08 February 2012

Polar Readings

by Neil Schofield

I bin ill. For almost the whole of last month. January largely passed in a sort of blur. So apart from anything else my Sleuthreading has been pretty patchy. I just caught the end of the David Dean celebrations, but didn't have the wit or the time to add my Congratulations David!
I knew that story was a winner when I first read it last June.

I'm no good at being ill. It happens very very rarely, despite the fact that I lack a spleen, mine having been confiscated following a multi-car road accident in the 80's. Spleens are apparently supposed to produce the cells that fight infections. Where are all the spleens when you need one?
When I was young, being ill was frowned on. The traditional remedy was for my nearest and daftest to gather round my bed and intone the age-old Yorkshire incantation: "Gerrup out of that, yer lazy, leadswinging little whelp". This worked like a charm, which I suppose it was.
So I'm not one for being cossetted. I prefer the old dog method: retire to a corner, lick your wounds and if you don't die, then that means you're better.
I have a feeling that it was catching, too, because days after I went down, my printer-scanner went belly-up, and the toaster exploded. Let me tell you that a crumb of baguette has the stopping power of a 9mm round.

Cossetting is out, but I do need comforts, and my favorite is Comfort Reading. I mean reading familiar books that you know and love and which require little or no effort from a spinning brain. This month I turned to the French for comfort.

The French Have a Word For It

And the word is 'Polar' which is a short form of 'Roman Policier', and covers all crime fiction, detective fiction and mystery fiction which makes it a useful word. We have no equivalent it seems to me. Polar covers everything up to the Thriller category, which the French maddeningly call un Thriller.

The French are pretty good at crime fiction. When I was first in France, to acquire and expand a vocabulary I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the seven volumes of Les Rois Maudits which tells from a French perspective the story behind the Hundred Years' War, although stopping well short of admitting that, really, France today is rightfully part of England.
And then I started on crime fiction. The first man I read was an interesting character called Leo Mallet. Mallet was a surrealist and anarchist, and engaged in the usual series of bizarre jobs, before he was invited to go to Germany in 1941 to becomes a slave labourer. He quickly accepted because the invitation was delivered by a Sturmbannfuhrer backed up by a couple of Schmeissers. When he came back to Paris, he re-started writing. Pre-war he had enjoyed parodying Anglo-Saxon crime fiction and in 1942 he turned out his first crime fiction, 120, Rue de la Gare. After the war, he continued, and, according to some critics, helpd to  transform French crime fiction. His main character, Nestor Burma, was a private detective, disabused and cynical, with a secretary called Helène and a sidekick/helper called Zavatter who burgles on the side. Oh yes, and there's a peppery police commissaire called Florimond Faroux. The set-up sounds familiar, don't it, but it was a breath of fresh air to the French. He went on to write a long series of novels around Nestor Burma all set in the mean streets of Paris, including a sub-series calle Les Nouvelles Mystères de Paris, where each novel centres on a different arrondissement of Paris.

I'm afraid that Nestor Burma was never translated, but the stories are worth learning French for. For me, it's almost as good as re-reading Sherlock Holmes: I know the destination, but I know I'm going to enjoy the journey.

My other favorite has been translated and then some.
Sebastien Japrisot, (which is an anagram of his real monicker, Jean-Baptiste Rossi) started in the early 60s as a translator, of Hopalong Cassidy stories oddly enough. He also translated The Catcher in the Rye and The Trouble With Harry.  His change of direction, along with a change of name came with a murder mystery called Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders in the English version). The film adaptation of this book  was Cost-Gavras's first film and starred Yves Montand. His best book, at least to my mind, was his third,  La Dame Dans L'Auto Avec Des Lunettes Et Un Fusil - The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, for which Japrisot trousered a Golden Dagger in 1966. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. It's one of the best-made crime novels I've read. The plot is beautifully constructed, flawless and diabolic.

Japrisot's ouput over 40 years was not enormous. He wrote a number of screenplays (a couple of which ended up starring Charles Bronson) and a handful of novels, but he is one of the best and most literate French crime writers I've ever come across. His last novel was set in the 1914-18 war and is a love story which turns into a detective story. It became the film A Very Long Engagement which collared the 2005 Edgar for Best Screenplay.
You can find his novels in translation on Amazon. Used copies cost pennies. Highly recommended.

Snow has now fallen, the whole country is in chaos, and I'm going out now to chop some logs for the fire. So I must be better, mustn't I.


  1. I recommend Sebastien Japrisot’s horrifying L’été meurtrier (One Deadly Summer) I don't think it's possible to forget this book once you've read it. Sérieusement.

  2. I've obviously been preaching to the choir, Leigh. It was also a terrific film which got a couple of César awards.

  3. Neil, glad you're feeling better. I understand about comfort reading being what you need when sick, but I'm going to try that "Gerrup out of that, yer lazy, leadswinging little whelp."

  4. I read and enjoyed Sebastien Japrisot's work years ago--in English, though en principe j'aurais pu le lire en français. Too much like work! I'm impressed you can call it comfort reading. ;)
    But the most potentially fascinating story you've mentioned is one you didn't tell: how on earth did Leo Mallet survive a concentration camp from 1941 till the end of the war--or (not sure which you meant) get out in time to publish a crime novel in 1942?

  5. Elizabeth -
    Leo Mallet was one of hundreds of thousands of French who were transported to Germany not as concentration camp fodder but as workers in factories, mines and so on. After a certain period some of them were allowed to go home. I know at least two families whose grandfathers spent a year or two in Germany and then came back.

  6. Thanks for your kind words, Neil, and I'm glad that you're feeling better. I recall a dispatcher once who, (in)famously, called in sick for his shift, and when questioned as to the exact problem replied tersely, "My spleen fell out." There had been a ferocious batchelor send-off the night before in which he had distinguished himself. Naturally, I was aware of this, as chiefs know all (I was there, actually). Police dispatchers are a notoriously touchy and contentious crew. As for the spleen bit, I'm not sure he was entirely incorrect, as I felt that many of my organs might not be functioning properly the following day, either.

    I must admit to having little knowledge of French crime novels beyond Inspector Maigret. I discovered him many years ago and raced through all the novels...novellas, really, and loved them. I will be looking for the wonderfully titled "The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun". Why can't I come up with titles like that?

  7. Even in English, Japrisot's One Deadly Summer takes a little work to read, but the shocking dénouement is well worth it.

  8. Glad you're feeling better! I've got to learn to read French!

  9. Sorry to hear you were under the weather, buddy. And now I have several new names to hunt down. Thanks!

    Haven't read any Maigret novels, but recently completed reading Dirty Snow by the same author (Simenon) for the Hard-Boiled Book Club i'm in at the Poisoned Pen bookstore here in town. Great writing; gut-wrenching read! Really grabs a reader by the throat and won't let go. Thankfully, it was in English, as the extent of my French these days is pretty much limited to trying to look Continental while staring back perpleexed.

    Sorry for the late response.



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