PRINT May 1997


Radical Noir

EARLY LAST MARCH, in the thick of the protest movement against the draconian immigration law proposed by France’s Minister of the Interior Jean-Louis Debré, the residents of a working-class Paris neighborhood not far from the Bastille came together for an emergency meeting called by Gérard, the owner of the local bistrot. Gérard was furious. After fifty-four years in France, his Spanish-born wife, Maria, had suddenly been asked to produce a certificate of naturalization in order to renew her ID card. And a call from the local police station had just informed him that his Romanian cook, Vlad, was no longer considered a “desirable” alien. One after another, the neighbors voiced their indignation about the current climate of immigrant-bashing. After hours of heated discussion, the one person who had remained silent, a gawky bistrot regular nicknamed “Le Poulpe” (the Octopus) in honor of his tentacular limbs, realized that the time for action had come. With the help of his old friend Pedro, a Spanish Civil War veteran with a flair for engraving, he soon had 300,000 false IDs rolling off the presses.

Le Poulpe began making a name for himself well before the outcry over France’s new immigration law, which further restricted the movement of foreigners—both visitors and residents—in France. Part American gumshoe and part Fantômas, Le Poulpe is the title character of a thriving series of French mystery novels that are as much literary phenomenon as political bombshell. The brainchild of Jean-Bernard Pouy, a well-known author in the hybrid genre variously known as the polar (detective story) or roman noir (thriller), the series was conceived as a thinking person’s pulp fiction in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Horace McCoy. “The name Poulpe is a pseudo-translation of pulp,” explains Pouy, “What we were interested in was having another go at this inexpensive genre of mass-market fiction by using funky titles and color covers, while maintaining a high stylistic level and a clear ideological bent, a Left viewpoint to fight against the National Front.” But “Le Poulpe’s” real novelty is that each book is written by a different author. And, as Pouy emphasizes, the authors are drawn from an ever expanding mix of well-known mystery writers like himself and total unknowns, as well as filmmakers, scriptwriters, journalists, and others. What ensures a minimal continuity among the different episodes—apart from the wonderful retro covers designed by American artist Miles Hyman—is the “bible,” a brief synopsis of the recurring characters and frame story sketched by Pouy and two mystery-writer friends, Serge Quadruppani and Patrick Raynal (director of France’s most prestigious mystery collection, Série Noire).

Neither an avenger nor a law enforcer nor a private investigator, the thirty-seven-year-old Poulpe is a cross between Don Quixote and the Lone Ranger, identified with deliberate lack of precision as a “radical” in order to situate him on the Left without locking him into any particular camp. (And as Raynal points out, the ambiguity of his character is compounded by the fact that he is modeled on American private eyes, though they are nonexistent in France due to the State monopoly on criminal investigation.) In the absence of both a profession and a permanent address, Le Poulpe makes the bistrot his office as well as his home away from hotel, the place where his girlfriend Cheryl has the best chance of finding him when she pops in from her hairdressing salon around the corner and where, at the beginning of every novel, he reads the daily paper and inevitably comes across the tiny news item that will set him off on a new adventure.

Despite the cult of the polar in France, Pouy spent several years looking for a publisher before hooking up with Antoine de Kerversau of Editions Baleine, who was so taken with Le Poulpe that he mortgaged his apartment to get the series off the ground in October 1995. With a first episode by Pouy on antiabortion commandos, a second by Quadruppani on corrupt politicians, a third by Raynal on real-estate speculation, and a fourth by their friend Didier Daeninckx (one of the biggest names in the polar pantheon) on the alliance between ex-radicals and the extreme Right, Le Poulpe was a guaranteed success among mystery fans, particularly, notes Pouy, those on the Left, “who really like to read novels in which the extreme Right gets trashed.” But the audience now also includes teenagers attracted as much by “stories on drug trafficking, child molesting, and cults in which they can recognize themselves” as by “language that reflects the way people actually talk today.” One of the things Pouy prides himself on is never turning down a manuscript that he’s commissioned. The only two “rules” he imposes are no gratuitous violence and no demeaning sex, though readers with weak stomachs and/or feminist inclinations may not always be convinced these rules have been followed. For Pouy, “What’s positive about this series is that people can say some of it’s good and some of it’s bad. And maybe one of the things that accounts for its popularity is this fallible side: Le Poulpe is always a winner, but the novels aren’t.”

Whatever the case, Le Poulpe’s authors are as enthusiastic as the readers. Novelist and scriptwriter Chantal Pelletier, who had never written anything resembling a polar when she met Pouy through a friend, was promptly commissioned to author one of the first “Cheryl” adventures—a subseries created in hopes of improving the otherwise one-dimensional image of Le Poulpe’s leading lady. She recalls feeling “a little panicked when he told me I should write it really fast, in three weeks. But ultimately it was a pleasure. The real stroke of luck was that when I wrote my Cheryl, none of the others had been published, and I allowed myself almost total freedom to invent the character.” With no less pleasure, another Cheryl author describes how she and three other Poulpe veterans got together last March to improvise their special mini-episode in response to Debré’s immigration law. Written collectively—and anonymously—the twelve-page short story entitled “Deuxième Debré” (a pun not only on “second degree,” but also on the fact that the interior minister is the son of the late prime minister Michel Debré) was distributed free of charge at the Paris book fair. With over forty novels in print, Poulpe sales have stabilized at 10 to 15,000 copies of each volume, and at the rate of two to three new titles a month, the calendar is booked to the year 2000. Like France’s social and political problems, the adventures of Le Poulpe are clearly to be continued.

Miriam Rosen contributes regularly to Artforum.

Le Poulpe, Éditions Baleine, 7 rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris.