Thursday, June 21, 2012


Like mysteries set in foreign countries? The latest issue of the Mystery Readers Journal focuses on Mysteries set in France (Volume 28:1). This upclose and personal article by Peter May appeared in the Author! Author! section of this outstanding issue. Order this issue as hardcopy or as a PDF download. Check out the Table of Contents here.

France, the Write Country

I have written about my home country of Scotland. I have crossed the Atlantic and written about the United States. I have travelled to the Far East to write about China. Now I am writing about my adopted home—France. And in many ways it is the most difficult assignment yet.

I started going to France nearly forty years ago. I bought my first house there twenty-five years ago, and I have lived there full-time for the last ten. The mistake that those in the Anglo-Saxon world make is in thinking that because the French look like them they are like them. They are not. And it is not just a matter of language. It goes much deeper. It is cultural, political, societal.

Although ostensibly a Catholic country, France is determinedly secular, and really quite irreligious.
While Nicolas Sarkozy heads up what is regarded in France as a right-wing administration, both he and his party would defend to the death political principles that most people in the United States would regard as "socialist."

Vast amounts of money are lavished on what are seen as the twin pillars of civilised society— health and education. A recent OECD survey into health services around the world placed France at No.1—while the United States languished around 37th. Not a reflection of healthcare standards, but one of access.

The French education system is widely regarded as one of the best. At its top level, attained only by exceptional academic prowess, a system of Grandes Ecoles (literally, big schools) turns out the civil servants and politicians who have been running France since the Second World War. And they have achieved remarkable things. France has an infrastructure second to none—a network of motorways that feeds every part of the country, like the body's cardiovascular system; high speed trains by which you can set your watch; eco-friendly tramways being installed in every large and medium-sized city; a nuclear power programme that provides around seventy percent of the country's electrical needs.

The average French worker enjoys at least five weeks' vacation each year, much more than his Anglo-Saxon counterpart, and yet the French worker achieves a higher rate of productivity. He then uses his vacation time to indulge the French love of family. Every break from work, of even just a few days, sees a mass migration around the country, as people return to their roots and families gather to enjoy long meals around tables groaning with good country cooking.

Writers and artists are universally revered. Not in the sense that the Brits and Americans have developed the cult of celebrity, but in a way that manifests itself in genuine respect. Talent is cherished, and the French love-affair with the written word is undiminished. Every village, small and medium-sized town, and city, has its own annual book fair. Writers are invited, and people flock in their thousands to meet them, to buy their books and have them inscribed with very personal dedications.

Even the genre of crime, in which I write, is regarded as literature. The French call the literary crime novel the "roman noir"—the black novel. Crime writing festivals—salons de polar—are to be found throughout the country. So it is little wonder that it is here that my career has been both nourished and celebrated. My series of China Thrillers have become bestsellers, and my Lewis Trilogy was critically acclaimed, nominated for and winning several literary prizes.

It was my novel The Blackhouse, rejected by every major publisher in the UK, that was taken up by the French, who bought world rights and turned it into a huge bestseller across Europe—including the United Kingdom, where it has now sold nearly 200,000 copies.

So how to write about this hugely diverse and culturally different country? Only through the eyes of an outsider. For you are born French, and no matter how many years you might live there, you will never be French. As as result I created the character of Enzo Macleod, a Scot with an Italian mother who has lived in France for the last twenty years and has a French daughter. This, it seemed to me, was the only way to write from the inside and the outside at the same time.

Enzo is a former forensics expert, now teaching biology, who is endeavouring to use new science to solve old French cold cases.

There are five books in the Enzo Files series. They are published in America by Poisoned Pen Press, are rapidly being bought up around Europe, and shortly to appear in the UK. But a French publishing deal still seems a long way off. For although I have been adopted and lauded as a foreigner living and writing in France, French publishers prefer that I apply my writer's observations to other countries.

Which is a shame, because as I travel around France my French readers tell me they are desperate to read about Enzo. Perhaps one day they will.

Buy this issue of Mysteries set in France (volume 28:1)! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.


Anne Higgins said...

Interesting entry!
I am a big fan of the Fred Vargas mysteries --- the ones which have been translated into English.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the first Enzo novel, and will be hunting out the continuing titles. This book had me jumping up and down in excitement (literally!). I loved it all! characters. plot. dialogue. backstory. background!