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Mystery review: 120 Rue de la Gare by Léo Malet

This is both a TBR challenge book and a What’s in a Name challenge book – the one with a number in the title. That leaves only one book in that challenge.

Year of publication: 1943: English translation: 1991
Translated by: Peter Hudson
No. in series: 1
Genre: Detective story
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Series detective: Nestor "Dynamite" Burma
Setting & time: Lyon and Paris, France; 1941.

Former private detective Nestor Burma is released from a POW camp in Germany and sent home to France. At the train station in Lyon he spots an old friend and former employee, who is shot before his eyes and mutters the words “120 Rue de la Gare” before he dies. Having heard the words before, from another man who died shortly afterward, Burma becomes curious and begins to investigate. It immediately becomes apparent that he is in the trail of a ruthless killer, but the more the killer tries to stop Burma, the more Burma becomes determined to discover his identity and discover why he has been killing people.

This is just the kind of detective story that I regret not being able to read in the original language, because however good a translation is – and this is a good one, if I’m any judge – something always gets lost. In this case it’s the French period slang that Burma slings around. How I know this? Simple: I read up on Malet and Burma before I wrote this review.

However, the translator has made a good job of making the story sound as if written in English.

The plotting is tight and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the readers on their toes, and even a couple of red herrings that lead Burma himself astray. Nestor Burma is the first-person narrator of the story, and he sometimes keeps things from the reader, to be revealed only when he reveals them to other character. This is therefore not a fair-play story, but it is nonetheless entertaining and a good, suspenseful read. There is humour that lights up what could have been a dreary story, because it takes place during World War II in German-occupied France (written at a time when there was no foretelling how the war would end). Burma comes across as a likable character, just as hard-boiled as his American colleagues Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but less cold-blooded and with a stronger sense of humour. Other characters are mostly well-fleshed out and  I have a feeling that several of them will become recurring features in the books that follow. Now I just have to see if I can get my hands on more of Malet’s books. 3+ stars.


Irene said…
Sounds good.

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