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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Moscow to Jozi via Lyon and the Quais du Polar Crime Writing Festival

April is the month for Lyon’s annual Quais du Polar festival, an international literary festival dedicated to crime fiction. It has drawn some very big names — Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Peter Robinson and South Africa’s own favourite French export, Deon Meyer. I cracked the nod this year and spent a fabulous few days drinking Côte du Rhône wine, eating the best food in France and hanging out with some of my fellow practitioners of the art of literary murder.

Lyon is a fast, two-hour train ride from Paris, but it seems further away. France’s second-largest city is more languid than the capital. It was founded by the Romans to enable them to keep the Gauls (think Asterix and Obelix) in check. It is a lovely city to walk in. The rivers Rhône and Saône snake their way through the medieval quarter on their way to the Mediterranean. At night there is a rather theatrical undercurrent of thuggishness on the streets too. Knots of strung-out teenagers on park benches, Kojak-bald sailors with thick gold earrings watching the girls go by, sharp looking mafioso in the corners of the cafés. Marseilles, that hub of European crime is, after all, just an hour or so away. And Marseilles featured quite prominently in the French novels on display at the Quais du Polar.

Polar is the rather charming French name for crime fiction. I like the chilliness implied as much as I liked the darkness of its other appellation, noir fiction. Both are rather more glamorous than the German diminutive, krimi. And sidestep the Anglo-America confusion about crime/thriller/mystery and so on. Whatever you call it, the genre is very popular in France and I watched French authors autographing books at high speed.

French publishers sensibly trap their authors in small booths, and I was placed next to an obsessive, tattooed Icelandic fisherman-turned-polar-writer. He kept a careful note in a little black book of each and every book he signed: name of the person, description, place. He would flip back and forth between signing lulls, comparing the number of fans here with the number of fans elsewhere and muttering in Icelandic French to his publicist. It gave me the chilling little kernel for a new story. The noir writer with a very sharp fishing knife who follows up on his better-looking female readers …

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