CITY OF BLOOD, Frederique Molay’s gripping thriller that held the French enthralled, is now set to work its magic across the spectrum of the English speaking world.
In the novel, which was recently translated into English, a major Parisian modern art event gets unexpected attention on live TV, causing Police Chief, Nico Sirsky, and his elite crime squad, to rush to the La Villette Park and Museum complex, built on the site of the French capital’s former slaughterhouses. Three decades after a tragic banquet, renowned artist Samuel Cassian is inaugurating the first archeological dig of modern art. Excavators uncover a skeleton in the presence of the international press.
Two questions smolder: could the bones be those of the artist’s own son, and does that death have anything to do with the current string of nightclub murders by the “Paris Butcher”?
The investigation takes Nico Sirsky and France’s top criminal investigation division from artists’ studios, to autopsy theaters and nightclubs in hopes of tracking down the murderer who threatens to turn the City of Lights into a City of Blood.
Writing has always been a passion for Molay, author of the award-winning international bestseller The 7th Woman. A laureate of Science Po, France’s prestigious Higher Institute of the Social Sciences, she began her career in politics and administration. She relinquished her position as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, for election to the local government in Saône-et-Loire. She also spent her nights pursuing a passion for writing, nourished since she wrote her first novel at the age of eleven. After The 7th Woman took France by storm, Molay dedicated her life to writing and raising her three children. She has five books to her name, including three in the Paris Homicide series.
In an exclusive interview to The Big Thrill below, Molay talks of her life, her work, her interests, female thriller writers in France, and her views of literature in general and the thriller genre in particular.
How about a short introduction to get us started?
When I was a kid, as soon as I learned to read, I was drawn into the mysterious world of books as if it were another dimension. I was fascinated by the power of words and stories to stir up emotions in readers. In fact, I wrote my first novel when I was eleven—it was about a killer cat (and no, it was never published!) I grew up and went into politics, but continued to write at night. Then, The 7th Woman (the first in the Paris Homicide series) won a prestigious crime fiction award in France, the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres, and shot to the top of the charts, becoming a bestseller. I’ll admit that when I wrote the book, I never imagined it would be a series, but the protagonist Nico Sirsky and his team came to life and readers kept asking about the characters, so I wrote Crossing the Line, and then CITY OF BLOOD.
Are you any relation to Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, ordered to be burned upon a scaffold by King Philip IV of France in March 1314 after the order was dissolved?
My in-laws are, yes. As for me, it’s not quite the same, but I am a Knight in the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, which is a group that promotes traditions from Burgundy, and notably the region’s wines. I was inducted at the Château du Clos de Vougeot in 2007, near Beaune, which is the town where Jacques de Molay was inducted into the Knights Templar.
The English translation and subsequent film of Jean-Christophe Grangé’s thriller The Crimson Rover were hugely successful. Bernard Henri Levy’s investigative Who Killed Daniel Pearl? was hailed by French critics as a thriller. Luc Besson’s thrilling films have put him at the forefront of his peers. What, then, does this say about the status of the thriller genre in France?
Every country invents heroes based on its history, social reality and culture, and its own literary tradition. This is quite true today in Europe, where there are a number of strong, creative genre writers, despite a number of years when all you could find were translations of the great masters, or pale imitations. Your question just goes to show that French thriller writers have an appeal beyond the country’s borders. Other examples include International Dagger winners Fred Vargas and Pierre Lemaître.
Where does the thriller stand today in relation to Camus and Malraux’s dominant plumes?
Reading a novel, whatever the genre, is an adventure for our thought processes, our imagination, and our emotions. Works by Camus and Malraux set out to depict reality and uncover how society works in order to better understand life’s complexities. In the same way, mystery and thriller writers recount the world as it is, trying to discern what is evil, be it in crimes or in conspiracies. At the same time, thriller writers tell the story of people—with their doubts, fears, obsessions, anxieties and frustrations—as they interact with the world. In the end, whatever the genre, ultimately, the idea is to understand people better.
Will English translations of French thrillers restore France’s erstwhile leadership of world literature?
Only three per cent of novels published in the United States every year are translations (all languages), while in France, translations represent thirty-three per cent of novels published. That said, French is the most-translated language in the United States, more than German and Spanish. It is the second most-translated language in the world, after English. Even beyond the numbers, I think France has a great literary tradition, one that began in the Age of Enlightenment, and continues today. I see no reason for that to change. For our genre, people usually name Edgar Allan Poe as a founding father, but here in France, we say it’s Balzac, with his book, A Shady Business.
What did you feel when you learnt that the English translation of CITY OF BLOOD would transcend the limits of French readership?
I was really thrilled, as you can well imagine, starting with the translation of The 7th Woman and Crossing the Line last year, then CITY OF BLOOD this year. To tell the truth, I lived for a year in New York to finish my studies, and I was lucky enough to travel across the country at the time. I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics; I grew up with Enid Blyton, turning to Stephen King when I was older. As a young reporter, I spent a whole afternoon alone interviewing Mary Higgins Clark in 1992, and I love Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and so many others. So, to be published in the United States is like my own American dream come true. Thanks to Chief Nico Sirsky.
As the tenth female crime writer among the top sixty, are you satisfied with the ratio of women crime thriller novelists?
In France, there is still room for more women mystery and thriller writers.
Why aren’t there more female crime writers in France, whereas in the English-speaking world they make up around half the number?
With rare exceptions, few women in France wrote noir before the 1990s, when the influence of women writers from English-speaking parts of the world started to be felt in France. But as gender inequality diminished in the workplace, the same started happening in publishing, and today there are many fine and successful French women crime writers. In fact, a number of them have been translated into English: Fred Vargas, Sylvie Granotier, Brigitte Aubert, Andrea Japp, Dominique Manotti, Dominique Sylvain, Maude Tabacknick, just to start the list.
What do you mean by an archeological dig of modern art?
A real work by a modern artist inspired CITY OF BLOOD. In April 1983, one hundred and twenty personalities of the contemporary art world took part in a banquet orchestrated by the artist, Daniel Spoerri, in a park near Paris. Once finished, the banquet was buried in a sixty- meter long trench dug in the lawn. Tables, tablecloths, crockery, cutlery, meal remains, graffiti, odd dedicatory notes, objets d’art, photos, etc. were all buried under square cubes of earth, during a collective ceremony organized by the artist. The National Archeology Institute, in partnership with universities, artists, anthropologists, archeologists, art historians, and a movie producer, excavated it in 2010. As a mystery writer, this event was just too good to be true. What do you think they could have found three decades later?
Does Paris have a history of Jack the Ripper types?
The best-known is Guy Georges, aka the “Beast of the Bastille”—a French serial killer who killed seven victims between 1991 and 1997.
What sources and ingredients do you use to create your characters?
A detail is enough: a face, an anecdote, a story in the newspaper, a work of art. There are many sources of inspiration that then trigger a story or a character in my mind.
Who—singular or plural—inspired the creation of Police Commissar, Nico Sirsky?
Three ingredients went into that recipe. First, I wanted the protagonist to head up the Criminal Investigation Division at Paris police headquarters, because I met the man who did that, and he inspired the character. Then, I wanted him to have a Ukrainian background, because my family comes from Odessa and lived there under the Russian empire. Finally, I love Marvel superheroes, and there is a little of them in Nico Sirsky.
By what process do your characters come to life?
François Mauriac, the French writer, wrote: “Heroes in novels rise from the contract the writer has with reality. As the fruit of this union, it is perilous to try to determine what belongs to the writer, what he took from himself, and what the outside provided.” The reader’s imagination does the rest.
Do you write to an outline or do you allow the characters and story to dictate their course?
I know my starting point and my destination. A mystery plot necessarily has a logical basis. You need to spread out the clues, give them meaning, and lead the reader to the guilty party while leaving some room for the imagination. Yet, it is different from book to book. For example, in The 7th Woman, I didn’t know who the killer was when I began the book. What happens is that the characters often reveal themselves to be different than you imagined. They have a life of their own.
What would explain your recurring concern with decrepitude, overwork, order and chaos?
I’m reminded of something Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder (1950): “It’s not a very fragrant world, but it’s the world you live in.”
Have you mastered police investigative procedures from other sources?
I do a lot of research and regularly question police officers, judges and coroners in order to be as true as possible to their actual work, and to make the investigations credible.
Why does crime writing as a genre appeal to you?
I have two sides. One is Cartesian—realistic, reasonable, ordered and logical—while the other is a dreamer with my head in the clouds. Both are needed for crime writing.
Under what circumstance do you write best?
I have to be isolated enough to escape into another world, yet not too far from my children, as I am a mother too.
As a novelist and politician, do you see yourself as the female Jeffrey Archer of France?
I suspect my life is calmer than his.
Is there any writer whose novel you’d like to write a sequel or a prequel to?
Perhaps Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, a book that is a masterful demonstration of suspense writing in addition to being a social commentary, a satire of human pride, and a lesson in tolerance on the lines of Voltaire. That is the book I would have liked to write. But to think I could write a sequel to it would be immodest, so I will stick to writing the sequel to CITY OF BLOOD, which is already in the works.
How do you spend your spare time — if you have any?
Trying to find time to read, going to the movies, going for walks, looking for antiques, and having dinner with friends, when I’m not with my kids.
Writing has always been a passion for Frédérique Molay, author of the international bestseller The 7th Woman. She graduated from France’s prestigious Science Po and began her career in politics and the French administration. She worked as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and then was elected to the local government in Saône-et-Loire. Meanwhile, she spent her nights pursing a passion for writing she had nourished since she wrote her first novel at the age of eleven. After The 7th Woman took France by storm, Frédérique Molay dedicated her life to writing and raising her three children. She has five books to her name, with three in the Paris Homicide series.