120 Rue de la Gare (1943) by Léo Malet trans. Peter Hudson (1991)

This is the first in Malet’s Nestor Burma series and it is Burma who narrates the tale, which commences in a POW camp in Germany, between 1940-41. As an inmate, Burma comes across a new arrival who claims to not know his own name and lacking any papers, he becomes known as the Blob. Yet just before he dies in the camp hospital, he gives Burma a message: ‘Tell Helene – 120 Rue de la Gare.’ Now given Burma’s former occupation as the director of a private detective agency, it is not surprising that he gains a photo of the man, as well as his fingerprints; intent on following up the dying message on his release.

And it is to his release in December 1941, back to occupied France, that the narrative moves to next. During a stop at Perrache station, Burma unexpectedly meets an old colleague from the agency, who is desperate to tell him something. But as he is shot when the train is pulling away, all he manages to say to Burma is ‘120 Rue de la Gare’… On seeing this Burma understandably makes a rough exit which lands him in hospital, but his recuperation is far from relaxing, as he tries to find out who killed his friend, a friend whose behaviour takes some explaining. Why did he have so much money on him? Why was he trying to locate books written by the Marquis de Sade? Why had he bought two train tickets? And why was he reading up on a famous jewel thief, who has been dead for several years?

Overall Thoughts

Private eyes are not my favourite kind of sleuth, but Burma is an engaging character. He manages to fit the private eye mould, but without overdoing stereotypical traits and tropes of such a character. There is surprisingly little time for overindulging in alcohol for one thing and the wisecracking is of a more understated quality.

The wartime setting is also a factor which significantly added to my enjoyment of reading this book. This setting is used to full effect in the story, influencing and hampering how Burma can investigate the case and the war also makes its way into the crime as well. Identity is a slippery thing in the text, which is in keeping with context, but is not overdone. The fact this book was written whilst the war was still ongoing, also makes this a text of interest. Intriguingly there is no direct comments about the conflict and the Germans are very much kept to the background. Was this a matter of writer health and safety?

The use of the dying message is well handled by the author and whilst it may seem a very prosaic and clear-cut one, it actually becomes a much more complex and mystifying clue. However, the biggest weakness of this book is its consistent withholding of information from the reader. Claire Gorrara (2003) in her book The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions, mentions that the tale ‘has a number of features in common with the classic whodunit’ (Gorrara, 2003: 28). I would agree with this in terms of the dying clue and the way Burma has the suspects gathered at the end for the solution, but one element it is certainly lacking, is openness with the reader. Burma keeps a legion of ideas, clues and information to himself, so the solution is surprising but in a particularly satisfying way. It is not a case of the reader being unable to interpret an object in the same way as him, it is a simple matter of not knowing the object existed in the first place. I can see why some of this information is held onto for so long, as it immediately identifies the killer, but overall the quantity of withheld information, means the reader can’t help but feel a bit frustrated.

So, my best advice for this book, is to enjoy the ride, with all its WW2 thrills and dangerous escapades and hang up your deerstalker; you won’t be needing it!

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Set in a capital city

Calendar of Crime: December (5) Other December Holiday

4 comments

  1. I thought you had forgotten about this recommendation of mine, so I am pleasantly surprised to see it appear on your blog even though you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did.

    It’s been a lot of time since I last read this book but I don’t remember the lack of fair play being an issue, probably because it wasn’t one for me at the time. French detective fiction though sharing some basic elements with its English-speaking “cousin” also differs from it in several important ways, one of them being the near absence of rules. French detective stories are not meant to be games between author and reader and so the concealment of clues is not seen as a cardinal sin. It doesn’t mean that French crime writers never play fair (S.A. Steeman for instance put a great emphasis on this) but that they’re not required or expected to do so. It’s a cultural thing and one of the reasons why I’ve often found it so hard to “sell” our detective fiction to English-speaking readers.

    The prime appeal of the Nestor Burma books, however, is the Parisian atmosphere and Burma himself whose voice is a very distinctive one, much like Marlowe’s though in a more plebeian way. I don’t know how it translates into another language but Mr. Hudson’s translation seems to have toned it down a bit.

    All in all, I think it’s a cultural thing and I’ll remember that next time (for of course there’ll be a next time, ha ha ha)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I did wonder whether something got lost in translation, but I still think Burma’s appeal as a character manages to shine through.
      I can cope with a bit of info holding, but the amount here seemed too much. Burma’s private knowledge was bordering on omniscience at one point, which for me dampened the solution somewhat, but I can appreciate that readers with different preferences or expectations won’t have a problem with it.

      Like

  2. While I was browsing through your TBR catalogue of book covers, I thought this one looked interesting. But I don’t think I’m ready to hang up my deerstalker hat just yet. So maybe I might give this one a miss… 😅

    Liked by 1 person

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