“La Nuit de Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” from the series “Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris,” by Léo Malet (extract; introduction and version originale followed by translation)

The short-hand description of Léo Malet as the French answer to Raymond Chandler doesn’t do justice to the vernacular richness of Malet’s crime stories, starring the wise-cracking, high-strung, and historically erudite Nestor Burma, the “Shock Detective” who “puts the K.O. to the Mystery.” In his forays into the labyrinths of Lutece — the body of which is 14 “Nouveaux Mystères de Paris” (inspired by Eugene Sue’s 19th century “Mystères de Paris”), each set in a specific arrondissement — Malet marries the verbal virtuosity of Boris Vian to the Paris familiarity of Georges Simenon, a dexterity no doubt the by-product of an apprenticeship with the anarchists of the 1920s and graduate school with André Breton’s Surrealists. A supplementary métier as newspaper hawker informed his gumshoe’s intimate knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of Paris. “The Night of Saint-Germain-des-Près” offers the extra treat of two real personages — bistro owners, bien sur — integrated into the action (with their approval).

Le métro me cracha à Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Je sortis du wagon pour ainsi dire à la nage, tellement je transpirais. C’était une moite nuit de juin, avec, suspendu sur la capitale, un orage de Marseille qui menaçait toujours sans jamais passer aux actes.

A la surface, il faisait encore plus chaud que dans le souterrain.

J’émergeai sur le boulevard à l’ombre de l’église et me frayai un chemin à travers la bruyante foule des promeneurs cosmopolites qui ondulaient sur le large trottoir, le long des grilles du petit square, indiférents à la vaisselle historique que le camelot de bronze Bernard Palissy, du haut de son socle, leur propose inlassablement.

L’atmosphère était imprégnée d’une stagnant odeur composite, où les vapeurs d’essence et le goudron liquéfié se conguguaient au tabac blond et aux parfums de prix. Tout à fait Montmartre en 1926, Château Caucasien en moins. Sur la chaussée, de somptueuses bagnoles, aux carrosseries éclaboussées par les reflets mourants de l’enseigne au néon d’un grand café de la place, roulaient lentement, cherchant sans beaucoup d’espoir un espace libre pour se ranger.

La terrasse du Mabillon, qui s’éntendait jusqu’au caniveau, et celle de la Rhumerie-Martiniquaise, contenue vaille que vaille dans l’espace de son plancher surélevé, rivalisaient d’animation, avec le pourcentage requis de viande soûle. Entre les deux bistrots pétant aux jointures, l’étroite rue de l’Echaudé, chére à Alfred Jarry, qui y avait situé sa station-service de décervelage, m’apparut comme une oasis de fraîcheur et de tranquillité: Par-dessus les toits des voitures à l’arrête, la rampe lumineuse de l’Echaudé, le snack-bar que tient Henri Leduc, formée d’une succession d’ampoules électriques multicolores, dans la meilleure tradition populaire des illuminations de 15 juillet, me fit signe.

Je mis le cap dessus.

Il n’y avait presque personne dans le minuscule établissement, ce qui était aussi bien, vu la température et ce qui m’y amenait. Mais il ne faillait pas s’inquiéter. Je connais l’endroit. D’ici une heure ou deux, ça allait rappliquer de partout.

Je jetait un coup d’œil à l’angle droit, la disposition des lieux n’en permettant pas de circulaire. Un couple cinématographique, vestimentairement parlant, occupait une table et cassait la croûte. Un peu plus loin, un type très digne, genre gravure de modes, l’air prétence d’un cachet d’aspirine qui se prendrait pour du maxiton, d’épais cheveux blancs surmontant son visage maigre de poète ravagé par l’inspiration — ou les soucis — mangeait délicieusement, avec des gestes maniéres, quelque chose qui me parut ressembler à un plat de lentilles. Les yeux braqués sur l’affiche 1900 qui lui faisait face et vantant la supériorité de la bougie à cinq trous sur ses rivales, il rêvait plus ou moins à son droit d’aînesse.

Au comptoir, Louis, le barman, impeccable et correct dans sa veste immaculée, disputait une partie de dés avec un client barbichu, aux sons d’une musique douce issue d’un poste de radio invisible, et Henri, l’œil vif derrière ses lunettes cerclées d’or, faisait des comptes, à la caisse, un verre embué à portée de sa main, celle qui ne tenait pas le crayon.

Je m’approchai et l’interrompis dans ses calculs :

— Salut, Duc, dis-je.

Il leva la tête, me tendit la main, me souhaita la bienvenue et demanda ce que je devenais.

— Pas plus, dis-je.

— Les machabées, ça donne?

— Je n’ai pas buté, si j’ose dire, sur un depuis deux mois.

Leduc fronça les sourcils :

— Mauvais, ça. Tu devrais voir un toubib.

— Légiste, de préférence. Je connais la réplique. Dis donc, ça ne t’altère pas, de débloquer comme ça?

— Si. Qu’est que tu offres ?

— J’ai besoin d’un reconstituant maison.

Translation by  Paul Ben-Itzak:

The metro spit me out at Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

I left the subway car more or less swimming, bathed in sweat. It was a sweltering June night with, suspended over Paris, a mistral straight out of Marseille which menaced ominously without delivering.

Outside it was even steamier than in the subterranean.

I emerged on the boulevard in the shadow of the church and waded through the tumultuous crowd of cosmopolitan promenaders undulating along the wide sidewalk beside the iron gate of the tiny square, indifferent to the historic ceramic plates that the bronze figure of Bernard Palissy was tirelessly hawking from the perch of his pedestal.

The atmosphere was impregnated with a stagnant, pungent mixture of gas fumes and liquefied asphalt mixed with blonde tobacco and luxury perfume. Evoking Montmartre circa 1926, or at least Château Caucasien. On the pavement, sumptuous jalopies, their coaches splashed with the dying reflections of the neon lights of a big café on the Place, hunted without much hope for a free parking spot to hitch their carcasses to.

The terrace of the Mabillon, which extended all the way to the curb, and that of the Rhumerie-Martiniquaise, somehow contained in the confines of an elevated deck, competed for liveliness, with the requisite percentage of Pernod-marinated meat. Between the two bistros bursting at the seams, the narrow rue de l’Echaudé, dear to Alfred Jarry, who used to conduct his weekly brain surgery sessions there at Rachilde’s salon *, beckoned to me like an oasis of freshness and tranquility: Above the roofs of parked cars, the luminous garland of the Echaudé, the snack bar run by Henri Leduc, formed by a string of multi-colored light-bulbs in the best tradition of Bastille Day, hailed me.

I set my course and plunged.

The miniscule establishment was practically deserted — which suited me just fine, given the heat and the delicate task confronting me. But this was nothing to worry about. I knew the place. An hour or two from now, the joint would be jammed to the rafters with regulars.

I cast a furtive glance at the right corner, the layout not allowing for a wide-angle view. A cinematic couple — wardrobe-wise — was breaking bread at a table. A little further back, a distinguished character straight out of the pages of the fashion magazines and with the pretentious air of a sleeping pill which mistakes itself for No-Doze, his thick white hair crowning the emaciated visage of a poet ravaged by inspiration — or worries — sipped with delectation and mannered gestures a bowl of something which resembled lentil soup. His eyes riveted to a Belle Epoch poster vaunting the superiority of five-hole candelabras  over their rivals, he seemed to be dreaming more or less of his senior citizen prerogatives.

At the counter, Louis, the barman, impeccable and appropriate in his immaculate vest, was tossing dice with a bearded customer, to the soothing sounds of music coming from an invisible radio, and Henri, his eyes alert behind gold-rimmed glasses, was going over the books at the cash register, a frosted glass within reach of his hand, the one which wasn’t holding the pencil.

I walked up to him and interrupted his calculations:

Salut, Duc.”

He lifted his head, offered me his hand, welcomed me and asked what I’d been up to.

“Not much,” I responded.

“Stiffs keeping you busy?”

“I haven’t tripped over one — if I dare say — for at least two months.”

Leduc frowned. “That’s no good. You ought to see a specialist for that.”

“Preferably a coroner — I know the routine. So tell me, doesn’t it make you thirsty to turn the pages like that?”

“Indeed it does. What do you propose?”

“I could sure use a glass of the House poison.”

Excerpt from “La Nuit de Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” originally published in 1955 as “Le Sapin Pousse dans les Caves” as part of the series “Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris” and copyright Éditions Fleuve Noir. Collected in Léo Malet, “Les Enquêtes de Nestor Burma et Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris.” Édition presented and established by Francis Lacassin. Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 1985. Excerpt translated by Paul Ben-Itzak.

*Among the regular visitors to the salon held by Marguerite Eymery, Madame Alfred Vallette, known as Rachilde (1860 – 1953), in the offices of the publisher the Mercure de France at 15, rue l’Echaudé, was Alfred Jarry, whose influential 1896 play “Ubu Roi” included “La Chanson du décervelage.” Décervelage translates literally as the operation of removing someone’s brain, and can also be defined as taking someone’s reason away. While Malet rightly includes none of this elaboration for his 1955 French audience, I’ve decided that this short expansion is appropriate for an anglophone audience in 2017. Malet here is also playing with the sense of the word echaudé , which evokes the sensation you have, figuratively or literally, at the approach of something that’s already burned you.

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