Letter from Lyon: At 2015’s Quais du Polar

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.)

Recording No Exit broadcast with Michael Connelly and John Grisham at Celestines, Theatre de Lyon/ Photo by Marion Bornaz for Quais du Polar
Recording No Exit broadcast with Michael Connelly and John Grisham at Celestines, Theatre de Lyon/ Photo by Marion Bornaz for Quais du Polar
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.)

Cartels Drugs, a History of the World Panel: Don Winslow (USA), Sebastian Rotella (USA), Edyr Augusto (Brazil), Diego Trelles Paz (Peru), Richard Lange (USA)/ Photo Marion Bornaz for Quais du Polar
Cartels Drugs, a History of the World Panel: Don Winslow (USA), Sebastian Rotella (USA), Edyr Augusto (Brazil), Diego Trelles Paz (Peru), Richard Lange (USA)/ Photo Marion Bornaz for Quais du Polar

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.

The Killer in Me Panel with Jake Hinkson (2nd from right) at 2015's Quais du Polar/ Photo by Heather Brown
The Killer in Me Panel with Jake Hinkson (2nd from right) at 2015’s Quais du Polar/ Photo by Heather Brown
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.

In the main hall in Lyon. Statues, Ellroy, and me. / Photo by Jake Hinkson
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.


  1. Jake Hinkson

    PS. Here’s a [url=http://www.jakehinkson.com/#!photos/czvw]link[/url] to some other pics from the Quais du Polar and from other stops on the French book tour.

  2. Cyril Lerossignol

    And the french food ? You don’t talk about french food ! That’s the best part of us.
    You signed your book for me, as well Ben did and i was in Trinity to hear what you had to say. Good moment.
    Thanks for all. Keep writing !

  3. Jake Hinkson

    Thanks, Cyril! The food (and the wine) was excellent!

  4. Simone TREMBLAY

    Hello !
    I ‘m french, and I would like to publish a translation of your post on my blog. I visit Quais du Polar every year, I’m found of black novel. I read your book ( I write about it on my blog ) and the ones of Whitmer too. An american friend translate for me, so can I published it, please, on my little blog ? Sorry for my very bad english, it’s why my friend translate for me ! This is my blog and the post about your book

  5. Jake Hinkson

    Hi Simone!

    Thanks for the kind words about my book on your blog. It’s fine with me if your translate my post for your blog as well. Thanks so much for taking the time to read it.

  6. Clare 2e

    In case this arises for anyone else:

    We’re welcoming of cross-posting if you reproduce the material up to the jump (the place you’d have to click to read more…), and then provide a link to read the rest of the post back here.

    In the case of a personal translation, obviously, you’ll need to reproduce the complete post in French (and how cool is that?!), but please put a link back to our site with a note that it originally appeared here, and if there are any questions about the author’s intent, refer readers to the text in its original language.

  7. Simone TREMBLAY

    Thank you ! I’ve put the link back to your site, of course !

  8. SarahDublin

    Hi Jake, Came across this post because of searching for information about Quais du Polar. Looking forward to reading your work! Sarah

Comments are closed.