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    Under the Channel: from Paris to London and back again

    Published on 19/06/2014 by David Birkett

    This week, Gallic Books author Gilles Pétel provides a fascinating insight into the germination of his new thriller, Under The Channel and shares some of the ways in which he found London life and culture differed from Parisian habits.  Gallic Books specialise in first English translations of a wide variety of contemporary French fiction, and have done much to raise the profile of French writing in the Anglophone world.


    By 2005, when I moved to London, the economic and financial boom had turned the city into one of the most appealing in the world. It had overtaken New York to become the new Big Apple. Everyone wanted to live in London.

    It didn’t take me long to notice that the British capital had a very different feel from Paris, which seemed almost provincial in comparison. The world didn’t revolve around France anymore!

    My first three years in London confirmed my view of the city as a place where anything was possible, where casual sex and drugs were there for the taking. The spoils of the City were splashed around prime areas like Knightsbridge, Chelsea and Primrose Hill. Property prices were soaring to new highs.

    Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I remember very clearly the images of the bank playing on a loop on TV screens in almost every pub. I think that was what gave me the germ of an idea to write a novel based largely in London, a kind of roman noir with the economic crisis as its backdrop.

    The consequences of the bank’s liquidation were plain to see in the closed shutters of the shops going out of business, one by one. The face of London was gradually changing. The mood of the city was becoming less carefree and sexy, and harsher.

    The crisis had also hit Paris, where I returned often, but its effects were more subtle, cushioned for a while by the various safety nets provided by the welfare state. Things happen more slowly in France than in the UK, and they fall apart less quickly and dramatically too, but they still fall apart in the end.

    When the main character of my novel, Lieutenant Roland Desfeuillères, gets off the train in London, he finds himself caught in a state of emotional as well as economic turmoil. The world in which he is carrying out his investigation is inhabited by people living well beyond his means. Kate, a young Englishwoman he meets soon after his arrival, is some way out of his league. Everything around him is happening at breakneck speed. Not only do the English earn - or lose - money in a different way from the French, they conduct their love lives differently too. People are perhaps quicker to open up to one another in London than in Paris. Unless that's just another one of those clichés that the English and French love to bandy around about each other! In the end, the French detective comes across as just as 'easy' as Kate.

    Walking through Soho, Hyde Park or along the Thames, hanging out in pubs, reading the Evening Standard and going to a few well-lubricated parties, I had the opportunity over my six years in London to see and learn many things that surprised me, like the frequent delays on the Tube that made it nigh on impossible to get anywhere on time; or tickled me, like the girls wearing next to nothing who flocked from the outskirts to party in Soho on a Saturday night; once or twice the things I saw disgusted me, but they never bored me. And yet all these observations had still not provided me with a plot for my future novel. It came one day when I was least expecting it, when an incredible news story appeared in the British press: a defected Russian spy had been assassinated in a London hotel. This inevitably put a strain on relations between Moscow and Her Majesty's Government! This extraordinary story came at the right time for me: I had the crux of my novel. Of course, the facts it was inspired by would need to be disguised, the events shifted and condensed, new elements added. Which is how I came to create the character of the improbably named Scot John Burny, who would take the place of the spy who had come in from the cold. Through his job as an estate agent, I could describe the various parts of London. Through his lifestyle as a gay man, I could paint a picture of the casual, tolerant attitude to sex in the British capital. Most of all, I wanted to make him poles apart from the French detective charged with leading the investigation into his death. Distanced from one another by culture, sexual inclination, line of work and way of life, these two men would nonetheless be joined by the inquiry, which I intended to be more psychological than criminal. The ending – well, I won't go into that. I don't want to spoil it for any future readers.

    Then there was the Eurostar. When I was a child, London felt like a distant capital, probably because you had to cross the sea to get to it. The Channel Tunnel changed all that. London was now only two and a quarter hours from Paris: about as close as one of the outer suburbs. In fact, something I often asked myself when I was on that train was which of the two capitals had become the suburb of the other. Roughly once a month I went back to Paris to meet up with friends I had left behind, or to tuck in to some typical French food. Every time, the train journey got me thinking. Travelling under the sea really is the stuff of fantasy, something to marvel at or be afraid of, according to our whims and anxieties: ‘what if the tunnel flooded?’ the detective wonders as he's crossing the Channel. Once again, as with London, I began to look for a way to incorporate this legendary train into my novel. I decided to reread the famous Murder on the Orient Express. The answer was to shift the location of the murder of the spy from the smart London hotel where it had actually happened, to a Eurostar train mysteriously halted in the Channel Tunnel.

    Poor John! If only he'd known, he would never have set off on his risky pleasure-seeking trip to Paris. A tunnel can be a passage between two valleys, two countries, two lands. It's an uncertain place, lacking all the usual points of reference. Was the murder committed while the train was still on British soil, or was John Burny already in France at the point he was killed? Who was John Burny? What was he going to do in Paris? Having left London alive, he never arrives at his destination. A tunnel can also symbolise the passage from life to death. Under the Channel isn't exactly a crime novel in the truest, narrowest sense of the genre. It's a novel which sets out several layers of mystery, whether strictly crime-related (who killed John Burny and why?), psychological (who was John?) or emotional (does Lieutenant Desfeuillères still love his wife? Can his marriage survive the passage of time?) But doesn't every novel, detective story or otherwise, aim to conduct an inquiry of sorts?

    When I left London in June 2011 to move back to Paris, I had mixed feelings. The joy of returning home was tempered by regret at having to leave behind a city that had brought me so much. But I was carrying in my luggage the manuscript of a novel, whose last line I had written the very morning of my departure.

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