why thriller heroes are eternal – L’Express

why thriller heroes are eternal – LExpress

They are police officers or private detectives, journalists or forensic doctors. They live in Paris, London, Los Angeles, Pretoria or elsewhere. They are called Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nestor Burma or Harry Bosch and were born from the imagination of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Léo Malet or Michael Connelly. Everything is allowed to them: investigate, fall in love, lose loved ones, marry, divorce, move, investigate again, be injured, hospitalized, remarry. Everything except one thing: die. All the crime novel authors gathered from April 5 to 7 in Lyon for the Quais du Polar Festival will tell you: once success is achieved with a series and a hero, it is almost impossible to part with it.

“When you kill your character, it’s the syndrome Misery: someone wants to kill you”, laughs Niko Tackian, recent author of Black triangle (Calmann-Lévy). Even when the hero is well past his expiration date, he cannot disappear. Because the publishers do not want to give up the vein of a series awaited by thousands of fans. Because readers want to find their paper friend at regular intervals. Fed from childhood with the figures of Club of Five, from Detective Alice or Michael, the thriller reader (often a female reader) loves the “come back to it” side of the genre, madeleine style. “Every year or every eighteen months, when a universe appeals to them, they have their meeting, their 5 to 7,” notes Marie-Caroline Aubert, famous editor of thrillers, who worked at Seuil and is now at the Gallimard’s black series.

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A crime, an investigator, a book. The authors themselves feel a certain comfort at this rhythm, specific to crime fiction, a modern echo of the popular serials of the 19th century. The Italian Valerio Varesi, who published The Lizard Strategy at Agullo on April 11, launched its curator Soneri more than twenty-five years ago for practical reasons: “As a journalist, I had covered the story of a missing family and I wanted to make a book about it. “investigation was the best way. And to highlight the context, I wanted a normal police officer, without preconceived ideas. Like Maigret. Not like in the Anglo-Saxon tradition like Agatha Christie.”

Far from the stereotypical silhouettes of the beginnings of crime fiction, simple pretexts for investigation, the authors now aggravate their case by creating endearing protagonists. In Son of no one (Fayard), Quai des Orfèvres prize 2023, Jean-François Pasques presents a pair, made up of a very experienced commander but a bit of a bear and a young lieutenant just out of school: “I am from the trade, I I know that we never work alone, hence the duo. Furthermore, I wanted to show the environment and the humanity of the police officers. Finally, I wanted to help them evolve.” Her heroine, shy in the first opus, Deadly heatwave, gains confidence in the second and even more responsibility in the manuscript he has just finished. Martial Caroff, who won the same prize in 2024 with Do not thank me (Fayard), wanted, in his first part, to shine the spotlight on the plot, his character was therefore quite transparent, but he wants to densify it in the next one. Over the course of 16 novels involving Commissioner Soneri, Valerio Varesi has modified the state of mind of his investigator to better fit him with the time: yesterday nostalgic for his youth in Parma, he is now angry and loses his temper against a city less united than before.

Characters anchored in society or in a place

Flaws, gray areas, personal lives that ring true are the guarantee of a character who leaves an impression. In France, the success of Fred Vargas’ Commissioner Adamsberg is fueled less by his investigations than by his lunar behavior and his improbable intuitions which will ultimately prove correct. The pair, created by Elizabeth George, of the English aristocrat and the popular woman inaugurated with Investigation in the fog (Presses de la Cité), works because it echoes the reality of an English society where social classes are still very significant. When Joseph Hansen created the figure of Dave Brandstetter, insurance investigator and homosexual (at Rivages) in 1970, he innovated for the time by telling the ordinary life of a couple of men or the arrival of AIDS.

Sometimes the characters are intimately linked to a city, each book is, for the reader, an opportunity to travel in good company. It is difficult, for example, to dissociate Benny Griessel from Cape Town, Mario Conde from Cuba or Commissioner Brunetti from Venice, born from the imagination of Deon Meyer, Leonardo Padura or Donna Leon. At Gallmeister, The Island of Souls, which inaugurates a saga written by Piergiorgio Pulixi, seduces as much by the originality of its two main characters as by its setting in mysterious Sardinia. The following episodes, including The Seventh Moon which has just been published, keep this character while taking place in other Italian provinces.

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No matter the success, sooner or later, all serial crime writers experience a feeling of weariness. “When we write sequels, we lock ourselves in. We create a framework, we limit our freedom: in terms of characters since we cannot kill them without consequences for the sequel; in terms of setting because it is difficult to lug around everywhere a police officer attached to a police station; and in terms of writing since we are part of a narrative pattern”, lists Niko Tackian who, after a trilogy, chose to abandon Tomar Khan, his hero, and to devote himself to “unitarians”. As the episodes progress, the constraints become more pronounced. Readers are ruthless, they don’t let any inconsistency slip through. And they do not hesitate to point out, during a trade fair or a meeting, that a particular protagonist had a particular rank in a particular book but another in the next one or that the table in the investigator’s house was not in yellow formica, but made of wood, and they see no explanation for this change.

Authors – and not the least important ones – have tried to break away. In The Last Problem, Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes. But the protests were such that he resurrected it in the collection of short stories The empty house, at the cost of some narrative acrobatics. Marie-Caroline Aubert remembers Philip Kerr, who died in 2018, tired author of a formidable Berlin series in which he depicted the moods of a German police officer facing the seizure of power by the Nazis. On several occasions, he tries to escape his hero, Bernie Gunther: “The rest of what he produced did not work either as a book or commercially. He asked me: ‘Is my book not good?’ I told him: ‘That’s not what you were made for,'” she remembers.

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Only a few manage to escape the curse of repetition – Dennis Lehane was one of them with his Mystic River and his Shutter Island (Shore) –, the others learn to be cunning. Some allow themselves a prank with a secondary character, like Jean-François Pasques, who, for the duration of a book, took his forensic doctor to Siberia. But after the Quai des Orfèvres prize and its 250,000 copies, he was friendly encouraged by his publisher to return to his original duo.

Others alternate with “classic” novels or documentaries. Valerio Varesi, for example, published in Italy Il Labirinto di ghiaccio (the ice labyrinth) in which Soneri does not appear and he is preparing a biography of Teresa Noce, a figure of Italian communism and feminism. Others, finally, play with the codes of the recurring character to better free themselves from them. In Agent Seventeen And The Assassin eighteen by John Brownlow (Gallimard), heroes are eternal, but the series renews the concept with refreshing originality.

For further :

Dictionary of crime fiction lovers, by Pierre Lemaître (Plon).

Thriller for dummies, by Marie-Caroline Aubert and Natalie Beunat.