LYON, France – One of the world’s largest international detective writing festivals, the Quais du Polar, has just closed in Lyon, and the subject on many writers’ minds was, surprisingly, not the Ukraine, even if the war was still present, but the erasure of economies, landscapes and memories in the transformations wrought over the past 40 years by the more greedy and more inclusive capitalism known as neoliberalism.
The only topic Polish crime novelist Zygmunt Miłoszewski wanted to address was the threat of a Russian attack. Miłoszewski was asked about the state of Polish healthcare facilities, after Swedish author Camilla Grebe (After her’left) had spoken of the devastated Swedish hospital system after the 2008 financial crisis caused by real estate speculation in the American capital. Miłoszewski went so far as to claim that the main problem of the Polish health system was the threat of hospitals being destroyed by Russian bombs. The Portuguese author of Chamap water (Card castle), Miguel Szymanski, took a much more reasoned approach, warning against disrespecting Russia and its nuclear arsenal in a move that could provoke World War III and would be anathema to any legitimate quest for peace and European security.
Instead, Szymanski’s novel, the first in a series, focuses on economic corruption at the highest levels of Portuguese society, also in the wake of a financial crisis. Its protagonist Marcelo Silva is a former journalist who now works in the financial office of the Lisbon police, who, Silva says, “attacks the little ones, but I attack the big ones”. Szymanski was himself a journalist who exposed two of the country’s wealthiest financiers, one of whom he described as a mobster. As a result of the talk, he lost his job and was forced to move to Frankfurt and work as a taxi driver until he joined a magazine there. He has now returned to Portugal to tell a similar story in the form of a detective story.
Szymanski describes a country trapped by easy money lent by German financiers, the streets filled with “German cars and everyone rushed to buy one”, but which was then subjected to massive privatization by these same banks to repay the debt which included the loss of the country’s main energy company to a Chinese buyer. Lisbon, especially then, as the novel tells, became exclusively “an ocean beach, a seaside amusement park”. In one eloquent description, a Portuguese banker about to be overwhelmed by the collapse sees himself trading in “euros, dollars, yuan, yen or francs” while his wife creates her cultural currency by trafficking “Hermès, Gucci, Prada , Chanel, Langerfeld or Armani.
A panel on the recurring and contemporary rise of fascism, the brown plague or brown plague, featured Dominique Manotti, whose latest book Marseilles uncovers a 1973 plot hatched by racist elements in that city and in the police department following the end of the Algerian War to drive Algerians out of France, a real event on which she said the press had largely remained silent. Manotti described as deeply disturbing that 30% of French people now vote for the far right, a result she said of the brown plague never eradicated, and so periodically, in desperate economic times like the present, with inflation closely following the COVID lockdown, able to return. She called the current era in France “pre-fascist”, with the caveat that the rise of this trend depends on the actions people take to fight it.
Manotti quoted Philip Kerr’s last novel before his death, Metropolis, in which Kerr takes the clock back to his Berlin detective Bernie Gunther in the Weimar period, as an accurate depiction of “pre-fascism”. Kerr describes the city as a “Babylon…full of the crippled and lame of war”, with street scenes resembling “a painting by Peter Brueghel”. Gunther’s Nazi landlady laments the disappearance of “what was a respectable town before the war, after the beginning of which, ‘human life ceased to be of much value’ and where, because of the war and then the ‘inflation, in working-class neighborhoods’. people live like animals. She blames this disintegration on “Poles, Jews and Russians” while a poster anticipates the arrival of Adolf Hitler who “promises to tell the truth and cleanse the city”. Meanwhile, not-yet-hardened cop Gunther realizes that a series of murders of women are likely the result of “men who came back from the trenches with a real taste for killing.”
Manotti detailed her own journey in the 1960s and 1970s where she worked full time to promote social change. Then, in the 80s, she realized that change wasn’t going to happen and instead began science and fiction work (besides being an accomplished black author, she also teaches 19th century economics) in the purpose of giving people insight into how the system works, for example, incorporating gangsters and organized crime to strengthen state power. His call to investigate and learn more about the mechanisms of power was met with spontaneous applause from the audience.
Spots on the landscape
A panel titled “Lands in Damnation: Memories of Places” spoke about the sense of loss and what Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason called “melancholy” about how capital has destroyed natural and urban habitats. Indriðason described Iceland before World War II as a land of small farmers. His detective policeman Erlandur in arctic cold and strange shores, returns to the wildest part of the country, the East Fjords, in search of the truth about the death of his long-lost brother in a snowstorm and finds farmers starving to death and displaced by ” huge dams”. In the capital Reykjavik, his retired cop-turned-private detective, Konrad, The darkness knowsalso searches the past for the truth about his murdered father while being horrified by Reykjavik’s transformation into a shiny global city where small businesses are being wiped out neighborhood by neighborhood by “20-story high-rise buildings” that are “a stain on the landscape.
Scottish novelist Val McDermid (how the dead speak) describes a similar process that took place from the 18th century in Scotland, where small farms, crofts, were destroyed as landlords locked up land and inhabitants were forced to migrate to towns where they served industrialization capital as a loan, a source of cheap and durable labour. McDermid spoke of walking in the highlands and encountering scattered traces of moss-covered crofts but a still visible memory of the past.
Another type of waste dump has been described by Nigerian author Chika Unigwe. His novel In the street of the black sisters questions the establishment of Nigerian women as sex workers in the windows of the red light district of Antwerp, one of whom was also a prominent character in the series on the same subject, Red light. David Joy, whose crime novel When these mountains are burning recounts the devastating impact of opioids on Appalachia as seen by a father watching his son destroy himself, a drug addict and an undercover cop, decried how the drugs were “deliberately and systematically” dumped in the area by Purdue Pharma contributing to 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2020.
The English novelist David Peace, in a panel on “Black and the Metropolis” which also echoed the theme of demolition, recounted a change in post-war Japan that occurred in 1949 and is the subject of tokyo redux, the third part of a trilogy on this city. At this time, the American occupation authorities, many of whom were Roosevelt New Dealers who wanted to push for social reforms and a more open society, realized that openness had gone too far and that the Japanese workers, often led by the Communist Party, made substantial demands for power-sharing in society that now needed to be reduced. Peace Detective Harry Sweeney, who had previously worked to dismantle gang activity and was nicknamed “the Elliot Ness of Japan”, is assigned the case of the momentous and real death of Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of the path of Japanese national iron. Harry is asked by his superiors to go out and “smash union skulls, [and] breaking red bones. Peace described that year as a moment in Tokyo’s transformation into a capitalist hypermodel of a city, a description that was echoed on the panel by Scottish-Indian author Abir Mukherjee (The shadow of men) as initiated in 1920s Calcutta, and by novelist, actor and director Boris Quercia (Lots of dogs) in Santiago, Chile, where “liberalism has destroyed the historic center” of the city.
Harlan Coben and John Grisham were victims of COVID, unable to make it to the conference. Giancarlo De Cataldo, the Italian chronicler of the history of the Mafia in Rome, in novels such as Suburra, which became the basis of a popular television series. Just in paperback, however, is Agent of Chaos where De Cataldo, an Italian magistrate, in a kind of factually based Mark Twain folk tale, describes the rise of a petty thief Jay Dark who becomes a CIA agent in the 1960s and distributes LSD and heroine to the radical movements of this period. Dark’s handler is a German psychiatrist who believes in the “sacred values of order, family and patriotism” and who performs mind-altering experiments on mentally ill people at Bellevue Hospital, where he meets and transforms the criminal from street into a cultured “agent of chaos”. .”
De Cataldo’s work in mapping a destruction of aspirations for a better world was in line with the theme of the conference, that of a devastation of human and natural habitats that resonated through many panels, authors, cities and country.