There are many stereotypical images that spring to mind when one thinks of France. Away from cheese, wine, the can-can and a gallic shrug, there is inevitably the Revolution. People manning the barricades to bring justice to all, tearing down the aristocracy and enriching the makers of fine guillotines.
I am an Englishman who has lived in France for nearly twenty years, I even now have French nationality, and I know that the spirit of revolution is never far away. Seriously, I once saw a group of elderly Frenchmen attack a self-service supermarket till all in the spirit of Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! That in essence is how many people see France today. They’re either on strike or planning a strike, the most useful app on a French smartphone is one that keeps you abreast of the busy, all-year round strike calendar, local and national. In short, the French are seen as confrontational. It’s either our way or the highway chérie; do as I say or I’m downing tools and setting fire to hay bales on major thoroughfares.
Which is what makes the French judicial and criminal investigation system so very interesting. It is really quite… unFrench.
The US and UK justice systems work on an adversarial approach. Both defence and prosecution armwrestle points of law, motive, evidence, and alibi. An independent judge and jury will then decide who won the argument. It’s like a high-level squabble with consequences. The French system, by contrast, is surprisingly non-adversarial. Their approach is inquisitorial. That means that the investigation of a serious crime is still conducted by the police, but under the direction of an independently minded judge, an investigating magistrate, a Juge d’Instruction, a seeker of truth. Honoré de Balzac called these judges ‘the most powerful men in France.’
For the most, as far as my research goes, the French Juge d’Instruction in fiction is a petty, desk-bound pen-pusher, tying the hands of the more creative detectives out there on the ground. All requests for phone taps, financial records and warrants must go through the judge; and he or she is portrayed as no more than the keeper of the stationary cupboard key.
The opportunity to expand that role, to create a supercop; detective, judge and jury was too good to miss. And to make his background half-English and half-French was a wrinkle added so that the investigation into the brutal murder of a retired Englishman means neither side really trusts him. But it’s the French system that provides so much to play with. Thanks to high level police procedurals like CSI, Line of Duty and so on, we’ve all become armchair legal and forensic experts, knowledgeable and savvy. The French system, which is like having the CPS direct a police investigation on behalf of both prosecution and defence is a fascinating and different starting point for crime fiction.
One of the charges labelled against the adversarial system is that, for example, the defence team may have far more financial resources than the prosecution; there’s an imbalance. Whereas one of the possible failures of the French inquisitorial system is that if the Juge d’Instruction is biased, everyone’s in trouble.
But really, that would mean a flawed lead investigator with problems of his own. In crime fiction? Surely not.
The Man Who Didn’t Burn is published by Duckworth Books on 12 October 2023