The Quais Du Polar is the largest crime fiction festival in France, and that’s saying a lot, because the French love crime fiction. Sure, mysteries (and to a lesser extent, noir) are big in the U.S., but crime fiction in France is a cultural phenomenon reaching back decades. The French, god love them, are obsessed with all things criminal. The Quais Du Polar festival is headquartered in the magnificent Palais du Commerce in Lyon, where, for three days, over a hundred authors sit signing books for an estimated 70,000 fans and readers. It’s like Comic-Con for noir geeks.
I arrived in Lyon this March as part of a book tour to promote my novel Hell On Church Street, which has just been published in France as L’Enfer Du Church Street. The book is part of a new imprint from éditions Gallmeister called Neonoir, which is dedicated to bringing emerging voices in American crime fiction to France. Other authors scheduled to appear on the imprint include the incredibly talented likes of Jon Bassoff, Matthew McBride, Steve Weddle, and Todd Robinson.
I was joined at the signing table in Lyon by another writer on the Neonoir imprint, Benjamin Whitmer, author of the novels Pike and Cry Father. (If you don’t know the work of Benjamin Whitmer, by the way, you’re missing a legend in the making. I mean it. Ben Whitmer is an authentic American original. One reviewer said that Whitmer is what you would get if James Ellroy fucked Shakespeare. The comparison is nice, of course, but Whitmer is as distinctive a writer as anyone working today.)
Whitmer is far better known in the states than I am (which is to say that he is known in the states), but we’re both small fries compared to the blockbuster names who were at the festival this year: John Grisham and Michael Connelly. (If you'd like to hear the session above with these authors, it's posted at Telerama as Cercle Polar #158, and includes the French introductions and translations between the authors' responses in English.)
Both Grisham and Connelly arrived to cheers and applause and faced lines that stretched out the doors and reached down the block. (Other big names included Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, and Val McDermid.) Grisham’s table was across from ours, so we had good view of the action. While we small-timers toiled away for three days, Grisham worked one afternoon—ushered in by his handlers with speedy efficiency, he was settled down beside a mountain of French versions of his books and proceeded to sign copies and greet his giddy fans with the ease and grace of a man who’s been meeting giddy fans for twenty years. After a couple of hours, he was escorted out with the same flawless speed. I don’t think Whitmer could have cared less about meeting Grisham, but I would have liked a chance to say hello, if for no other reason than to tell him that he was the first writer I ever met. (We’re both from Arkansas, and he did a signing near my home when I was a kid. He was, for the record, very kind to me.)
Even the small-timers stayed busy, though. As the Quais Du Polar unfurled over three days, Whitmer and I met hundreds of fans and new readers amidst the thousands of people in attendance. I heard someone at the festival say that an estimated 30,000 books were sold over the course of the weekend. Based on what I saw happening around me, I believe it. The experience was shocking in several respects. First, neither Ben nor I have ever signed as many books as we signed in one day of the festival. (One of my fondest memories from the festival was the sight of a bubbly teenage girl coming up to ask Whitmer for an autograph. It was like he was J.K. Rowling.) Secondly, the kindness and enthusiasm of the crowds was startling. The people browsing tables and gushing over authors were young and old, men and women. During the downtime, Whitmer and I could only marvel at the people milling around.
Whitmer and I had different events to attend, including panel discussions and radio interviews. I was part of a panel called “The Killer Inside Me” with French writers Maxime Chattam, Sebastian Gendron, Ingrid Desjours, and German writer Sascha Arango. The panel was held in Trinity Chapel, a gorgeous old church, because in France, they discuss psycho-noir in gorgeous old churches. Headsets fed real-time translations to us as we talked about our books, our influences, and the figure of the psychopath in crime fiction. The place was packed (mostly for Chattam, who is a huge star in France), and the discussion was lively.
By the end of the festival, the fans had collected their books and their autographs and returned home to post pictures on social media. The big-name authors had long since flown back to their mansions on, one assumes, clouds made of money. The booksellers began packing up whatever merch was left scattered around the hall, and the festival organizers began lowering the enormous banners adorned with past Quais Du Polar superstars like James Ellroy and P.D. James. Your humble correspondent loaded onto a bus with Ben Whitmer and a bunch of other working writers (we came from all over the world, but what we all had in common was that we had to tote our own bags) and rode to the train station. Then we shook hands, said our goodbyes, and boarded our trains, silly grins on our faces, one and all.
Go to the Quais du Polar festival's English site for much more information about the writers and events, past and present. Also visit the French-language site for its huge image gallery, including two of the photos above by Marion Bornaz.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several books, including the novel The Big Ugly, the newly-released short story collection The Deepening Shade, and the essay collection The Blind Alley: Exploring Film Noir's Forgotten Corners.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.