Sharif Gemie reviews Turf Wars (2) Olivier Norek

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Sharif Gemie reviews for BookBlast, Turf Wars, the second of Olivier Norek’s true-grit Captain Coste trilogy set in the banlieues of Paris.

Spiralling Upwards

Norek has an unusual C.V. Born in Toulouse in 1975, he worked for a humanitarian charity in in the 1990s, and contributed to the re-construction of hospitals and refugee camps in Guyana and the former Yugoslavia. He then joined the French marines for two years, before becoming a policeman in 1997. After working in the police force in Paris for eighteen years, he started his fourth career: crime writer. To date, he’s published six novels and he was one of the writers for the sixth series of  Engrenages (Spiral). 

A Rough Guide to les Banlieues

Turf Wars resembles the best Scandi-thrillers. The private life of Captain Coste and his interactions with his colleagues are as important to the plot as the more traditional ‘whodunnit’ elements. Norek’s laconic, witty prose shows the various elements of the judiciary and police forces as uncooperative and bad-tempered, often more concerned with internal rivalries than the crimes which plague their area.

In Turf Wars, Coste’s main investigation concerns the murders of three dealers, followed by the grisly, ultra-violent killing of a deputy mayor. These deaths are part of a dramatic shift in power, practically a coup, among drug-dealing networks. This sparks off four days of sustained rioting. The narrative of Turf Wars is punctured with dramatic clashes and bloody action, but it as much about the social, political and moral decline of French urban life – specifically in the outlying banlieues – as about a particular criminal investigation.

The literal translation of banlieues is suburbs, but the English word lacks the layered resonance of the French term. To most British readers, the word ‘suburbs’ suggests leafy roads and semi-detached houses, far from the hurly-burly of the city centre. In France, and above all in Paris, banlieues refers to a series of social-architectural projects around the major cities, dating back to the 1950s. These projects were initially ambitious and futuristic but have now utterly failed. They form zones which are usually separated from the centre by several kilometres, a distance spanned by unreliable and expensive public transport networks that stop early in the evenings, thereby reinforcing a sense of isolation.

Norek worked in the police force of the Seine-Saint-Denis department, to the north-east of Paris, now infamous as the site of the most desolate of the banlieues. Contemporary media myths depict the banlieues as full of immigrants, but the sociological reality is more complex. There was a flight by relatively secure people from the new estates in the 1970s, and the remaining populations are a mixture of the poor, the underemployed, the rejected and the transient. Despite media stereotyping, it’s certain that the majority are not Muslim. In Turf Wars religion only appears in passing: the four-day long cycle of rioting is sparked by a clumsy attempt to enforce France’s anti-burqa legislation in one of the suburban estates.

Norek skilfully evokes the cultural and political no-man’s-land of the banlieues, bereft of all the attractive features of a modern city. Often he’s like an explorer, guiding us through this alien townscape. Aside from Captain Coste, three figures dominate Turf Wars: Bibz, a scrawny, murderous, psychopathic twelve-year-old, a pure product of the devastated estates and drug-dominated streets; Vesperini, a sinister mayor who has turned corruption and manipulation into an art form, and whose autocratic style earns her the nickname of the Queen; and a shadowy criminal mastermind who directs the coup in the networks of drug-dealing and control. All three memorable figures symbolize different aspects of a multi-layered, multi-dimensional urban crisis. Probably the political and emotional centre of the novel is the dialogue between the criminal mastermind and the corrupt mayor, where he tells her “It’s you who created me” (p. 297). In other words, it’s the multiple and repeated failures of the French state which have led to the extreme tension and social collapse in extended urban areas.

Discovering the Underclass

Way back in the early nineteenth century, Honoré Antoine Frégier wrote a pioneering anddes classes dangeureuses de la population dans les grandes villes H A Fregier 1838 sensationalistic piece of proto-sociology: Des classes dangereuses de la population des les grandes villes (1840); The Dangerous Classes in Big Cities. This work created a treacherous myth which is still alive and well today: the idea that a large section of the urban population is not just  deprived or brutalized, but positively bad.

This argument was always, in a sense, racist: conservative commentators in the nineteenth century were open to the idea that the urban underclass was biologically different from their rulers; even that they were degenerate. The only significant shift in this argument in the late twentieth century was that the myth was given a more explicitly racial tone, following mass migration from former colonies like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia; Mauritania, Senegal and  French Sudan (now Mali). In areas like Seine-Saint-Denis, there are people who are considered second-, even third-generation immigrants. In what other part of the world are descendants of immigrants accorded such a rigid, unchanging distinction? Predictably, critics of France’s immigrant families argue that it is the immigrants themselves who have brought this situation upon themselves: that they have chosen not to assimilate or integrate.

Norek’s focus is on the police, and more specifically on the lower and middle ranks. When told “There’s no risk of you becoming a commissaire one day,” Coste’s reply is “God forbid” (pp. 269—70). This is the emotional heart of the novel: despite political corruption and mis-managed urbanism, argues Norek, the ordinary policemen and women are sound. Turf Wars concentrates on the men and women who patrol the banlieues, and at times Norek presents them as a new universal class, gifted with unique insight into France’s protracted urban crisis.

But there are other writers who have described this new urban landscape, some with a greater claim to insight than Norek’s thin blue line. The most interesting of these is the young French-Algerian writer, Faiza Guène, who was only nineteen when her first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Just Like Tomorrow) was published in 2004. Guène grew up in the banlieues through which Norek’s police forces march.

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Review by Sharif Gemie

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About Sharif Gemie 11 Articles
Sharif Gemie was a lecturer in Modern & Contemporary History. Now retired, he lives in South Wales. His book, The Hippie Trail: A History, co-authored with Brian Ireland, is published by Manchester University Press (2017). His first novel, 'The Displaced', about a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany in 1945, will be published in November 2023. Most recently he has had short pieces published in 'Cerasus Magazine' issue 10 and 'Muleskinner Journal' (July 2023).