It was the first time in history that a colonized people was insurrecting in the geographical and political center of the nation that was oppressing them


Didier Daeninckx

Didier Daeninckx

Murder in Memoriam is a major work of Didier Daeninckx. It allowed French people to discover that on October 17, 1961, 200 Muslims were thrown in the Seine during a peaceful demonstration organized against the colonial war that was led in Algeria at the time. The Parisian head of police was Maurice Papon, and had already made himself known during the Second World War for organizing the deportation of Jews. This mystery novel is an interesting introduction to the inspector Cadin series.

How did you discover the massacres of October 17, 1961?

I grew up in Aubervilliers, a town located in the north of Paris, where a lot of Algerians – mostly from Kabylie – were already living. My family and a lot of close relations were peace activists and were campaigning for Algerian independence. So I heard about the repression of the demonstration of 17 October 1961, but I did not come to grips with the whole event; especially as this has quickly been concealed by the demonstration of 8 October 1962, when nine demonstrators were killed at Charonne metro station during a peaceful demonstration which was protesting against a terrorist attack in Paris committed by the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, in favor of French Algeria). Suzanne Martorell, who was a neighbor and a friend of my mother’s, was killed that night. When I started writing Murder in Memoriam, I wanted my novel to tackle the tragedy that had happened at the Charonne station. While recreating this period, in the archives, I met some witnesses, and that is when my project changed focus to October 17th, a date that had been torn away from worldwide memory.

Why did France conceal this tragedy?

When the Algerian War broke out in 1954, France had just undergone a huge military defeat in Vietnam, in Dien Bien Phu. French army partly used Algeria to redress the injury inflicted by the men of General Giap. By using a counter-revolutionary war, camps, torture, endless massacres. Eventually, this army had to undergo another defeat – more political than military. While everything was already predetermined, 30 000 Algerians protested peacefully, in order to be recognized, in the very heart of Paris, the capital of the Empire. It was the first time in history that a colonized people was insurrecting in the geographical and political center of the nation that was oppressing them. Symbolically, I think that 17 October 1961 is the end of the French colonial empire, and I think that this reality still cannot be looked straight in the eye.

What do mystery novels bring to the treatment of history?

As far as Murder in memoriam is concerned, choosing a mystery novel was required because mass murder (200 casualties) was committed by the police, and because the head of the organization was the Paris police chief, fully identifiable, Maurice Papon. This man is the only French person sentenced for “complicity in crimes against humanity”, and it took 56 years before crimes were acknowledged since he was only sentenced in 1998 for crimes committed in 1942.

Which American authors inspired you?

There are many but the name of Jack London comes up first. Martin Eden changed my perspective, this book made me realize I could be a writer, although I was not an insider, and though I was the first novelist in my family since the age of dinosaurs.
Dos Passos, for this incredible literary account of the world, while including the simultaneity that was emerging at the time with cinema, radio, the fact that one could be in different places, at a different time, yet in the same time.
Dashiel Hammett, for his courage, the millimeter precision of his prose, his way of looking at the world straight in the eye, without cynicism.
Jim Thompson, for his humanity in describing cruelty.
Howard Fast, for Spartacus (echoing October 17th, these appalled slaves…) and for Max, a novel about the beginning of filmmaking, through a family who creates Hollywood thanks to the success of nickelodeons.
Robert Finnegan, a sort of hard-boiled Pete Seeger, going through the US from factories to coal mines, from blast furnaces to classification yards.
Richard Brautigan, for the poetic craziness concealing real worries.
And Jerome Charyn, for the Sidel saga, and because he is the greatest, even if everybody doesn’t know it yet.