22 February 2016

Léo Malet: Énigme aux Folies-Bergère

You would of course expect a book written in 1952 to be something of a peddle back in time, although this 1978 cover, with the bare-breasted woman, seems to conflict somewhat with the use of language, which is sometimes unbelievably prissy in its censorship: we have a number of unfinished words or expressions, for instance: 'emm....' (for 'emmerder'), 'm'eng...' (for 'm'engueuler', even 'B... D...' for 'Bon Dieu'. Scheesh! You'd hardly believe this was written in a country in which (in the nineteenth century) Zola (in Germinal) wrote about a guy screwing a menstruating girl against a wall, where Aragon wrote Le con d'Irène, or where Courbet notoriously painted a magnificent female sexual organ, and on and on ad infinitum.

Not that there's anything prissy about the actual content here: Superintendent Raffin thinks bromide would be in order on seeing a sample of the naked girls in the Folies-Bergère dressing room, and as for the once-beautiful and now alcoholic Clara pulling the bedclothes away from her to reveal her one leg and stump and ask him who would want her now....

Crime is not my usual genre but then everyone should take a literary holiday now and then, and Léo Malet – very much a self-educated person and in the day an hugely successful writer – is well worth reading. There are murders all over the place, there's a lot of drinking and (particularly on the part of Raffin) a lot of thinking going on, the plot may creak noisily in places (such as hiding the jewels on the imitation horses at the Folies-Bergère, but what the hell?

Malet actually writes very well, and is noted for his black humour. I particularly liked the way Raffin, on receiving the post mortem report from the lab team, which reveal that the murdered Humbert Courvoisier lunched on beefsteak and chips and red wine, notes that he then took over three grams of lead as a digestive. Another observation of his is that the grass François Laumont, found dead on his doorstep, was 'a natural gossip of the underworld silenced by a twenty-five centimetre blade'.

And how can I ever forget the two visits and all the time it took to detect Malet's Grave:

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