Today’s noir novel in Europe: Popular novelists from France and Iceland
From the cover of Dominique Manotti's 'Marseille 73.'

Dominique Manotti, the majority of whose 13 novels have been translated into English, is a Parisian professor of economic history who writes about crime from a historical and global perspective.

Her Lorraine Connection, which won top crime fiction awards in France and Britain, begins with a fire in what amounts to a sweatshop in a backwater region of France shorn of its former manufacturing base. It goes on to unmask the machinations behind a corrupt takeover of the company.

Novelist Dominique Manotti at Festival Interpol’art, Oct. 2013. | G. Garitan / Wikimedia Commons

In the same vein, her penultimate book, Racket, is loosely based on General Electric’s takeover of Alcatel, a company that manufactures equipment for the French nuclear industry and is thus at the center of French security.

Donald Trump may complain about supposed Chinese monitoring of American data through Huawei, but this novel details how, by an underhanded blackmail operation supported by the U.S. Justice Department, France was forced to surrender part of its sovereignty to an American outfit seeking global dominance.

The Black Corps is an equally remarkable description of how in the last days of the Nazi Occupation in Paris, various elements of the French owner class and the police, some of whom supported the Occupation, manage to switch sides and present themselves as promoting liberation.

Manotti’s other city of interest is Marseille. In Black Gold, Parisian Inspector Daquin, during the 1973 oil crisis, investigates how the Corsican mob is working with the oil companies to shanghai oil tankers to keep the oil off the markets and raise prices.

Her current novel, Marseille 73, could not be more topical. Inspector Daquin investigates the way the security services and French local police are at the center of a plot to assassinate Algerian workers and drive them out of France.

The police are cognizant of, and promote, a citizen militia which is in training to spark an invasion of Algeria to win back the country for France. With daily reports in the U.S. of the links between the police and far-right militias, and with a long history of U.S. police involvement in the Ku Klux Klan, the Marseille assassinations from 1973 seem almost ripped from today’s headlines.

The book also describes the mindset of the “pieds noirs,” the French Algerian exiles in southern France and their belief that Algeria will hail them in their invasion as conquering heroes. A postscript explains how, just as with the Americans in Iraq or the recent “invasion” of Venezuela, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Manotti mines the history of France, its colonial and collaborationist past, and its current position, as sometimes being the victim of global corporations whose power both exceeds and undermines the state.

Hers is a truly unique contribution to crime fiction, where individual criminal acts illuminate large-scale economic crime in the corporate and state spheres globally.

Public vs. personal politics in Icelandic fiction

Iceland is not only a rapidly rising tourist center but also a hotbed of crime fiction, which has added to its tourist attraction. The dean of this fiction is Arnaldur Indriðason, whose inspector Erlunder investigates current and ancient crimes, often linked to the country’s past. Indriðason’s first novel Operation Napoleon tackles a recurring thorny question in his work, that of the country’s autonomy in relation to the U.S., which had in the past seen it as merely a reconnaissance post in the Cold War.

Indriðason himself attributes the tiny country’s oversized impact on the crime novel partially to the long winter months when there is nothing to do but stay inside and write. If in Los Angeles everyone has a script they carry around with them in the back seat or the trunk of their car, in Iceland, everyone has a novel that they pack in their snowmobile.

Arnaldur Indriðason, the dean of Icelandic crime fiction. | Forlagid

Two new Icelandic crime novels, Betrayal by Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Gallows Rock by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, illustrate twin poles of contemporary Icelandic crime fiction. (The two are not sisters but rather both are daughters of two different fathers named Sigurdar.) Both novels have female leads. The first casts the wider net to also include government corruption, and the second focuses on the violence unleashed in the wake of a misogynist group of professional men.

Lilja is known in crime circles for her noir trilogy Snare, Trap, and Cage, set around the time of the Icelandic banking collapse and exposure of the artificially inflated economy of the country in 2008. Her characters include a lesbian mother who, to support her child, is trapped into being a drug runner, and a customs official who must show up for work instead of being at home with his dying wife. In Trap, the two ultimately bond in a way that is beneficial to each and contributes to their realizing their individual dreams. At the same time, the novel also illustrates how the system they are trapped in usually makes that realization impossible and simply keeps its victims cornered.

In Betrayal, Lilja’s heroine Ursula, a global human rights worker still reeling from the atrocities she has seen, is called into the government upon her return. She labors under the suspicion that her immediate boss might be simply setting her up for a fall and she works to reopen a rape investigation that the government has suppressed. She faces stalkers, outraged citizens, and a bodyguard she does not know if she can trust, while befriending the office maid. Lilja ties this all into a past crime by the denizens of the government, the ultimate revelation of which leaves Ursula in mortal danger.

As usual with Lilja’s novels, there is a healthy dose of both the inner strength of a supposedly frail heroine along with this time a much more open critique of the corruption behind the old boys’ club that continues to define Icelandic politics.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels are much more intimate. Her series with the child psychologist Freyja teaming with the police detective Huldar, who has a crush on her, involve murders that question the more everyday power of the male establishment, in this case of a group of men who benefitted from the country’s financial boom. Gallows Rock involves a gruesome hanging at a landmark stone formation that also features a young boy sequestered in the apartment of the victim.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, 2015. / Ave Maria Mõistlik (CC)

The focus here is on the piecing together of what the young boy knows as Freyja attempts to make sense of his nearly unconscious associations. The crime, which has traces of a Sherlock Holmes “locked room” puzzle, nevertheless leads the investigators to a catastrophe created in the wake of a male group, each successful in business, using their power to trap and exploit women they view only as prizes to be festooned on their mantle. A stunning reveal at the end casts light on the destruction generated as a result of this display of wealth.

Both novels call attention to the destructive capacity of male government and financial power on both a formal official level and more informal personal levels. Both shine a light on and expose the secret shadow world that allows this power to operate.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and "The End of Leisure and Diary of A Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is currently working on a book titled Marvel Studios and Commodified Seriality.