Mad About Paris, Much more than a guide
They compared her to Balzac, may be she’s just a French, female version of James Ellroy. Dominique Manotti writes what they call, here in France, “social detective novels”. Come and visit Saint-Denis with her, the crime scene of her last novel.
Dominique Manotti drives like she writes: purposefully and without any detours. The thing is, the North of Paris is completely congested. She’s taking bus lanes, trying to pass by stuck cars and when nothing goes anymore she swears and shouts: “Allez, mèrde!”
In this part of Paris, they usually don’t forgive such a style of driving. Except if you’re an elderly lady with white hair. Manotti, 68, Marie-Noelle Thibault with civil name, used to be an historian. For decades, she taught nineteenth-century economic history at the University of Saint-Denis. She was also a trade unionist. But then, one day, at already 50, she started to write detective novels. It was, she explains, “by despair”. Manotti still feels like a Marxist, she says proudly and with a big smile, but she just couldn’t believe in change anymore. Meanwhile, she adds, “the writing keeps my morale up.”
“Social detective novels” in her case means: she not only writes a murder mystery, but her books are always set up in special social milieux she has frequented or that she has at least extensively investigated. Her novels deal with strikes among immigrant workers (Rough Trade, winner of the French Crime Writers’ Association Award), or drug trafficking, prostitution, corruption and horse trading like in Dead Horsemeat, that was shortlisted for the 2006 Duncan Lawrie International Dagger Award. Lorraine Connection won the same award in 2008 and is a gripping thriller about corporate corruption and delocalization of industry.
Her last novel, “Bien connu des services de police” takes place in Panteuil, an imaginative town in the North of Paris. It is based on Saint-Denis, a city synonymous with violence, crime and hopelessness. Manotti, surprisingly, says that she loves Saint-Denis and that she doesn’t understand why tourists don’t come, “not even for the cathedral”.
The book is about police violence, without putting the police on trial. It shows the devastating consequences of the “zero tolerance” policy introduced by former interior minister and now president Nicolas Sarkozy. And it ends with the death of a young Arab boy, falling from the bridge of a highway into the cold water of the Saint-Denis canal.
Manotti is standing right there, showing us the place, but is now surprised how the neighbourhood changed in the last couple of years. “It will soon be bobo land”, she says, noticing the beginning of gentrification. And indeed, new constructions are springing like weeds out of the soil and one not so distant day, the view on the canal will have its price and poor people will be pushed even further out, from the margins to the void.
But at the moment, this is still what the French call “la zone”: a man is lying in the grass, shirtless. His shoes and his top are spread around him. Looks like he’s dead. But he’s not. He belongs to the gypsy camp that is jammed between the highway and abandoned buildings.
After, Dominique takes us to the car park where, in her novel, the policemen play the pimps until the day they are betrayed by their colleagues. Unfortunately, like so many things in her novels, the story is true: in 2005 policemen were arrested for having prostitutes from Eastern Europe and Indonesia working for them.
“Reality is quite a ruthless thing”, Manotti points out, “that’s why you have to be very careful when writing: It can easily look unrealistic, but only because things are worse than you imagine.”