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.


  1. This sounds fascinating to me. I'm very much in favor of the vintage mysteries more than today's more violent thrillers. I love the British Crime Library series, Agatha, PD James, and some of the newer writers like Deborah Crombie and Susan Hill. I think I would very much enjoy Burma and his companions.

    1. This was quite a nice experience. I think this was the first book ever translated into Swedish and it is from 1943. Obviously, the publishers are looking way back to find good books.