Léo Malet and Les nouveaux mystères de Paris

Léo Malet (photo by Robert Doisneau)

Taking his cue from the American style of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Léo Malet launched the French roman noir with the character of Nestor Burma, who, for the first time, narrated a hardboiled crime story set in France. 

Before Malet, hardboiled fiction in France was translated from English, or written under pseudonym by French writers (including Malet for several years) posing as American, setting their novels in a country they had never visited. 

Éxposition Internationale du Surréalisme, 1938
(Malet, René Magritte, Paul & Nunsch Éluard)

Before turning to the more lucrative market of popular literature, Malet was a minor member of the surrealist group in Paris, and participated in such infamous activities as "Cris dans un théâtre" and FIARI.  He also contributed a mannequin to the Éxposition Internationale du Surréalisme, which was withdrawn for resembling another mannequin too closely.

During the Occupation of Paris, the prominent surrealists went into exile in the Americas while Malet stayed in France.  He turned to writing popular fiction as a way to make money after being released from a German stalag.

Surrealist techniques, such as humor, dreams, mental alienation, and the merveilleux, as well as surrealist objects, such as the pipe and the cadavre, color Malet's writing in an ironic, self-referential manner.

Malet as Nestor Burma, détective de choc
(a character never physically described in the series)

Nestor Burma is unique among his fellow literary detectives.  Compared to the French detectives, he is more brash than Simenon's Maigret or Christie's Poirot, but is more cultured than the American harboiled icons of Chandler's Marlowe and Hammett's Spade. 

With his anarchist background and use of literary language, Burma represents a culutral hybrid.  He is an antihero, often racist, sexist, and ill-tempered, but rather than turn off readers with his anti-social qualities, he attracts them.

Burma does not work alone.  Employees of his Fiat Lux detective agency include:

Hèlène Chatalain, his faithful secretary 
Marc Covet, the "journaliste éponge" and Burma's link to the media
Florimond Faroux, police commissioner
Louis Reboul and Roger Zavatter, his freelance investigators

Caricature of Léo Malet
(from L'Information)

After writing a handful of mysteries featuring Nestor Burma, Malet decided to write a series where  he would set each mystery in a different Parisian arrondissement.  Though there are 20 arrondissements, he only completed 15 novels  of the series that his editor had named Les nouveaux mystères de Paris, as an homage to the 19th-century feuilleton series by Eugène Sue, Les mystères de Paris.

Malet's portrait of Paris suggests details of everyday French life during the post-war era.  He provides insight to the Paris of (his) present, 1954-57, referencing popular culture as well as contemporary issues of the decade.  It is a document of a city that, in many ways, no longer exists.

Nestor Burma has been  adapted for the silver screen, the television screen and for the comic book world.

Film: 120, rue de la Gare
with René Dary as Burma

Film: La nuit de Saint-Germain-des-Près
with Michel Galabru as Burma

Film: Nestor Burma, détective de choc
with Michel Serrault as Burma, 
Jane Birkin as Hélène, and Guy Marchand as Marc Covet

Bande-Dessinée by Jacques Tardi
available at  the French Amazon Store online.

Television: "Nestor Burma" 
frequently aired by  France 2
with Guy Marchand as a saxophone-playing Burma

1996 French Postage Stamp
(available through stamp collecting only)

My dissertation, "From Surrealism to Less-Exquisite Cadavers: Les nouveaux mystères de Paris of Léo Malet," examines the French detective fiction genre by focusing on Léo Malet's fifteen-novel series, Les nouveaux mystères de Paris.  Expanding the boundaries of the detective novel in his use of slang and surrealist imagery, Malet, considered the "father" of the French roman noir, creates a new postwar French icon in the character of Nestor Burma.  A culturally adept man of his appetites, Burma reacts against the shame of postwar France with defiance and unrepentant national pride, even after the demoralizing occupation. 

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 Updated 09 May 2003