First published in the Sunday Times
She had henna in her hair and, it seemed, on her lower incisors. Her husband had on a leather jacket and what appeared to be a snatch of a sheepskin car seat cover on his head. He looked like a woolly butcher. They had travelled to Lyon from Nice, they said, as part of an “association”, a fan club, for James Lee Burke. There was to be a video link-up with him in the States and the association didn’t miss any opportunity to hear their hero. They’d even travelled to Louisiana once to visit the sites of his Dave Robicheaux novels.
Such are the fans who stream into the city for the annual Quais du Polar festival – just on 80 000 this year. “Polar” is the French idiom for crime writing and the genre is huge there. Dozens of panel discussions, exhibitions and film screenings are spread out across the town centre between the Saône and Rhône rivers. At the famous police academy, French CSI officers mocked up a crime scene and invited the public to watch them “work” it. On the Saturday, scores of fans spent the morning criss-crossing the city following clues to solve a murder mystery.
The venues for the events are splendid. The Opéra, the city hall, the 17th-century Chapelle de la Trinité are buildings of ravishing beauty, filled with luminous paintings and blazing chandeliers. The heart of the festival is the vast marble hall of the Chambre de Commerce, where independent booksellers set up their stands. The featured writers are divided up between the stands for all-day signings, and this is what people love most about QdP: the access to authors.
The Paris book festival, I was told, is bigger but expensive and snobby. Here authors endlessly sign, chat and pose for selfies. Here’s Jo Nesbo, slight and goateed; Anthony Horowitz; a mad-haired Sophie Hannah and, over there, under an ornate statue, Deon Meyer is being genteelly mobbed. Franck Thilliez, who slipped quietly into the Franschhoek festival last year, is a rock star at home, surrounded everywhere he walks by beaming fans. There are lesser-known gems to be found, too. Nigerian author Leye Adenle was sharp on panel discussions, as was Gabonese author Janis Otsiemi and South African writer Michéle Rowe who was dubbed, naturally, “the new Deon Meyer”.
With simultaneous translation at every event, there were no barriers. Publishers talked about finding new talent: “We publish authors, not books . Find a writer and gradually build their career.” Translators described their difficulties: “Get a word wrong and it is like a grain of sand in an engine. It will ruin the narrative.”
One of the panel discussions turned to the depressingly universal problem of the Youth and Reading and the encouragement thereof. A teacher took her pupils on a river rafting trip with an author, said one panellist. Another suggested slam sessions of classic works. In front of me a young woman was bent over her cellphone, intent on taking notes on the session. I looked closer and saw, instead, that she was on Tinder. Plus ça change, as they say.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
Magwood was a guest of the French Institute of South Africa and the Quais du Polar Festival
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