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120, rue de la gare

9 october 2017

I was led to 120, rue de la Gare by Andrea Goulet's Legacies of the Rue Morgue. Though Goulet's book pointed straight to Léo Malet's, it took me a year and a half to follow her directions. I was delighted when I did; 120, rue de la Gare is an early hybrid of private-eye noir and consulting-detective cozy. In 1943, Malet knew his models but did not feel constrained by generic formulas in the way that later writers might have. The result was a detective novel of great panache.

Set in 1941, published in 1943, 120, rue de la Gare offers a rare look into a brief interval in French history when the nation was divided between occupied and Vichy zones. Our hero Nestor Burma, like Malet himself, has spent several months in a Stalag in the north of Germany following the French surrender to the Wehrmacht. (Burma appears to be a conventional POW; Malet himself, a far-left political sympathizer, was more of a political prisoner, and luckier to get home in one piece.) On his way back to Paris, Burma injures himself impulsively getting off a train in Lyon – well, you'd get off a train too, if you saw your friend Bob Colomer, ace operative for your detective agency, gunned down on the platform outside. As he dies, Colomer shouts the title address to his old boss. 120, rue de la Gare is the same address that a dying amnesiac had mumbled to Burma with his last breath, back in their POW camp. And it is an address, another of Burma's operatives later informs his chief, that does not exist.

Or at least it doesn't exist in Paris, where the amnesiac had insisted it was located. You or I would just Google the damn address, but in 1941 Nestor Burma lacks that option. He tries to ascertain if there are other towns with such locations, at one point ordering some maps for that purpose, but doesn't get far. The Internet tells me that there are numerous 120, rue de la Gares in both France and Canada, but they play no role in this story. The street number, in the end, both is and isn't a MacGuffin – just as you'd expect a cryptic 1940s hardboiled street address to be.

Burma stays in Lyon for a while trying to track down Colomer's killer. Eventually the authorities oblige him to return to Paris where he belongs, but not before he spends a week insouciantly checking himself in and out of the hospital, flipping hired thugs over bridge railings into the Rhône, breaking into suspects' apartments, beating up two-bit private eyes: the famous "Burma method." But while he's part Sam Spade, Nestor Burma is also part Sherlock Holmes (he eventually identifies the killer thanks to the odor of a particular tobacco and some allumettes discarded in an ashtray) and not a little Hercule Poirot (in order to reveal that killer, he ultimately gathers all the suspects together for an evening's unveiling).

Burma is a born flic, "frémissant à l'idée d'élucider le mystère [atremble at the thought of solving the mystery]" (17). Gifted in logical deduction, he possesses an equal amount of intuition. He is fond of solutions produced by paradox. At one point, faced with two photographs that look very dissimilar, he decides "C'est le même homme parce que c'est le contraire [It's the same man because he's so different]" (133). I like his style.

Malet, Léo. 120, rue de la Gare. 1943. Paris: Fleuve Noir, 2011.