The Crime Readers' Association

The Girl Who Loved French Films, by Christopher Fowler

Sheila grew up in Sheffield, a Northern English town that had once been famous for the magnificence of its cutlery and the bravery of its air force pilots. By the time she was seventeen its glory had faded, and the grand Victorian lady had become a disappointed drab. It still had eleven cinemas, the smallest of which showed weekly French films after the town’s remaining students turned Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman into a surprise success.

Sheila had been taken on the ferry to Boulogne when she was seven, a day trip with her father before he was put away for running a disorderly house near the botanical gardens. Neither she nor her mother had known that he earned his money from working girls. Now Sheila lived in a sooty boarding house with her mother, and her life was closer to depressing English dramas like A Taste of Honey. Every Friday she fled to the Roxy to watch Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Simone Signoret. She learned to smoke Gitanes and Gauloises, spent her earnings on red lipstick, high heels and bare-shouldered blouses. She knew the Montmartre backstreets better than the alleys of her hometown. In her mind’s eye, the dawdling gangs on the banks of the canal were replaced by lovers on the banks of the Seine. Looking down into fetid water filled with shopping carts she saw only the reflected towers of Notre Dame.

She saw him sheltering from the rain, leaning against the coffee stall counter outside the Roxy. He was wearing a grey fedora, a crumpled Givenchy suit and a narrow tie of midnight blue silk. He had a pencil moustache and was chewing a matchstick. He seemed to exist only in black and white, to have stepped straight out of a Gaumont picture. Perhaps he needed his dreams just as much as she needed hers.

He studied her openly as she ordered a tea and told her his name was Jean-Guy Melville. She gave a shrug and turned her back to him while she added sugar, but only so that his eyes might linger on her bare shoulder, her exposed bra strap, the curve of her waist. He waited patiently. She had expected an over-practised pick-up line, but none came. He asked if she had seen A Bout de Souffle. She told him it was her favourite film. They talked about Vivre Sa Vie and Jules Et Jim. She said she was seeing Les Diaboliques tonight, and he offered to accompany her.

After, they discussed it in a café that felt French apart from the menu. There were checked tablecloths and dripping red candles in wine bottles, and accordion music played on a transistor radio.

Jean-Guy explained that he had worked as a croupier in Marseilles, but a problem with a colleague had forced him north. He had settled in Clignancourt and set up a business importing black market foie gras from Perigord to Paris. Sheila could not understand what he was doing in such a town as this, and his inability to explain excited her.

He had left his wallet on the dresser in his rented room, so she paid the bill. They lingered so long in the café that she missed the last bus home, so he walked with her in the rain. When it fell too hard, they sheltered beneath the red and white awning of a butcher’s shop, and he placed his jacket around her shoulders. He smelled of strong coffee, wine, cigarettes and something indefinably fleshy, as if the plenitude of engorged geese lingered on his skin.

They reached the part of town where the roads split from littered ginnels to wide suburban wastes. Knowing that the rundown boarding house where she lived with the keening old lady would disturb the delicacy of their shared dream, she told him she would see herself the rest of the way home. He elicited her promise to join him next Friday to see Judex at the Roxy.

She sold dresses in a store that owed little to the umbrella shop in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, but it had a place at the window from where she could watch the falling rain, and if she fixed her blonde hair in barrettes she could at least feel like Deneuve for a moment. On Friday night Jean-Guy collected her and they ran through the neon puddles to the Roxy. In the café afterwards he closed his hand over hers as he lit her cigarette. In a certain angle of the candlelight he looked a little like Jean-Paul Belmondo. She wore a dress similar to the one Anna Karina had worn in Vivre Sa Vie. She tried not to cough as she smoked.

For a month she shut out the sound of her complaining mother and lived only for the cinema, the café, the walk home. As they watched Contempt, his hand settled in hers like a cuckoo curling into another nest. After, they drank carafes of house red and smoked, watching the rain-chased windows, and he told her he was returning to Paris. There was a deal that was too good to miss. She waited for him to ask, and waited.

Finally he said, ‘I thought you might consider coming with me. But I must tell you, my past is full of lies.’ And she quoted Karina from Vivre Sa Vie, telling him, ‘Shouldn’t love be the only truth?’

There was no English timidity in his kiss.

As they were leaving, the café door opened and a burnished man in a tweed cap bustled in from the drizzle, brushing droplets from his shoulders.

‘Blimey, Charlie, you gave me half a fright,’ he laughed. ‘I thought you was still inside for desertion. I bumped into Chalkie and he told me you was up to your old tricks. This a new little chickie for your henhouse? Look at her looking. She don’t speak English, eh?’


A small boy was fishing for eels in the canal and snagged the waterlogged Givenchy-clad body with his line.

In 1958 Sheffield had made an aircrew release knife which was both elegant and practical. It had become popular in the French underworld after the end of the war. Such a knife was found buried deep in the man’s heart.

Sheila’s mother said she had no daughter, and if she did the foolish girl was probably living in Paris.


Christopher Fowler is author of the Bryant and May series. His latest novel, Oranges and Lemons, is due for publication in July 2020 and is available for pre-order.

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