The Sleeping Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot (Gallic)

IN translation we get a cottage garden style of English not the sprawling, homogenizing white sauce of the ruined mansions of quasi English language. The cathedral once constructed by Dickens is reduced to a semi in suburbia, a bungalow on a beach, a portakabin.

And yet translation has the one advantage: it is foreign; to us English speakers, English readers. We are travellers. We explore.  Part of the charm of this French crimo is just simply the being in France, the glass of beer in a café, the waiter who wants paying so he can go home, the fading film star eyeing up the young policeman, the ugly man with a conscience, the girl anxious to monogram her own clothes like she is at boarding school, the young detective who believes everyone is guilty. Small Gallic traits, definably French or rather NOT English NOT British NOT even politically correct. Abroad. It feels like writing without boundaries but local rules do apply: there is a story to tell, an entertainment, there is a certain back to basics. This story is told by someone, by a witness, by a policeman, a suspect, a guilty conscience, a record of an overheard conversation on the stairs of a hotel. We slip into the consciousness of the time, not just Paris, but France pre 1962, when this was first published, and in fact set a little earlier yet in an era where policemen could not afford their own phones.

The Saturday night event is a boxing bill, sometimes the women too move like boxers…A woman is strangled on the night train…enter the cast of the local precinct…

The world freezes for a moment in search of justice and truth.  In the pantheon of euro-detectives Japrisot is closer to Simenon, this is Maigret without the vindictive ego, in this case a loose canon…this was a first crime novel, apparently written to pay off a tax bill. In fact his first book, published under his real name Jean-Baptiste Rossi – an anagram for his later pseudonym – The Awakening about a 14 old boy at a Jesuit school who has a passionate affair with a 26 year old nun – sold nearly a million copies in America. He translated among other things Hopalong Cassidy westerns and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye into French, then moved into advertising and film (where his credits also include The Story of O, although he said he preferred to write his novels to make his own films). This new edition may go some way way to resurrecting an interesting reputation.

He is a rare beast having won across 50 years of writing a Golden Dagger for crime writing, a Prix d’Honneur, the prix des Deux Magots and four Cesars for a film version, the French equivalent of the Oscars. I plan to read him some more….

Here is the poster for the movie starring two other French stalwarts Simone Signoret and Yves Montand…

About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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