Troubles Thrillers, made in France

shannon(With thanks to François Rivière)

The  “Troubles Thriller” is an international genre. Albeit  peripheral,  and taking place in a small country,  the conflict in Northern Ireland has generated a flurry of crime novels set there during the Troubles.  In addition to the several hundreds Crime and spy novels written in Britain and in America on the ” Troubles” in Northern Ireland, there have been a number of novels written on this subject by European Crime authors and published in their own countries. These works have very rarely been translated into English (nor, as a rule in many other languages), as they primarily targeted their  own domestic market, and sought to offer there a similar fare to the Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins and others who dominated the genre. They might be derivative, but this in itself does not make them redundant.  Their take on the conflict is often highly idiosyncratic. They are controversial, but they were read by hundred thousands, if not by millions of readers.   The political views they display and the representations of Ireland which they carry are of interest, making the books  precious sources  for a cultural history  of European responses to the situation in  Ireland. With all its stereotyping, essentialisms, and anachronisms, San-Antonio, for example, has set no less than four novels in his eponymous Fleuve Noir Series in Ireland, starting after the beginning of the troubles.

Hue, dada ! (October 1977)

Laissez pousser les asperges (October 1984)

La Fête des paires (October 1986)

Les eunuques ne sont jamais chauves (June 1995)

Unlike many others (for example Gerard de Villiers’s Furie à Belfast (1974), which, incidentally, was translated into English (The Belfast Connection, Pinnacle Books, 1976) and other languages), San-Antonio’s narration seems intent on  avoiding to exploit the troubles. The novels conspicuously write around them. San-Antonio apparently tries to find a way to write about Ireland (and what is more, about violence in Ireland) almost without mentioning the elephant in the room, the war raging outside of the diegesis and broadcast at the same time in the media worldwide.  The avoidance of binary representations of parties in the conflict is not enough however to prevent a static view of Ireland . Is it rather the opposite, as in keeping away from political events the books tend to present a de-historicized vision of  an Ireland, not so much permanent, as suspended in time.


 Another, very different example of European creative readings of recent Irish History is  Le Serment de Shannon, the novel by Claude Rank,  published in 1975 in the Espionnage, Fleuve Noir Series. Rank, born 1925, a veteran  of  the battles in Italy and Germany towards the end of WWII, is primarily known as a crime fiction author. He published more than 40 novels in the Spécial Police Series (see appendix, below). Following his publisher’s (Fleuve Noir) encouragements to embrace the marketable Spy fiction genre, he became, too, one of the leading authors of the “Espionnage” Series.

Le Serment de Shannon is part of his ” Le Monde en marche” novels, scattered around warzones and flashpoints of 1960’s and 1970’s diplomatic history.

Le Monde en Marche

It is well informed and well researched,  places and streets are precisely located,  and it captures a vivid sense of Belfast during the troubles.  It shares many features with Troubles thrillers. Northern Ireland is depicted like a living hell, a big slum, torn by hatred and  barbarism. Dirt, backwardness, promiscuity and narrow horizons are the recurring tropes in the descriptions throughout the book (in contrast with the romantic depiction of the West Coast of Ireland in the final part of the book).  The lead character is a British colonel. But there is a French twist.  The colonel, Victor Lisney, has, rather improbably, French ancestors, and his wife (called Mary Frances) and daughters now live in France and have sworn never to come back to Belfast.  He is actually sympathetic to the Irish Revolution. Injustice, inequalities, exploitation and the organised destitution of entire sections of the population (and the hypocrisy and  moral bankrupcy of those who preside over it) horrify him.  Jailed for his part in a bloody terrorist attack, he returns to Belfast as a ghost, a shadow of his former self. Many disturbing scenes of abuse, torture and humiliation follow this return. More disturbing even are the various comparisons between the British troops and German occupation of France during WWII.  As such it  reflects less on the British Army and police and more on the author’s own background and ideological framework (and that of his readers). Unavoidably, for example, Bernadette Devlin, the young Socialist, Mid Ulster, Republican MP, is compared to Joan of Arc.

Politics - Britain's Youngest Female MP - Bernadette Devlin - Belfast - 1969

And it is a remarkable coincidence that during a stroll in County Kerry, in 1969, Lisney had the good fortune to see the General de Gaulle, a welcome, albeit in the context rather confusing, symbol of resistance for the French readers.

General De Gaulle In Ireland

The sympathy for the republican cause, however, is far from being undivided. It  does not prevent the author from showing  a number of the IRA characters as rapists, paedophiles and cynical materialists. It is  not surprising hence that  anticipating a pattern to be found in many, contemporary “post-troubles” thrillers, the  narration finds its resolution  in the liquidation and alienation of the terrorists. In doing so, the novel deserts the  present in favour  of both an uncertain and violent future, and f a mythified history of rebellion. The text inscribes subversions, both past and future,  diegetically and metaphorically in the forbidding geology of the caves of the Burren region, in County Clare. Buried in the limestone rocks, facing the ocean, this subversion, materialised in a clandestine shipment of tons of (French) weapons can, it is suggested, resurface or wash away.

Appendix : Novels by Claude Rank in the Special Police Series

121 Les noyés sont aveugles 1957
130 Du sang dans la glace 1957
150 Tuez la reine 1958
175 Plaidoyer pour l’assassin 1959
182 Dialogue aux enfers 1959
202 Les os du massacre 1959
222 Les eaux malsaines 1960
243 Du fond de la nuit 1960
254 Les rats au piège 1961
276 Tourbillon 1961
277 Le sang et la cendre 1961
295 Pont aux dames 1962
310 Les anges noirs 1962
327 Les seigneurs écorchés 1962
337 La tombe des autres 1963
349 La fosse 1963
372 Le tunnel 1963
401 Juste un drame 1964
416 Rappelle-toi, Karen… 1964
457 Treize femmes 1965
499 Tous les diamants du monde 1965
541 La grande traque 1966
553 Timm de Coronado 1966
600 Le dernier bus pour Matmara 1967
625 Chiens fous du mirage 1967
667 L’avion blanc pour Zurich 1968
728 The bluff 1969
801 Je quitte l’avenue 1970
830 Les petites filles de mai 1970
885 Si… 1971
921 Quai des typhons 1971
957 La falaise 1972
1001 La nuit de cristal 1972
1043 La calanque 1973
1072 La route de Mandalay 1973
1136 Les barreaux 1974
1363 L’arc en ciel du bout du monde 1977
1377 Camarade de mort 1977
1612 Tous les diamants du monde 1981
1639 Timm de Coronado 1981
1722 A l’huile de hache 1982
1742 Le feu au train 1982
1783 Larmes de plomb 1983
1789 La chatte sur un tas brillant 1983

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