Mystery Monday: French Crime Novelist Léo Malet
Much has been written about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and the most often referenced materials include the American writers Dashiell Hammett, S.S. Van Dine, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. British authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie also get quite a bit of press. As part of the research for my upcoming release, Love’s Rescue, which is set in Paris, I wanted to find out what sort of fiction was published in France during the 1930s and 1940s.
To my surprise, I discover a genre closely tied to detective fiction called Roman Noir. Closely related to hardboiled crime, the genre’s distinguishing factor is that the protagonist is either a victim, suspect, or perpetrator. Wikipedia goes a bit further and says, “A typical protagonist is dealing with the legal, political, or other system, which is no less corrupt than the perpetrator…”
Author Léo Malet is considered to be the father of French Roman Noir, and his first novel 120, Rue de la Gare, was published in 1943. The second book in the series was not published until after the war (1948), with the remaining thirty-one stories coming out primarily in the 1950s. The final book was published in 1983.
Anti-hero Nestor Burma is an ex-Anarchist, fluent in argot (French slang), and can’t commit to a relationship to save his life. Cynical but streetwise, he explores a different area of Paris in each book. According to one scholar, Malet had planned to cover twenty unique municipalities, but he was unable to do so before his death.
Despite being written and published in the midst of WWII, the story takes place afterwards, with former private detective Nestor coming home from a POW camp in Germany. When he arrives at the train station in Lyon, he runs into an old friend who is shot in Nester’s presence. Before he dies, the victim mutters “120 Rue de la Gare.” Having heard the words from another shooting victim, Nestor decides to investigate. It becomes apparent the perpetrator is a serial killer, and Nestor must discover his identity before falling prey to the murderer.
The good news is that several of the author’s books have been translated into English. And for those of you who know French, head over to YouTube where you can watch episodes of Nestor Burma produced by French TV producer DEMD from 1991 through 2003.