French Language Blog

Littérature de Gare: Les Polars Posted by on Aug 1, 2016 in Culture

I love detective novels–and especially literary page-turners that I can easily read while at the beach during the summer. Everyone knows of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christine, two British authors who revolutionized the genre, but do you know of any great French detective or crime novels?


In French, the term for such genre literature (technically called “pulp” or “dime-store paperbacks”) is littérature de gare, which literally means “train station literature.” This literature is easily available on the bookshelves of stores in train stations and airports, is fairly cheap, and can be read fairly quickly.

In French, a crime novel is called un roman policier, or simply polar (or rompol in verlan). The French have a history of writing grittier crime novels, starting with the author Maurice Leblanc’s stories about the famous gentleman thief Arsène Lupin in 1907. The equivalent of Sherlock Holmes in the French-speaking world is Belgian author Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, a character beloved by many French readers. In fact, one in five books sold in France today is a polar.

Georges Simenon is still viewed as the francophone master of the detective/crime novel. Simenon wrote nearly 500 books in total (!), many of which followed Inspector Jules Maigret, commissaire de la brigade criminelle de Paris. (If you’re interested in reading Simenon’s books in translation, Penguin Books began a project to re-translate seventy-five books in the Maigret series starting in 2013.)

But there are many contemporary French masters of the genre, too. Pierre Lemaitre is a well known crime writer who won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Au revoir là-haut (translated as The Great Swindle). Fred Vargas, the pen name of French historian and medievalist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, is another popular crime writer. Her novels are mostly set in Paris and follow the investigations of Chief Inspector Adamsberg and his team. Oftentimes, Vargas’s knowledge and love of medieval history works its way into the story. Her latest novel Temps glaciaires, published in French in 2015, was recently translated as A Climate of Fear and published in the United States in 2016.

Recent translated crime novels sold in the United States have mostly been from Scandinavian countries, following the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. According to this article, there are important differences between French and Scandinavian crime novels: “[According to NY bookseller] Ian Kern … expectations in style and content are what separates French crime fiction from Scandinavian noir, the current top international crime seller. “With Scandinavian crime,” Kern said, “[one can expect] great, endowed detectives. With the French, readers expect dark, moody characters and much more violence.”

If you’d like to learn more about French crime novels (and the different sub-genres that make up this larger genre), take a look at this comprehensive summary of the genre (in French) here. This text includes both historical books and movements within crime/detective fiction in France, as well as authors and books to look out for.

Do you have any French authors of crime or detective novels that you’ve read and liked? Leave your recommendations in the comments below.

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!


  1. bernieshoot:

    I could recommend :
    Dominique Sylvain
    Bernard Minier
    Martin Michaud

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @bernieshoot Thanks for the recommendations, Bernie!