European & American Crime Fiction: Generalities & Exceptions by Sylvie Granotier
Author, screenwriter and actress Sylvie Granotier loves to weave plots
that send shivers up your spine. She was born in Algeria and grew up in
Paris and Morocco. She studied literature and theater in Paris, then set
off traveling. She wound up in Paris again, an actress, with a job and
some recognition. But she is a writer at heart, and started her
publishing career translating Grace Paley’s short story collection
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute into French. Sixteen novels and many
short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author
in France. She has met with continued success, and is translated into
German, Italian, Russian and Greek. The Paris Lawyer is her only novel
to be translated into English so far. This legal procedural that doubles
as a psychological thriller is full of plot twists that bring us into
the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, a place full of
nineteenth-century landscapes and dark secrets. Sylvie splits her time
between Paris and the Creuse.
Sylvie Granotier: European and American Crime Fiction: Generalities and Exceptions
To me, a French writer with sixteen published novels to my name, American mysteries feel rooted in a basic conception of evil. Evil has to be fought and preferably defeated by good. That’s why American novelists can freak us out with serial killers, an evil force that cannot be tamed nor explained. Europe is too old, and toughened by too many harsh experiences, to still believe in those basic moral concepts. Our world is more grey than black and white.
It doesn’t mean we Europeans don’t have ethics—we do, especially in crime novels. If it were not the case, we’d be writing pornography, where the acts are depicted with no point of view. But I think our basic aim, or mine in any case, is to understand the dark side of men and women, before we judge or punish it.
Other than that, the differences are cultural. Every country comes with a way of life, a climate, a social organization you don’t find elsewhere. In Scandinavian novels, for example, the cold, the short number of hours in a day, and the consumption of alcohol make for an immediately exotic and pleasurable atmosphere, since we don’t have to actually endure them.
My advice to travelers is to read crime novels from the country they want to visit. They’re the best guides ever because they deal with the realities of everyday life. And you’ll know where to eat, where to wander. It’s useful.
In literary terms, American novels tend to be technically engineered. We European writers envy and try to copy the American capacity to grab the reader, maintain the suspense, surprise and shock at regular moments, in a very deliberate controlled way. Again, there are exceptions, but it sometimes makes for simplified writing. Short chapters, short sentences, quick dialogue—you feel the fear of losing the reader, god forbid.
I think we’re less afraid to experiment with construction, with style. I know I often play with time, past and present. I did one novel based on a first person narrator working through the mystery plot thanks to mails, blogs, film clips, and articles. Or one where the story is told by the woman killer getting on with her life and her victim going back on their past.
Most American mystery novels I enjoy tell a story from its beginning to its end like a straight arrow and that apparent simplicity is not the easiest thing to accomplish. Believe me, I’ve tried that too.
One thing for sure, I learn as a writer from every good mystery I read. And my personal training, when my writing feels a bit stiff, is to translate a few paragraphs by an American writer I love.