120, rue de la Gare, by Léo Malet, is one of the very first French “romans noirs,” a phrase taken from a series of novels published under the rubric Série Noire. The French were very much influenced by American authors writing hard-boiled detective fiction during the 1920s and 1930s — authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. By the 1950s, the French market was flooded, not so much by French authors writing in this style, but by American imports. After the second World War, France was hungry for whatever the United States wanted to provide, including pulpy, titillating detective fiction.
However, in 1943, the situation hadn’t yet gotten to that point. Léo Malet was certainly under the influence of American hard-boiled fiction, but 120, rue de la Gare is strictly a French production. Malet wrote the novel, the first of a series with his private detective hero, Nestor Burma, under the German occupation of France. Malet had been loosely tied to the surrealist movement before the war, and in 1940 had been sent to prison and then to a German concentration camp because of his Trotskyite involvement. When he returned in 1941, he turned away from surrealism and started writing tough-guy detective stories about the world he saw in front of him.
This novel begins with a curious sequence in which Burma, like Malet himself, has been sent to a concentration camp as a prisoner of war. He is serving in the camp’s hospital and caring for an amnesiac who has come in with a high fever. The amnesiac’s dying words are, “Tell Helen… 120, rue de la Gare.” Neither the name nor the place is exactly uncommon, and Burma isn’t exactly sentimental. Nevertheless, he decides to do his best if he can.
Upon his return to France, Burma is pulling into the train station at Lyon when he sees two things: a woman who looks almost exactly like the film star Michele Hogan; and his partner, Bob Colomer, running up to meet him. Unfortunately, Bob only has a few seconds to tell Burma that he’s got some important information for him before he is shot, almost bringing Burma under the wheels of the train as well. Bob’s final words? “Boss… 120, rue de la Gare.”
The rest of the book consists in Burma’s wandering around the city of Lyon (and, later, Nazi-occupied Paris), trying to understand the mystery — if there even is a mystery. Burma has an excellent reputation, both on the streets and among the police, and even after his time in the camps, he finds he still has connections: his journalist buddy Marc, his “typist-secretary-collaborator-agent” Helen, his lawyer friend Bernard. Wartime has made everything harder, darker, grimmer, leaner. But a man like Burma can still get answers.
This novel is written in the first person, in the inimitable voice of Nestor Burma himself, proprietor of the Fiat Lux detective agency. It’s sarcastic, dry, casual, slangy, heavily influenced by the hard-boiled, terse. One tiny example. After asking — well, demanding — a huge and dangerous favor of his journalist friend, Burma continues:
“Give me an overcoat or a raincoat,” I said, wriggling in front of the mirror. “I don’t need a hat. My beret will do.”
“Really? Will that be all?” he asked. “I could always lend you my razor, shine your shoes, give you my ration cards and slip you my girlfriend’s address.”
“Some other time,” I said. “See you tonight.”
This book is so interesting on questions of what it means to work on the margins. Since once again (as in Arsene Lupin) it isn’t safe to work inside the law, Burma’s marginalized position is the only one that can reasonably achieve justice, but what is justice if it’s outside the law? This is interesting, too, for other marginalized groups: the lower classes, women, immigrants. My students and I had a lot of good discussions about this during my French Crime Fiction class, and it is just plain good reading, as well. I recommend this entire witty, tough, interesting series.
This book has been published in English by Pan books, translated by P. Hudson. The quotation in this blog entry was my own translation, though. For those of you who speak French, there’s a series of graphic novels made from these books, by the inimitable Jacques Tardi (of Adele Blanc-Sec fame), and they are absolutely wonderful.