The Série Noire and Social Intervention

By Russell WilliamsJuly 27, 2015

The Série Noire and Social Intervention

AS GEORGES BATAILLE tells us, there is a profound link between literature and evil.[i] If writing and reading are transgressive acts, or crimes, which unmask deep philosophical truths about us and our world, then what does crime fiction — a genre focused on those transgressions — reveal? Scholars from Dennis Porter to Ernest Mandel argue that the crime genre is also distinctly social, even political, and revealing about mainstream ideology, power, and control.[ii] These descriptions may seem counterintuitive for books that most often appear to champion readability above all, but the very best examples of crime fiction blend reader satisfaction with deeper insights. One of the most important and influential purveyors of European detective fiction, and one which has not shied away from embracing the philosophical and political, is the Série Noire imprint of the French publishing house Gallimard. This year marks the Série Noire’s 70th anniversary.

Throughout its history, the Série Noire has assumed an iconic status in world crime writing and, after the recent explosion in popularity of Nordic noir, those in the know have been murmuring that France, and indeed this collection, is where wise eyes should be focused. Unlike much European crime fiction popular today, the Série Noire has earned a reputation for its books’ sometimes subtle, sometimes relentless, and most often acutely engaged politics — always intentional and usually ambivalent toward American hegemony. Its early influence persists, and the collection continues to produce work which inspires and engages.

The Série Noire was established in September 1945 by its first director, Marcel Duhamel, a figure close to Jacques Prévert and André Breton’s Surrealist groupuscule, and the translator of Steinbeck and Hemingway into French. The imprint’s initial focus was English and American crime fiction in translation, capitalizing on a post-World War II French fashion for the English-speaking world. Early published writers include Peter Cheyney, James Hadley Chase, and, most notably, Raymond Chandler. In 1948, the Série Noire adopted what was to become its distinctive black-and-yellow covers. As the collection gained in readers and sales into the 1950s, American writers such as Chase, Wade Miller, and William O’Farrell began to dominate the collection. The popularity of crime writing as an American genre became such that it was even problematic for home-grown French writers: some, such as Serge Arcouët and Jean Meckert, published under pseudonyms — Terry Stewart and John Amila respectively — to see their names on bookstore shelves alongside their colleagues from across the pond.

French writers increasingly made their mark on the collection as it evolved into the 1950s, with Albert Simonin and Dominique Ponchardier emerging as new and noteworthy names. As Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser has demonstrated,[iii] however, the Série Noire drifted towards stagnation in the 1960s and 1970s. This was, no doubt, due to the increasing abundance of titles competing for the casual reader’s attention: rival houses such as Fleuve Noir and the Presses de la Cité collection Un Mystère sprung up in the wake of the Série Noire’s success, although they never attained the sales or stature of the Gallimard imprint. This was also, of course, a time of breathy excitement in the worlds of books, film, and popular culture, when science fiction such as that by Frank Herbert and Michel Jeury rose to a more culturally dominant position, and readers’ thirst for tales of criminality could equally be quenched by an ever more powerful movie industry.

In the heady days of May, 1968, France brushed with real, leftist revolutionary change. This critical year also seeded a profound legacy in French detective fiction. It saw the political awakening of a whole generation of French writers, including many who were to write for the Série Noire. Jean-Patrick Manchette’s first work, Laissez bronzer les cadavres!, co-written with Jean-Pierre Bastid, was published in 1971, and his work inspired a swathe of novelists — including Didier Daeninckx, Thierry Jonquet, and Frédéric H. Fajardie — over the next decade and into the present day.

Robert Soulat took over the directorship in 1977, and the writers working under his stewardship, and in the slipstream of Manchette, nurtured a body of work sometimes grouped under the epithet néo-polar. These writers were marking out new and often provocative territory for the French detective novel. Manchette famously described crime fiction as a tool for “violent social intervention” and the néo-polar is possibly best understood as a loose grouping of writers re-assessing and re-asserting what a detective novel can do.[iv] For them, detective fiction is about more than the conservative, pseudo-Poirot tales of neutralized transgressions as peddled by the previous generation. They, rather, dealt in stories that challenge and frequently unsettle. The néo-polar writers, too, were far from singing from a collective political hymn sheet: ADG, for example, was a far-right activist, and his texts unsettle as much for their casual racism as for his social observations. These writers are linked by a post-1968 enlightenment — a challenging of patriarchal or paternalistic French authority — and demonstrate an ambiguous relationship with the still burgeoning American cultural dominance. Dennis Porter has argued that the figure of Philip Marlowe brandishing a Colt Detective is a quintessentially American one, but the néo-polar writers interrogate what happens when that figure takes on a new form, with French protagonists smoking Gitanes but listening to West Coast jazz while stalking la France profonde and packing a pistol.

Manchette and the néo-polar have an influence that outruns the frame of detective fiction in France. Big Beasts of the English language crime world — David Peace, James Sallis, and James Ellroy — have all eulogized Manchette. Indeed, this reader wonders if we should understand the naming of the unfortunate Johnny Duhamel from Ellroy’s White Jazz (1991) as an intertextual nod to the Série Noire founding father? As this moment in French literary history is slowly translated and read outside France, no doubt Manchette’s contemporaries will also find their deserved share of contemporary English language readership. Hollywood is already waking up: Série Noire author Caryl Férey saw his Zulu (2008) adapted for the big screen by Jérôme Salle in 2013 and starring Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker while Pierre Morel, of Taken (2008) fame, has recently released his Gunman, a reworking of Manchette’s La position du tireur couché (1982). More traditional literary authors have also shared their appreciation: outside the conventions of genre writing, Echenoz, doyen of the avant-garde, has celebrated the work of Manchette, while enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq has expressed his admiration for Manchette, Jonquet, and Pouy.

Of course, the world has changed since the Série Noire’s glory days of the 1950s and late 1970s. It would’ve been easy to dismiss the Série Noire as an anachronism in our Baudrillardian age of permanent spectacle, a post-Fordist always-on contemporary world where transgression and criminality pervade. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi speculates, “when value can no longer be determined by the precise relation to work-time, its determinant factors become deception, swindle, violence.”[v] Crime is already all around as part of the system, so why do we need to read about it? The Série Noire, however, has also evolved. The collection was headed by Patrick Raynal between 1991 and 2005, and is today stewarded by the young, unconventional Aurélien Masson. Masson is known for his informality, his long hair and love of heavy metal — all anomalies in the typically reserved world of French publishing. (Motörhead t-shirts are few and far between on the Left Bank.) Given the excitement around the collection at the moment, his energetic approach could well be leading to a third wind. To mark the Série Noire’s 70th birthday, Masson has resurrected the black-and-yellow color scheme, publishing three distinctive books that give a glimpse of where the collection is in 2015: Pukhtu by DOA, Or noir by Dominique Manotti, and Tout doit disparaître by Jean-Bernard Pouy.

DOA’s gargantuan novel (more than 650 pages, and just the first volume of a longer series) is set in and around the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. He evokes a tense, shadowy world of mujahedeens, American ground troops, CIA operatives, corrupt Pakistani border controls, drug dealers, and ambiguous paramilitaries. Our initial windows into this world are provided by Sher Khan, a Pashtun leader, and Fox, a paramilitary of Arabic heritage. Pukhtu is a tale of wartime double- and triple-crossing where it is unclear what remains of national loyalties. In its dense consideration of betrayal and dodgy deals, DOA’s text resembles Ellroy, but while the Demon Dog winds his narratives with a dark sense of humor, the pseudonymous writer rather opts for acute and intense veracity. His precise descriptions of place and his protagonists’ backgrounds, described as “hyperreal” by the author, however, often come at the expense of pace and story.[vi] The major narrative interest of Pukhtu, at least for a reader ill-acquainted with the minutiae of army life, is the journalist Peter Dang’s investigation into a possible story about the American sponsorship of heroin dealing, and it only emerges after 200 pages of tense — but dense — plotting. DOA’s text is ambitious and rich, but any text that a reader is forced to navigate while flicking between two pages of maps, a comprehensive cast of characters, and a glossary could prove frustrating.

DOA’s novel is the most obviously American in terms of influence, but his stars and stripes are both blood-spattered and soiled with the mud of Afghan poppy fields. The precedent for Manotti’s Or noir (Black Gold) can be more distinctly located within the Série Noire, since her readable post-gangland thriller is set in and around a sun-drenched Marseille, inviting comparisons with Jean-Claude Izzo’s detective Fabio Montale novels, which also investigate foul play in the southern French port. While Izzo’s books present a more recent (1990s) Marseille, Manotti’s is nostalgic for the city in the 1970s, just after the end of the French Connection, the channel by which heroin was imported into the USA via Marseille (and which was popularized by William Friedkin’s film). Manotti’s social engagement equally ties her work with the Série Noire output of the 1970s and 1980s. She has become distinctive for the politically committed nature of her novels, drawing attention to soccer corruption in her 1998 novel Kop and to police corruption in Bien connu des services de police (2010). Or noir is no less committed and, through commissionaire Daquin’s investigation of the murder of a known mobster, explores how the black market oil industry threatens to assume the place vacated by the Marseille drug trade. Daquin, a young gay policeman (and arguably sketched as too stereotypically hedonistic), has newly arrived in the city and is keen to make a name for himself, but quickly comes up against police rivalries, murky dealings, and a new breed of French mobster. This is fast-paced and enjoyable stuff.

Of the three new editions, it is Pouy’s — a re-issuing of five novels: Nous avons brûlé une sainte, La pêche aux anges, L’homme à l’oreille croquée, Le cinéma de papa, and RN 86, first published between 1984 and 1998 — that is the most distinctive and rewarding. Pouy’s stories are compelling because they dramatize ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances beyond their control. They don’t present the escapist charm or sordid glamour of war zone heroin or crude oil dealing, but rather evoke a recognizably banal world, with references to the everyday of unglamorous French provinces, worked in a language that favors dark comedy and clever wordplay. Rabelaisian grotesque is never very far away in Pouy’s work which, unlike some of his néo-polar contemporaries, doesn’t seem to have aged significantly. As with Manotti, and many of the most effective Série Noire volumes, Pouy’s committed gauchiste sympathies are never far from the surface, but this doesn’t dominate the overall humor of his style.

Pouy’s best books blend high crime and the mundane by means of a gentle irony. They feature the trappings of a world we recognize and the frustrations and grievances of his characters are our own. For all his playful swagger, though, there is also pathos here. We feel for his characters, such as the heartbroken Leonard of RN 86, investigating the disappearance of his wife prior to her death in a car crash and discovering how she was drawn into a world of art and sordid sex. Marcel, the average teenage protagonist of L’homme à l’oreille croquée, too, is notre semblable, notre frère since, with his understandable insecurities about growing up, he seems eminently believable (unlike, perhaps, Manotti’s oversexed Daquin). This is a darkly comic tale and starts with a train crash: Marcel survives, but is trapped in the wreckage pressed against a mysterious young woman. After Marcel is rescued, Pouy focuses on his efforts to track her down across the regions of France, via the train — the rail network is a preoccupation — and Tour de France-style bike races. The end is bittersweet: funny and poignant. My favorite from the collection is Nous avons brûlé une sainte, a punchy pursuit tale which sees the police track a gang of terrorists devoted to the memory of Joan of Arc. Their pursuit again takes them into the remote regions of France as the revolutionaries visit the sites relevant to the French myth in a joyous “orgy” (the cliché seems apt for Pouy) of explosions, assassinations, and inevitable anti-Anglo Saxon fun. Pouy has yet to be translated into English to any significant extent, despite having published countless gripping novels, and the time is surely right for a bold translator to take on the challenge.

With the Série Noire marking such a significant anniversary, this is the perfect moment to take stock and reassess the legacy of this landmark French literary institution. Too often crime fiction, and the Série Noire especially, has been overlooked by scholars, and sniffed at by readers. Under Masson’s guidance and with writers such as DOA, Manotti, and Pouy, as well as voices such as Elsa Marpeau and Thomas Bronnec, the collection seems to have found a new momentum which will hopefully inspire a new generation of serious readers in France and around the world to pick up a Série Noire novel. The collection continues to be consistently and stylishly provocative, unsettling, and good old transgressive fun.


[i] La Littérature et le mal (Paris: Gallimard, 1957).

[ii] Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New York: Yale University Press, 1981); Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

[iii] In, Le Roman Noir Français (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984).

[iv] Chroniques (Paris: Rivages, 1996), p. 12.

[v] Heroes (New York: Verso, 2015), p. 77.

[vi] See Alexis Brocas, ‘Réalities augmentées’ in Le Magazine Littéraire, No. 556, pp. 76-78 (77).


Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.

LARB Contributor

Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!