Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - 120, rue de la Gare av Léo Malet

Paris in July 2021 is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea. Today I want to share with you a book I read last year for a Swedish on-line magazine. 120, rue de la Gare by Léo Malet is a different kind of detective story.  

It was my first meeting with Léo Malet and it was a good one. He lived 1909-96 and was considered one of the best thriller writers in France. His name is connected to the genre 'noir' which he developed to perfection. Already in his first book, 120, rue de la Gare, which was published in France in 1943, one can clearly note one of the main characteristics of the genre; right and wrong are not clearly defined, or even possible to clarify, the characters all have flaws and the story often contains social taboos. 

Detectives are a popular genre today.  One of the problems with this genre today, I think, is that they are terribly violent in their actions. The murders are crude, sadistic and generally bestial and it sometimes feels difficult to even read about them. It was therefore a very nice feeling to have a detective story in your hand that was written almost 80 years ago, where admittedly murder fills the pages, but the plot is closer to the common man and his surroundings.

"Autumn 1941. Private detective Nestor Burma from Paris has fallen into German captivity. There he meets an enigmatic man who has lost his memory. Shortly before his death in the hospital, the man experiences a brief moment of clarity and mentions an address: 120, rue de la Gare . " When Nestor Burma is later released and sent back to Paris, he happens to see a former colleague at a train station. The colleague starts to say that he got something exciting on the track when he was shot. Before he dies, he manages to push forward: "Boss", he gasped. "Boss ... 120, rue de la Gare ...". (my translation from Swedish back cover).

It is the origin of the crime story which has many levels. Before the war, Nestor Burma headed the private detective agency 'Fiat Lux'. His old curiosity is still in place and he cannot ignore the mystery developing in front of him.  

The different faces of the detective genre

To understand Nestor Burma, his time and the murder mystery he is trying to solve, we must go back to the author. Malet had no formal education and before he started writing he supported himself as a cabaret singer. Surrealism interested him and he was a close friend with famous surrealists such as André Breton, René Magritte and Yves Tanguy. That influence is clearly noticeable in the novel, in the description of characters and surroundings. It is not always clear what it is you see, what the characters are up to and why they behave the way they do. This description of a woman brings to mind a surrealist painting, while visualizing 'noir' as a genre.

"Long and thin, bare-headed, wrapped in a light beige trench coat, with her hands tucked in her pockets, she seemed strangely alone in the middle of all the people, probably lost in a daydream. She stood at the corner of a newsstand, under the flashing gas lantern. The pale and dreamy face with its regular oval seemed agitated. The bright eyes, watery with tears, radiated an unspeakable nostalgia. The biting December wind played in her thick wavy hair.

She could have been around the age of twenty and admirably represented the mysterious type of woman you only meet at train stations, nocturnal visions that only the traveler's tired senses can perceive and that disappear with the night that produced them." (my translation from Swedish).

When you read, you are struck by similarities with other detective story writers and their detectives (characters, the way the detective is working, the ability of deduction, relationship with authorities, etc.).  I am thinking in particular of Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). I do not think that means that any of them have been influenced by each other, possibly with the exception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose career began earlier.

Nestor Burma, the narrator, is a man with many talents; former anarchist, which may explain his lack of respect for authorities and its representatives, he moves with ease in both the upper and lower world. He is cynical and tough, but with a certain kind of humor. The idea goes to Raymond Chandler, although Marlowe's humor is somewhat lighter and his view of life less serious. This may be because Marlowe does not live in the shadow of a war like Burma. When it comes to deduction of evidence, he is not behind Sherlock Holmes either.

"The letter was first in a envelope of horizontal format, sealed with red seal varnish. The original envelope was so porous that it let through some varnish. You can see the stain on the back of the letter. You can have it analysed with your devices, but I am pretty sure it's from seal varnish. " (my translation from Swedish).

It is a complicated and exciting story set against the backdrop of an occupied France. Malet succeeds well in bringing out the atmosphere from that time. The daily difficulties of surviving restrictions find their way into story and dialogues. The dialogues are short, factual, fast and always move the action forward. Although we get to follow Nestor Burma as he investigates the mystery, gets the same clues as him, the killer remains hidden until the last pages. Here, like Agatha Christie's ability to hide the killer's identity.

At the end of the book, when Burma has figured out who the killer is, the layout is reminiscent of Hercule Poirot's habit of gathering everyone involved and talking about who the killer is. "It was a beautiful company to be a beautiful company." Here Burma, like Poirot, goes through the whole story from beginning to end. Events that happened, clues that were analysed, mysteries that were solved and the killer that was pointed out. Voila!

A black story

Léo Malet is a new writer to me. I am childishly fond of the 'noir' genre, whether it is books or movies. Nestor Burma's character is, as the genre indicates, a not entirely sympathetic figure. His actions are bordering the illegal. In relation to both government officials and ordinary people, he has a tough and sometimes harsh attitude, both in speech and action. One surprising thing is his ability to tell police and authorities what to do. The police commissioners he has as "friends" do not seem to care that it is Burma that gives orders, but obeys without flaws. It is perhaps not surprising that Malet has named his detective Nestor. The idea once again goes to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot's friend, Inspector Japp, who is largely dependent on Poirot to solve the cases. However, Burma's police friends are a little more independent and contribute with information that a private person does not have access to.

Léo Malet definitely has his own style. Hard-boiled like Chandler, yes, but Malet's world is much blacker and less light-hearted. The environment is surreal and the dialogue is strict, very strict. Even if you occasionally find Burma's thoughts and dialogue satirical and hilarious, the smile does not really want to break out. It tightens and stops.

Malet's way of writing can at times feel quite static. There are no long detours, the road is marked from the beginning. Strictly. Dark. 'Noir'. Nestor Burma is the one who controls and finally finds the solution. People are neither completely evil nor good, but behave like people in general. Nestor Burma is not a character you easily love, but you can tolerate him. Mostly because he, in his own way, stands for justice when someone has been exposed to injustice.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - My French Dinner

Thyme for Tea is hosting another Paris in July challenge this year. Now I am ready for my contribution to a French dinner.  Being on the road in our camper van, it is not that easy to make a French dinner. I still wanted to try something in all simplicity. At the time of the dinner I was at the Inari lake in north eastern part of Finland. A beautiful lake and we got a place just by the water. 

In this part of the world the supermarkets mostly have basic things connected to France. They have a lot of local specialities that we also tried out. But, now it is all French. I managed to buy a brie and a camembert but that was about it. Oh, I also managed to find a beautiful wine from one of our favourite producers Guigal. 

I pretend with this dinner that making the menu card in French will make everybody believe that this is a genuin French dinner. So here we go, the MENU!

My husband, Martin, made the spaghetti. This recipe is one he makes very well and I always enjoy it. Being in the north and it being summer strawberries is a must. Especially tasty with whipped cream which the French call 'chantilly'. Plat de fromage is all French and with the pleasant Côtes-du-Rhône from Guigal, dinner was saved. 

Especially enjoying to eat it outdoors in a beautiful environment. 

Sunday, 18 July 2021

The Classic Club Spin # 27

I had just updated my list for the Classic Club Spin and ... voilá there is the e-mail with the number. This month's spin number is 6 and that means Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. That is a book I dread a little bit, but I will try to get through it.  This is my list. 

1. The Master and Margarita by Michail Bulgakov

2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Carter

3. Daisy Miller by Henry James

4. The Seahawk by Rafael Sabatini.   

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoj 

6. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

7. Child Harold by Lord Byron

8. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

9. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

11. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

12. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James 

13. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

14. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

15. To Have and Have not by Ernest Hemingway

16. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

17. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fjodor Dostoevsky

19. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

20. A Writer's Notebook by Somerset Maugham

I did take out two books which I know I will not read; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf (although I do like Woolf). The paper book of Lawrence is at home, so will see if I can get hold of an e-book version, since I am living van life in the north of Sweden.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - A Climate of Fear (Temps glaciaires) by Fred Vargas

Time for a French author for Paris in July. Fred Vargas is a favourite and I found an e-book copy from my library. This is book number 10 in the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series. Adamsberg is not the ordinary detective and so are not his colleagues. I think that is one reason why I enjoy Vargas' books. The whole police precinct consists of individual characters with, sometimes, strange habits. The other reason I enjoy her books is that the murder stories often go back in time and often have historical links. As is the case in this book. Here we go back to Maximilian Robespierre and the French Revolution.

"A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder has been made to look like a suicide. But a strange symbol found at the crime scene leads the local police to call Commissaire Adamsberg and his team. When the symbol is found near the body of a second disguised suicide, a pattern begins to emerge: both victims were part of a disastrous expedition to Iceland over ten years ago where a group of tourists found themselves trapped on a deserted island for two weeks, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable fog rumored to be summoned by an ancient local demon. Two of them didn t make it back alive. But how are the deaths linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify?"

A thrilling mystery set both in France and on Iceland. The search for the murder is going slowly, but what I can imagine as rather realistic. Adamsberg finds a clue here, another there, and when they seem to show him in different directions, he might go for a walk to clear his head. Or drink a bear with his neighbour. Sooner or later the clues come together and he can present the culprit. Not in grand style like Monsieur Poirot, but with discretion. 

The story moves slowly forward and have all the features for a good detective story. Old family drama, threats, peculiar societies, mysterious murders and much more. What about a wild boar as a domestic animal? People obsessed with Maximilian Robespierre dressing up in 18th century clothes and re-enacting his speeches. A lot of things to find here. The culprit is hidden until the very end, but he/she cannot trick commissaire Adamsberg. A very exciting read that kept me up until late. 

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Another day in Paris and what is more perfect than to combine Paris and a bookshop? That is what Nina George does in her novel about Monsieur Perdu and his broken heart. 

“There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself."

This story could easily become banal and tear dripping, but Nina George is balancing the lives of her characters in a marvellous way. As we meet Monsieur Perdu he is living a simple and lonely life. Perdu means lost in French and we realise rather quickly that he is really lost. Twenty years earlier his girlfriend left him and he never got over it. For twenty years he has been living in an apartment house where he politely speaks with the neighbours, without getting too personal, but still knowing what is going on in the house. Something changes when a young writer, Max, who unexpectedly made a hit with his first book, moves into the house. He is traumatised by the pressure of writing another book and is hiding from the world. Then Catherine moves in opposite Monsieur Perdu. She has been dumped by her husband and is left without much belongings. When Monsieur Perdu offers her an old table, his life takes an unexpected turn.

The characters of this book are likeable although one is wondering what they are doing with their lives. Monsieur Perdu is of course the most scary example of someone who stopped living his life, due to an unhappy love affair. Max withdraws from the world due to outside pressure and Catherine is licking her wounds in isolation. Sometimes one might need a sparkle of some kind to be able to see ones own life from the outside. This happens to Perdu when he finally reads the letter his girl friend sent him that long ago. This is the turning point of his sad life and at the spur of the moment he heads south searching for the truth. By chance Max is accompanying him on the trip and as they run into new acquaintances, see other kinds of circumstances, they start themselves to reconsider their own lives. 

Nina George holds the reins of her story strictly to the end. Of course I did cry a little bit as always, but the story never enters into banality or very, romantic notions, although one can guess the end. It stays stable on the ground and I think that is why I really liked this book. Maybe also because I thought it would be a very romantic read, but found sort of realistic characters and personal feelings. A feel good novel, with a little bit more food for thoughts than usual run books of this kind.  

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

It is already 10 July and this is my first post for Paris in July 2021. I am on the road in our camper van and it has been difficult to find time to blog. I have been reading a few books and made a French dinner so there are some posts coming up soon. 

However, I would like to start with a book I read and reviewed in May. It is such a wonderful and interesting historical fiction of Jeanne Hébuterne who was the muse of Amedeo Modigliani. Linda Lappin has written a novel, not only of the life of the two artists, but also of Paris. We meet Paris in the past and present. Both are as exciting as they can be, although the past gives us a kind of magic and dark side of Paris. 

"Amedeo Modigliani, embittered and unrecognized genius, dies of meningitis on a cold January day in Montparnasse in 1920. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young wife and muse, follows 48 hours later, falling backwards through a window. Now a ghost, Jeanne drifts about the studio she shared with Modigliani—for she was not only his favorite model, but also an artist whose works were later shut away from public view after her demise. Enraged, she watches as her belongings are removed from the studio and her identity as an artist seemingly effaced for posterity, carried off in a suitcase. Thus begins Loving Modigliani, retelling the story of Jeanne Hébuterne’s fate as a woman and an artist through three timelines and three precious objects stolen from the studio: a diary, a bangle, and a self-portrait of Jeanne depicted together with Modi and their daughter. A century later, Jeanne Hébuterne’s artwork will be rescued from oblivion."


I am fascinating by historical fiction about artists. They seem to be people so different from the rest of us. As we admire their free spirits, the sacrifices they make for their art and the simple, and often, poor lives they live (at least before they become famous), we can stay outside and look in. 

 The beginning of the novel takes you straight into the action and into a paranormal and gothic world.

"The ringing in my ears ceased with the dull thud of a heavy weight hurled out from a high window, crashing into the courtyard. I blacked out as a wave of pain surged through my body, traveling to the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. I'd barely had time to glimpse my brother André's face gawking through the open window frame, to hear the neighbours cat yowling on the balcony below us or the precipitation of feet on the stairs. Then there I was, conscious again, rather bewildered but intact, suspended in the air a few inches above that bloody heap on the cobblestones. A taut, transparent string protruding from my belly seemed to be attaching me to it."

It is an excellent opening to the story. Jeanne's travel in the other world continues over time. She is looking for Modigliani with whom she wants to be re-united. With the help of a cat she wanders restlessly around this new, unknown world, searching for her man. Going in and out of different 'doors' she enters other time zones and dimensions, where she soon becomes aware of what is happening with her inheritance. It is magically written and we are there with Jeanne as she roams around the streets of Paris that is so well known to her. It is a mixture of fantasy, gothic and magic and Lappin makes it look so true. First I thought we were going to stay in this world the whole book, and I was a little bit disappointed. But, as the story continues I found it a rather genius way of telling the story. But Lappin does not let us stay there, she has two other story lines up her sleeve. 

In the second part the story moves to 1981 and an American art student in Paris on a scholarship. She encounters a woman who new Jeanne. As strange things are happening she is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Jeanne and Modigliani. Underlying secrets coming up to the surface, and lost paintings see the daylight again. To find out the secret, the two of them goes on a trip from Paris, to the French Riviera, to Rome, in search of answers. 

The third part takes place some ten years later in Venice when an art critic is organising the first ever exhibition of Jeanne Hébutern's works. All of a sudden a lost painting is turning up. And, we hear from Jeanne again. She, still invisible to the world, but her art is about to come out of its hiding. 

After her death at only 22 years old, her brother, André, collected and kept her art in the family. Her relationship with Modigliani and her work was shameful for them.  Only after André's death could her drawings and paintings be shown to the public. Jeanne is one of all those muses to famous painters and sculptures that were talented and could have made a career of their own. 

Linda Lappin has written a magical and fantastic story of the life of Jeanne Hébuterne. Thorough research and dedication to the object, she has given us the pleasure, for a moment, to get to know Jeanne, her life, feelings and inheritance. The story is treated with love and sensitivity. Well written both in prose, story development and historical facts, it contains fantasy, magic, suspense and gothic elements. It is a tribute to Jeanne Hébuterne and her art. One of the best historical fictions I have read.  

I received the novel via NetGalley and Linda Lappin for an impartial review. The views above are my own.