It's a famille affaire, or What's with all those eccentric alternative households in French crime writing?
Daniel Pennac's Malaussène novels, Fred Vargas' Adamsberg novels, and, especially, her books featuring the "Three Evangelists" come to mind. More recently, Pierre Lemaitre's The Great Swindle won France's Prix Goncourt for its story of an epic swindle and counter-swindle that revolve around two wretched veterans of World War I who come together for mutual support.
That sort of thing can get precious and sentimental (though Lemaitre weaves it into a harsh look at social fissures and abuse of power in post-war France. Think of The Great Swindle as a meeting of the Pennac-Vargas and the Manchette-Manotti strands of French crime writing.)
But the eccentric-household novels also include something hard to imagine in American or British crime writing: Economically precarious characters, depicted in all their poverty, but without desperation, horror, sloganeering, or proletarian victimhood or nobility. The closest that Vargas' Dog Will Have His Day comes to the last of these is a passing reference to the protagonists' having come together in a tumble-down house after a recession. (Dog Will Have His Day, published in French in 1996 but not translated into English until 2014, is a sequel to The Three Evangelists, two of whom appear here.)
These characters don't drink themselves to death, and they don't turn up frozen in the street. A character loses her home, and she simply moves in with another character. Unlike their unfortunate counterparts in crime writing from other countries, these characters have driving passions, or eccentricities, that earn them a modest living, keep their minds engaged, or both. The protagonist of Dog Will Have His Day is a former government functionary who is driven to compile journalistic dossiers and solve mysteries. Each of the three evangelists, so called because their names are Marc, Mathieu, and Lucien, is a historian with a greater than usual devotion to the period he studies. (I like to think Vargas uses Marc, the medievalist who is a featured sidekick in Dog Will Have His Day, to poke some good-natured fun at her own work as an archaeologist of the Middle Ages.)
So, what's with the eccentric households? Are they too twee for words? Or are they brave declarations that poverty need not mean intellectual or physical death?
© Peter Rozovsky 2016