Paris, in the minds of most non-Parisians, is usually associated with wide boulevards, romance, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, exquisite coffee and croissants, and for those who have read too much Simenon, gauloises cigarettes and the smell of garlic.
And then there is the real thing. Olivier Norek's first novel in the Banlieue series, 'The Lost and the Damned', presents us with a very different city. It is set in Seine-Saint-Denis, a department to the north-east of Paris with a high immigrant population, known for its crime and drug-ridden estates, its poverty and deprivation.
Norek, one of the writers of the excellent TV series, 'Spiral', presents a violent, gritty but convincing world. Norek has lived and worked as a police officer in Seine-Saint-Denis, and has said that much of his writing is based on fact. The conviction and realism of 'The Lost and the Damned' reflects this.
Coste is a dedicated police officer who sees his role as improving the lives of the people he is paid to protect. This gives the book a lightness and an optimism that is rare in this kind of dark novel.
It is shocking to have to admit that this world Norek describes is very real, but it is heartening to read about it in a very human context. However, Norek does not pull his punches. The book is a fast-moving page-turner, often shocking, always surprising. The narrative is pacey and keeps the pages turning, but he also writes with humour and compassion. He weaves his story of terrible crime around Coste's personal life, the relationships and interactions within Coste's team, giving us a story of friendship, rivalries, and real humanity amid grotesque and often horrifying depravity and cruelty.