"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 25, 2016

Jean Renoir (Great Auteur Film Directors 1)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.

In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films. 

Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.

Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen - see my post about Best Silent Films), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." 

As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film. 

The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France. 

Here are his best films:
  1. La Chienne (1931)
    "La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
  2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
    An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. See my full review here.
  3. A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
    A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. See my full review here.
  4. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
    A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
  5. Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
    The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
  6. La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
    Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
  7. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
    Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
  8. The River (1951)
    Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
  9. French Cancan (1954)
    A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a  Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent. 
    Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir
    With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection. 
    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 

    April 20, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (2): Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)

    Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
    Alex Ross begins his survey of twentieth century classical music, The Rest is Noise, with the shock Richard Strauss' Salome caused with its radical harmonies and its violent story of deviant Freudian sexuality - this opera certainly meant the advent of a new age, just like Pelléas et Mélisande had done in France a few years before. The sensationally innovatory score sent ripples all over Europe. It also rekindled interest in Oscar Wilde, on whose French play the opera was based.

    [Salome's Dance by Gustave Moreau - Image Wikipedia]

    The Salome legend itself originates in the gospels of Saint Mathew and Saint Mark. Salome is the daughter of Herodias, who has left her first husband and father of Salome to marry her husband's brother, Herod King of Judea, because he is richer and more powerful. This marriage was considered as unlawful by contemporaries, as Herodias' first husband was still alive; and as she had married her brother-in-law, it was also condemned as incestuous. One man who publicly criticized her was John the Baptist, an ascetic and fierce moralist. He had been arrested and jailed by Herod, but the king was afraid to put him to death as demanded by his wife Herodias, because of John the Baptist's holiness and great popularity.

    On Herod's birthday party, Salome is enticed to dance for her stepfather, after being told that she may ask whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At the instigation of her mother, she then demands the head of John the Baptist as reward.

    [Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, 
    watercolor by Gustave Moreau - Image Wikipedia]

    Since the Renaissance, the Salome legend has inspired numerous painters. An important example close to the time of Strauss is Gustave Moreau, whose painting of Salome's dance is also described in Huysman's decadent novel A Rebours (1884), where the erotic intent of Salome's dance is emphasized. Some years before that, Gustave Flaubert wrote a short story, "Herodias" (1877), the last of his Trois Contes; in this story Herodias uses her daughter as an instrument to obtain the head of John the Baptist and so take revenge on her critic. Salome herself is shown as a more or less innocent young girl, as she even forgets the name of the man whose head she has to request. Jules Massenet's rather tame 1881 opera Hérodiade was based on Flaubert's short story.

    Oscar Wilde wrote his very different, heavily Symbolist play in 1892. He wrote it originally in French, as British law forbade the depiction of Biblical figures on stage; it premiered in Paris in 1896. A new element added by Wilde, was that the sixteen-year old Salome takes a perverse fancy to John the Baptist. She shamelessly eroticizes the body of the ascetic preacher and causes him to be executed when he spurns her affections. In the finale, Salome takes up John's severed head and kisses it - the peak of decadence and necrophilia. Another new motif was that Wilde has Herod - who is already tired of Herodias - lust after Salome, his young stepdaughter and niece. When she dances naked for him, he is willing to give her anything she desires.

    [The Climax, Salome and the head of Jokanaan, 
    by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893 - Image Wikipedia]

    Richard Strauss, who after two failed operas in the early nineties, had mainly written large symphonic poems as Also sprach Zarathustra, was inspired by the German translation of Wilde's play by Hedwig Lachmann and decided to set it word for word, only doing some editing and cutting away superfluous passages (as Debussy had done three years previously in Pelléas et Mélisande). He had finally found the right material for a great opera.

    In the first part of the resulting concise 100-minute opera, he concentrates on the confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, called by his Hebrew name "Jokanaan" in the play and opera. Salome could be called "the symbol of unstable sexuality," and Jokanaan the "symbol of ascetic rectitude (but he was also a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the composer Strauss)," as Alex Ross says. Salome is a bored teenager, but she is also very beautiful - Herod is in love with her, as are several others in his court (in an earlier scene, one of the guards even commits suicide out of frustrated love). But, as Strauss insisted, she is also innocent. Salome hears Jokanaan's voice emanating from the cistern in which he has been imprisoned and she is bewitched by it. She has him brought up by the guards and immediately has a crush on him and tries to seduce him, but he shrinks away from her and even utters a curse.

    In the second part we meet the tetrarch Herod, a man caught in his own base sensuality, a hypocrite and a hysteric. He persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, and so she does, to kitschy music. The dance is a striptease, she removes one after another of the seven veils that conceal her body until she stands naked before Herod. She now calls for the prophet's head. Herod tries to make her change her mind, but she refuses. The executioner descends into the cistern prison and returns with Jokanaan's head which he hands her on a silver platter. Salome explodes in necrophiliac bliss (this is after all a love story), dancing with the head and kissing it, while the orchestra blares forth with erotic love music. Herod is so horrified by the spectacle his own incestuous lust has engendered, that he calls on the guards to "Kill that woman!" With a shriek and howl, the curtain falls. The opera ends with eight bars of sheer noise.

    [Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Titian - Image Wikipedia]

    The combination of the erotic and the murderous with a Biblical theme, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance, but although Salome was censured in many countries, it also took the world by storm - within two years after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it was playing in 50 opera houses around the world. Not all performers were comfortable with the role of Salome: some refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils," thus creating a situation where a dancer had to act as "body double." And during the first performance in London, the head of John the Baptist, brought on a silver tray to Salome, was replaced by a (apparently more innocuous) bloody sword. But the twentieth century was underway, and modernity made this opera about extreme sexual obsession not only possible, but also a reflection of the age.  

    Recording watched and listened to: Maria Ewing as Salome, Michael Devlin as Jokanaan, Kenneth Riegel as Herod, Gillian Knight as Herodias; with the ROH Covent Garden conducted by Edward Downes; and with Derek Bailey as stage director; on Kultur Video (DVD). 

    A performance on DVD stands and falls with the singer playing Salome: she must be a dramatic soprano with a strong voice, but also convincingly look like a young woman. That is a difficult combination, but Maria Ewing perfectly fits the bill in this somewhat older recording. With her large luminous eyes, she is a perfect dramatic actress who aptly conveys Salome's journey from curiosity to infatuation and finally total insanity in her amorous pursuit of John the Baptist.  

    Twentieth Century Opera: (1) Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (2) Salome by Strauss (3) Die Gezeichneten by Schreker (4) Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky (5) Die tote Stadt by Korngold (6) Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky (7)

    April 8, 2016

    Best Contemporary Crime Novels from Europe

    Here is a look at crime fiction from Europe, a genre characterized by atmosphere and character development above plot. Of course, there have been European authors in the past like Agatha Christie who wrote pure plot puzzles, but this was an aberration which only took place in England - after all, such novels are about just as engaging as the average crossword puzzle. The crime novel as a literary phenomenon about character was created in the 1930s in France by Georges Simenon (see my post about this author) - a writer who, as Andre Gide said, should have had the Noble Prize in Literature, and whose influence can still be felt today, for his manner was picked up by many different European authors after WWII. Somewhat older "character" authors are for example P.D. James and Ruth Rendell in England, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in Sweden.

    European crime writers in addition learned how to add atmosphere from Americans as Hammett and Chandler (and write in the noir style), but there are two big differences between both cultures: European crime fiction is generally less violent than its American counterpart, which especially in its contemporary form only seems to focus on psychopaths and serial killers. And while in American crime novels the private eye rules supreme as a "lonely wolf" investigator (typical for American culture), European authors (like Japanese ones, as Matsumoto Seicho) prefer the police procedural - most European sleuths are police inspectors who work within the framework of an organization. 

    So what are the best contemporary crime novels from Europe? Or, in other words, who are the most interesting fictional police inspectors from our time?

    [Ian Rankin (Photo Wikipedia)]

    1. "John Rebus" by Ian Rankin (so far 20 novels, from 1987)
    My mother had a special link with Scotland and when I was a kid, my parents several times took the family on trips to that wild and melancholic country. Nowadays, my interest in Scottish culture has shrunk to the enjoyment of Scottish whisky, especially the single malt peat whiskies of the Scottish Isles, but recently I also had to add the Rebus novels (and the TV series with Ken Stott based on the novels) by Scottish author Ian Rankin to that small list. Ian Rankin (1960), a graduate of Edinburgh University, who spent the time he should have been writing his Ph.D. on English literature producing his first crime novel Knots & Crosses, has written 20 Rebus novels, winning the Gold Dagger in 1997 with Black and Blue. The stories belong to the genre of police procedural detective fiction, with a decided hard-boiled aspect that has led to them being dubbed "Tartan Noir."

    Set in Edinburgh, the novels depict a stark, uncompromising picture of Scotland, characterized by corruption, poverty, and organised crime, a far cry from the holiday country I saw in my youth. Rebus is a misanthrope made cynical by the job he does. He is a maverick cop who drinks, likes to flout authority and ignore the rules. He struggles with his superiors and colleagues and suffers from internal police politics and office politics. He is a lone wolf, a flawed character, but also someone obsessed with his work. He is happiest when he can sit in hus favorite pub with a glass in his hand.

    The inventive plots show a broad spectrum of Scotland, from business districts to dying mining towns, from nightclubs and prisons to some better-known pubs and streets of Edinburgh (these latter based on real places, there is even an Ian Rankin tourist guide to Edinburgh!).

    Another important aspect, that is also present in the work of the other writers discussed here, is the continual linking between the books, so that we follow Rebus through the various ups and downs in his career and personal life. He has a daughter, but is separated from his wife. His immediate boss at work is a woman, Gill Templer, with whom he had a one-time romantic relationship, and his protege is DS Siobhan Clarke.

    The novels can be read apart, so it may be a good idea to begin with one of the best, Black and Blue, or pick a recent one, such as Saints of the Shadow Bible. You may also want to start with the first one, Knots & Crosses, when Rebus is 40 years of age and a Detective Sergeant working on the case of a serial killer who has been abducting and strangling young girls. Rebus receives anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses…

    [Henning Mankell (Photo Wikipedia)]

    2. "Kurt Wallander" by Henning Mankell (12 novels, between 1991 and 2009)
    I have only been to Sweden once, again when I was very young, and only to the Gotenburg area (unfortunately not to Stockholm, which I love because of the early 20th c. novels by Hjalmar Söderberg, as Doctor Glas). Ystad, where the Kurt Wallander novels are situated, is a small medieval town at the southernmost tip of Sweden, close to the large city Malmö. Copenhagen is only 1.5 hrs via the Øresund Bridge, so closer by than Stockholm (which is 5.5 hrs away). There is also a ferry connection with Poland.

    The author Henning Mankell (1948-2015) was born in Stockholm. He had an adventurous youth (traveling around the world and joining the student protest of 1968 in Paris) and first worked in the theater. He was a left-wing social critic and activist, and shared his time between Sweden and countries in Africa, mostly Mozambique. He constantly highlighted social inequality issues and injustice in Sweden and abroad. Also in the Wallander novels the overarching question is: "What went wrong with Swedish society?" But happily, Mankell never gets preachy.

    His protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a police inspector living and working in Ystad. His wife Mona has left him and he has since had a difficult relationship with his rebellious only child, Linda. Linda later will follow in the footsteps of her father as a police officer. Wallander also has a difficult relationship with his father, an artist who thousands of times just paints the same landscape for money, and who disapproves of the career choice of his son.

    Inspector Wallander drinks too much, consumes junk food, doesn't take exercise and struggles with his anger. He is always very much emotionally involved in the crimes he investigates. Over the years he has also become disillusioned with his work, not in the least because of office politics and the censure by colleagues and bosses of his brusque manner and aggressive tactics (as in the case of Rebus). Mankell puts the character development of Wallander central in the books. We follow his daily life and thoughts about family, or about getting older and his fear of Alzheimer, also when this is not related to the immediate plot - and that is what makes the books so interesting. Like the Rebus novels, they follow Wallander's career and life trough time. These are all passionate and committed books.

    Although the novels can be read separately, it is a good idea to start with the first one, Faceless Killers, in which an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered with as only clue the word "foreign" - Wallander must find the killers before anger towards foreigners boils over...

    [Fred Vargas (photo Wikipedia)]

    3. "Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg" by Fred Vargas (so far 8 novels, since 1991)
    The character of Paris-based Chief Inspector Adamsberg was created by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of medieval historian, archaeologist and folklorist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957). She became a two times winner of the International Dagger award. Vargas' police thrillers are a way to relax from her job as an academic and to combine her interests, such as Medieval legends and various types of folklore. The device of imposing fearful old myths and legends (such as werewolves, the plague or the "furious horde of phantoms") into a modern setting often leads to a supernatural background for human fear and paranoia, and results in surrealist scenes (but can also be a bit far-fetched).

    Like the two previous authors, also Vargas leads her readers in the series through the life and career of Adamsberg, his depressed personal relations, and the not always friction-free work relation with his colleagues, such as Inspector Danglard. Where the quixotic Adamsberg takes an indirect approach and relies on his Zen-like intuition, Danglard is the rationalist.

    Vargas breaks every rule of detective fiction and it is sometimes difficult to empathize with her strange characters, but she manages to win her readers by the universalism of her themes. It is best to read her novels in order (one point of criticism is that she assumes knowledge of the previous books and doesn't sufficiently fill in the background of Adamsberg for each individual book) and start with The Chalk Circle Man (L'Homme aux cercles bleus) from 1991, where we first meet Adamsberg and Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right...

    [Andrea Camilleri (Photo Wikipedia)]

    4. "Inspector Salvo Montalbano" by Andrea Camilleri (so far 23 novels, since 1994)
    Andrea Camilleri (1925) has created one of the most popular crime series at the moment with his Inspector Montalbano series. The books have a mischievous sense of humor and a lovable hero in the compassionate, but also cynical person of Montalbano. Interestingly, Camilleri, who studied stage and film direction and worked as a director and screenwriter as well as TV producer for RAI, started writing this series when he was almost 70 years of age, and he has already managed to finish 23 volumes!

    Salvo Montalbano is a detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town, based on Camilleri's  home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast. The novels contain a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases. The name Montalbano was selected by Camilleri as homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series of crime novels about a fictional private detective called Pepe Carvalho. Like Carvalho, Montalbano is a great gourmet, and we even get some interesting recipes.

    These are light and bubbly books, full of Italian sunshine, although the criminals are deadly and cruel and the police officers working for Montalbano not very efficient. In contrast to the previous novels, there is little character development, Montalbano remains the same bon vivant, who never misses a good lunch, or the delicacies prepared by his housekeeper (he lives alone, but has a girlfriend who now and then visits from the Italian mainland). So you could in principle pick any novel, although The Potter's Field excelled by winning the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. Generally speaking, I prefer the earlier novels when Camilleri's inspiration was still fresh, so the first novel, The Shape of Water, also forms a good start. These are books that will always put you in a good mood.

    [Arnaldur Indriðason (Photo Wikipedia)]

    5. "Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson" by Arnaldur Indriðason (so far 15 novels, since 1997)
    These novels with their stony Icelandic settings are bleak and dark books, indeed a form of Scandinavian noir. Author Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavik and after taking a history degree, worked as a journalist and freelance writer. He wrote the first book in the series with detective Erlendur in 1997, and has gone on to become the most popular writer of Iceland.

    Enigmatic Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, at roughly 50, is a brilliant police officer, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who jealously guards his privacy. He keeps stubbornly brooding about his cases and is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The stories reflect the silent, glacial progress of Erendur's battle with his own inner storms. Decades ago, he got divorced, and his son and daughter still can't understand how he could abandon them. His daughter, Eva Lind, suffers from a drug addiction, his son is an alcoholic. Erlendur's investigations also provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new, from the criminal justice system, racism and immigration to genetic diseases. Interestingly, the characters in the novel also show little respect for the police and are often shown lying to them. It is the background atmosphere more than the plots which is interesting.

    The novels can be read separately, although here, too, they make up something like a life story (in fact, the first two novels have not yet been translated into English), good ones are Jar City (the earliest one translated into English) and Voices. However, compared to Rankin and Mankell, Indriðason writes more superficially and never digs very deep, resulting in books which are enjoyable, but not much more than that.

    [John Banville (Photo Wikipedia)]

    6. "Pathologist Quirke" by Benjamin Black (so far 8 novels, since 2007)
    These books are not police procedurals, but a series about a consultant pathologist in the Dublin city morgue. They have been set in 1950s Dublin, and were written by Irish literary author John Banville (1950) under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black."

    John Banville is known for his precise prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness and for the dark humor of his (often immoral) narrators. He won the Booker Prize with The Sea in 2005. In 2007, Banville wrote his first crime novel, Christine Falls, set in buttoned-up 1950s Dublin as the author remembered it from his early youth, "a poverty-stricken but also beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty." Benjamin Black's Dublin is full of fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke. His protagonist is a troubled man, who is hard-drinking and intolerant, in many ways a damaged person - more at ease among the dead bodies in his pathologist's lab than among other humans. He lives alone, and his depression is made worse by his longing for his dead wife's sister, or the difficult relation with his daughter Phoebe.

    Banville was inspired to write these novels by Georges Simenon - not the Maigret books, but the "romans durs," such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes or Tropic Moon. Banville felt these were masterpieces of existential fiction, far better and less self-consciously literary than anything by Sartre or Camus.

    They inspired Banville to try his hand at crime fiction and he has eminently succeeded. Here, again, we have a life story of the protagonist, especially in the first few novels of the series, so it is best to read them in the order of publishing, starting with Christine Falls.

    [Written with some input from the Wikipedia articles about these authors and detectives]