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OBITUARY : Leo Malet

For the French, who hold low culture in high esteem and consider comic books - graphic novels - the eighth (or perhaps the ninth) art, crime fiction is a serious genre. And being French, they relish all the more the paradox that Leo Malet, not a well-known practitioner of the form outside France, but within the country one of the best loved, never could take it seriously.

He came to it late and by accident, and he never completed his planned great cycle of detective stories, Les Nouveaux Mysteres de Paris ("The New Mysteries of Paris"), which were to include a novel set in each of the 20 arrondissements of Paris. He managed 15 but then gave up, out of sheer laziness. After all, he had only started for the money, and his detective novels were selling steadily, regularly reprinted, and translated: Pan brought out paperbacks in English in 1991.

Leo Malet had originally wanted to be a singer, and in his early teens he ran away from the southern town of Montpellier to the low-life Paris of Montmartre cabarets that Aristide Bruant had sung about before him, and whose tradition Georges Brassens (another southerner) perpetuated. Malet wasn't so lucky or so talented, and he scraped a desperate hand- to-mouth existence in the sordid Paris of the poor without the solace of being able to romanticise it in song.

He moved to poetry and Surrealism, and the titles of his two poetry collections, Ne pas voir plus loin que le bout de son sexe ("Seeing No Further Than the End of your Prick", 1936) and J'Arbre comme cadavre ("I Tree Like a Corpse", 1937), give some idea of the bitterness and rage that found fuller expression in his "Black Trilogy" of novels: La Vie est degueulasse ("Life is Lousy", 1948), Le Soleil n'est pas pour nous ("The Sun is Not for Us", 1949), Sueur aux tripes ("Gut Sweat", 1969); their publishing history obscures their roots in the 1930s. The expedients, the despair, the danger, and the brief fierce joys of young life and love in crumbling stinking tenements down dark alleys come to life vividly, unforgettably and sickeningly. Malet was setting out to shock, and the final derisive challenge of his young hero as the police open fire on him, "Aim for the sex", is also Malet's sentiment.

At the outbreakof the Second World War, Malet's anarchism got him thrown into gaol by the French, only to be captured by the Germans soon after his release. Back in occupied Paris where there was no butter and bread was strictly rationed, he turned to bread-and-butter writing: historical romances as Omer Refreger, purportedly American crime fiction as Leo Latimer or Frank Harding. Johnny Metal, the hard-boiled whisky-soaked New York reporter of the Harding novels, is hardly consistent enough even to be called a caricature, but the novels sweep along quite well; Malet even allows himself (in Affaire double, 1948) the treat of bringing this anagrammatic hero from his pastiche America for a holiday in a pastiched Paris littered with personal allusions and private jokes.

His French private detective Nestor Burma is a hero of more substance. He is hard-drinking, pipe-smoking, ebullient and irrepressible; his agency is called Fiat Lux, and he knocks mysteries out cold, though it usually takes a few knocks to his own head to clear his thinking. Burma first appears in 120 rue de la Gare (1943), where like Malet he is a recently released prisoner of war, and Malet uses him throughout Les Nouveaux Mysteres de Paris (which start in 1954 in Le Soleil nait derriere le Louvre, "The Sun Rises Behind the Louvre", in the 1st arrondissement).

In spite of the title, Malet's detective fiction is relatively tame. The real echoes of Eugene Sue's 19th-century Mysteries of Paris, set in the Paris underworld, are found in his Black Trilogy. But the Paris he takes us through has a real sense of place, and the truculence of his detective mouthpiece asserts an aggressively French identity. French crime fiction had come under the sway of the American hard-boiled school; Malet gave it ironic energy and a French voice. Burma is caustic, outspoken, derisive, and behind the murder, mystery and corruption, Malet is quite obviously having fun: death is serious, crime fiction is entertainment.

He abandoned the series in 1959 and the 17th arrondissement: the linking thread, a guided tour of Paris for anti-tourists, is a joke that wore thin for its author, but it still keeps its attraction for the readers. A few more Nestor Burma novels followed as the semi-retired Leo Malet was republished and rediscovered, glimpsed in some film adaptations of his work (in 1983, he covered the Cannes Film Festival for Le Matin de Paris, a Paris newspaper), and revered like an old literary lion.

Stephen F. Noreiko

Leo Malet, writer: born Montpellier 7 March 1909; died Paris 3 March 1996.