CHILDREN playing detectives have always been a popular theme of junior fiction, but a book that appeared nearly 40 years ago changed decisively the accepted formula of holiday cottages and smuggling skulduggery. A Hundred Million Francs was written by a Frenchman, Paul Berna (its original title Le Cheval sans tete), and told of an urchin gang in the backstreets of Paris uncovering, most convincingly, the fate of millions of francs stolen from the Paris-Ventimiglia express.
Berna, using his experience as a journalist on a suburban newspaper in the 1930s, could describe with personal knowledge the slum life and mores of the children whose only plaything is a headless wooden horse on three iron wheels. Happily they career through the street of Louvigny - tough, independent, prepared to resist threats, bribe anything to protect their horse (for the vital evidence is of course hidden inside). The story is irresistible in its vitality, and remarkable for the nature of the gang, a multicultural mix of ages, colour and gender. Although a boy, Gaby, is the leader, it is a girl, Marion, who has the stronger personality and controls their secret weapon - a collection of stray dogs she has rescued and trained to respond at a word. The gang look after each other with unsentimental caring - something the author obviously remembered from his own childhood as one of seven, whose father died in the first month of the First World War.
The book proved so popular that in 1963, six years after its publication in English, Walt Disney turned it into a film, scripted by TEB Clarke, under its first title, The Horse without a Head. That film is still remembered for its excellence.
Paul Berna's later books could never have been expected to make the same impact, though they were all characterised by the same empathy with children and respect for their independence. Setting, too, is distinctive - many of the stories take place in Brittany or the Mediterranean coastline near Hyeres, which he loved.
He was the kind of author who is a boon to any publisher: the complete professional, reliable in the way his work was delivered (a new novel every year from 1957 to 1973), never difficult about the occasional mishap, always helpful, courteous and appreciative, particularly of his illustrators, who included Charles Keeping, Richard Kennedy and Brian Wildsmith, and of his translator John Buchanan-Brown, who became a close friend.
He was a man of great charm and his publishers held him in rare affection. He remained loyal to the same houses in Paris (Editions GP), London (the Bodley Head) and New York (Pantheon Books) for almost 20 years, and his following of young readers only began to wane in the late 1970s. By then, inflation and cuts in institutional spending were changing for ever the nature of hardback fiction for children.
Berna's stories would now be roughly categorised as 'mystery and adventure for 10 up' (although at least one of them, They Didn't Come Back, 1969, had serious undertones, dealing with a gruesome atrocity of the Second World War) and maybe they were no longer relevant to the changed society of the 1980s.
Whatever the case, none is in print; yet for his mould-breaking book of the 1950s the name of Paul Berna (a pseudonym) should not be forgotten.
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