The One that Smells like a Dump in Summer

Jean-Paul Nozière, Bye-bye Betty (French 1993)

With the selfish goal of discovering more small presses or imprints that publish novellas, I continue my investigation of the noir genre in YA fiction.

I stumbled upon this one purely by chance, attracted by the dark cover and the thin back. The library shelves quickly told me that Jean-Paul Nozière is a rather prolific writer for middle-grade readers and this novel is rated for 14 years or above. But I knew nothing more.

As far as noir conventions go, this novella fits the bill to perfection. The atmosphere is oppressive, set in a French small town near the Spanish border in summer. An illegal dump has been set up in town: it stinks, literally and figuratively. The only industry there is a fruit company that uses (illegal) immigrants to pick fruits, then sells them or can them. The factory is owned by a powerful family who reigns on the town because it also owns hotels and houses that they rent out to employees. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Pyrenees, to paraphrase someone famous, and one local girl has decided to fight it: Betty. This young girl, oblivious of local rumors and risks, wants to become a photojournalist and sends her pictures to the big media companies in Paris.

As the book starts, the narrator, Salfaro, a Parisian photojournalist deep into depression due to his wife’s departure, is sent to the small town to meet with Betty. His motivation is murky at best. He used to be a famous war reporter, but he hasn’t worked at all for a while, and this assignment is a sort of last chance given by his boss, although the job clearly is beneath him.

The atmosphere is well painted. Even deep in the winter months, I could almost feel the heat and the stink. The sense of doom and hopelessness that you often see in noir novels were pervasive too, but not in a way that would be too terrifying or harsh for a young reader. Still, I couldn’t really root for the main character. He seemed nor to care much about anyone but himself, and he seemed naive or  unobservant. It made it unbelievable that he would be a famous war photographer. It made me think about stakes.

I haven’t really though it through, but I will be looking more carefully in the next novels: what is at stake for the main character in the story? Here, I felt that the stakes were too low. My interest waned because the reason for Salfaro investigating Betty and the village seemed like only a pretext. If he had turned his back on this assignment, not much would have been lost. Sometimes, the author puts the stakes too high, and here too there is a problem of believability. If everything is a matter of life and death, the story becomes hysterical and the reader, quickly exhausted (at least in my case).

But this novella really made me want to read noir classics again, like Simenon, Dashiell Hammett or Chandler. I also could use another installment of my favorites, Philip Kerr or Michael Connelly. Who’s your favorite noir writer?

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