often concerned with exposing tensions based on the collusion of foreign and domestic capitalistic energy interests who combine to plunder resources, pollute the land and profit from seemingly benign forms of energy that may have harmful effects – what we might call greenwashing. One of the most durably popular of these authors is Norway’s Gunnar Staalesen, creator of the Varg Veum detective series of 20 novels.
Varg means wolf in Norwegian, and Veum is nothing if not tenacious, as seen in We Shall Inherit the Wind where the detective doggedly pursues a murder that may have been committed to allow a global energy company Veum had confronted previously named Trans World Ocean or simply TWO to profit from the sale of land to build a wind farm. Wind power, which in the US would be a huge step forward, is debated in the book as instead being a form of energy that with its omnipresent whirling blades would dilute and plague sections of an untrammeled coastline, with hydropower being posed as a less intrusive alternative.
Norway is famous for – and wealthy from – its oil digging, which the book describes cynically as ‘the sunny side of life where it’s all fun and laughter and liquid gold from the North Sea’ and which is elsewhere depicted as ‘spilling CO2 into the atmosphere every day.’
The accompaniment to this piece is Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, whose second season describes the destruction of northern Iceland by the combination of a Reykjavik Interior Minister and what is called the American Aluminum Company. The effect of this combination is seen most elegantly in the elegiac end of one episode, where an Icelandic cop and a regional activist look out from above onto a lake strewn with the corpses of dead geese. This looting and raping of the environment by Capital is also seen in the series as fuelling right nationalism, in this case that of a secret group, the Hammer of Thor.
French authors are also very taken with the European far north, as Mo Malo’s Disko focuses on the continual breakup of the icebergs, with an American climatologist found frozen in one of them, just before a global scientific truth-telling conference on climate destruction. The investigation occurs against the background of Greenland itself as an Inuit stronghold, still colonized by Denmark, which is anticipating an ever-easier path to the island’s wealth of natural resources as the melting continues.
Colonialization in the French past is explored by journalist Thomas Canteloube’s first novel Requiem for a Republic. Canteloube works for the investigatory website Mediapart, which the US website The Intercept is partially modeled after. Here he exposes the involvement of present and past French leaders, including the right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Socialist Francois Mitterand and the Nationalist General de Gaulle in a secret and bloody war against the Algerian independence movement, the FLN.
From Italy, Roberto Saviano described the hopelessness of Southern European youth, in the specific case of the areas outside of Naples where boys 10 to 18, emissaries of the drug trade, ride scooters and kill and be killed as if there is no tomorrow – and for many of them there isn’t. Piranhas, Saviano’s first novel, subtitled The Boy Bosses of Naples, is a recounting of the dead-end life in a country where unemployment for youth without a high school degree is 45 percent, as they struggle to carve out a life in a country where 30 percent of the wealth in in the hands of the top 10 percent.
Elsewhere on the American side, besides the regional Appalachian flavor and the New Orleans noir of James Sallis, whose Drive was the inspiration for the film of the same name, the festival premiered a documentary about Michael Connelly, known for his Harry Bosch series on Los Angeles, where he is interviewed by Olivier Marshal, a former French cop turned actor.
The film is a paean to the Los Angeles police, who Connelly apparently can’t praise enough either in actuality, in his Bosch books, and in a new series with a female cop, Renee Ballard, who patrols the city alone at night. The film seems to be blithely unaware of the racist and corrupt reputation of the LAPD. At one point, Connelly takes the French ex-cop out onto his balcony in the Los Angeles hills in a lap of luxury overlooking a city with intense poverty. He worries about not being able to write crime fiction with its social awareness, since he is now so rich.
The takeaway from the scene is not Connelly’s false guilt, but its illustration of the fact that authors who praise the power structure and remain uncritical of it are rewarded in an unjust society. It probably wasn’t the intention, but the film exposed the seamy side of an uncritical crime fiction written purely for profit, and which is simply a liberal, bourgeois way of cultural accommodation to the rampant destruction let loose by an increasingly unequal, capitalist world.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.