Real wartime events often loom large in crime fiction. For many countries it’s the first and second World Wars.
In Ireland it’s also the War of Independence (1919-21), the subsequent civil war, the upsurge in conflict from 1969 to the ceasefires of the 1990s and beyond.
And in France, besides the two World Wars it’s Algeria.
Among the many cinema examples with echoes of the Algerian War are Michael Haneke’s 2005 film “Caché” (“Hidden”), “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (OK, not quite crime fiction but a fantabulously sad Sixties musical) and my favourite Claude Chabrol film, “Le Boucher” (which also touches on Indochina).
Many English crime novelists have also latched onto the Algerian connection, from “The Day of the Jackal” to Adrian Megson’s “Death on the Pont Noir” – both dealing with the OAS, assassination attempts and events in France up to 1963.
The early 1960s were turbulent times: de Gaulle’s government was in talks with the FLN, the OAS was involved in bombings to destabilise everything.
While a ceasefire came in March 1962, at an official level Algeria continued to be a taboo subject. And there’s one particular date that keeps cropping up in all this – this very day in 1961.
When the stars fell from the sky
So why is 17 October 1961 an unforgettable date in French and Algerian history? It’s the day “when the stars fell from the sky”. The night of a terrible police massacre of Algerians in Paris.
Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel “Meurtres pour mémoire” (1984) deals with the events of that night – check out the English translation, “Murder in Memoriam”, published by Serpent’s Tail.
He begins with the build-up to the massacre, as Algerians in Paris prepare to protest against a curfew imposed on them earlier that month.
The police clampdown is swift, vicious. In the following days dozens of dead bodies are spotted floating down the Seine.
The State tries to draw a veil over the whole affair. Offical statistics say less than a handful of people died that night. Officially nobody knows for sure, yet the casualties must have been in their hundreds.
I’ll try not to spoil the plot of Daeninckx’s novel, but the focus then shifts to the murder that same October night of a young French history lecturer, who had nothing to do with the demo. Fast-forward 20 years, and the lecturer’s son is murdered in Toulouse. Enter l’inspecteur Cadin, and everything switches to the first person.
OK, Detective Cadin is not exactly my kind of detective. Glib, smart-arsed, he even chats up a murder victim’s girlfriend (as you do), and I could never get under his skin.
The novel also deals with (now this is a SPOILER ALERT) other, older war crimes, but that’s another story, as it were.
Here’s a good montage in French about the real-life events of the night of the massacre:
And check out these lyrics by a Belfast punk rock band called Stiff Little Fingers…
Mid-October, sixty one
The French police were having fun
Cutting down Algerians
Breaking heads all over town
Yet no-one saw, no-one knew
No-one dared to speak the truth
Two hundred dead became just two
Sweep them in the river
The witnesses were run to ground
Put the bastards underground
Round up every black in town
Who dared to show their face
When the stars fall from the sky
When the world cannot make me cry
That’s when the scales will
Fall from your eyes
And let you see the truth…”
– Stiff Little Fingers, “When the stars fall from the sky
(The lyrics, by the way, are a hundred times better than the tune)
The American journalist and writer William Gardner Smith’s 1963 novel “The Stone Face” had already looked at the events surrounding the massacre (here’s a really good account of his book), but Daeninckx’s novel, for all its faults, pushed the story right into the mainstream.
It brought to the surface things that official history books in French schools still don’t mention, apparently.
“Le massacre du 17 octobre 1961″ is also examined in a French film from 2005 called Nuit noire, 17 octobre 1961 (warning: some scenes are quite brutal). And in the graphic novel by Jeanne Puchol based on Daeninckx’s story.
As Derek Raymond once wrote,
Murder In Memoriam serves as a tap on the shoulder – a necessary reminder that what is dead is not buried, and what is buried is, unfortunately, not dead.
And as the Guardian newspaper put it,
How many detective stories have helped a country confront its past? Murder in Memoriam has certainly done that.