Academic journal article Romance Notes

Smoking Guns and Lingering Pipes: Tobacco Imagery in the Novels of Leo Malet

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Smoking Guns and Lingering Pipes: Tobacco Imagery in the Novels of Leo Malet

Article excerpt

THOUGH he was not the first French writer to use the noir style, Leo Malet, who died in 1996 just before his 87th birthday, has been called by many the "father" of the French roman noir, or hardboiled novel. With the 1943 publication of 120, rue de la gare, he became the first French noir writer to sign his own name and set his story in France, rather than use a pseudonym and an anglophone locale. After nine successful mysteries with characters like Johnny Metal, a New York journalist, Malet chose to set his mysteries in Paris, where he saw a goldmine of untapped noir possibilities. In 1954, Malet began a new series, Les nouveaux mysteres de Paris, featuring Nestor Burma, the "detective de choc," who first appeared in 120. The series title, an hommage to Les mysteres de Paris of Eugene Sue, was the idea of Malet's editor, Robert Laffont. Each mystery of the 15-novel collection features a different Parisian arrondissement as its focal point. After fifteen mysteries, Malet abandoned the series, leaving five of the twenty arrondissements without treatment. His novels paint a picture of the prevalent culture in both occupied France and post-war 1950s Paris, revealing multiple literary and cultural influences. As he revolutionizes the French detective genre, Malet forges a link between popular culture and concurrent genres in twentieth-century French literature. The focus of this article will be Malet's use of tobacco imagery.

More than just a prop to occupy time between dialogues and clues, providing both character definition and plot development while alluding to Malet's literary heroes and influences, (1) tobacco's first function for Malet is to identify each character. Nestor Burma is a pipe smoker, putting him in the company of great literary detectives including Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, and Jules Maigret, among others. But his pipe smoking in an age where mass-produced cigarettes, "the common denominator of all ranks" (Kiernan 42), have become available to anyone anytime, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes seems like what Derrida called "pure and luxurious consumption" (107) in an increasingly fast-paced society, (2) makes the detective particularly distinctive where it might be to his advantage to blend into the shadows as a silent, and odorless, observer. Smoking his pipe gives Burma something to do when he is on surveillance, and soothes his head after being knocked out, which happens at least once in every novel, whether from a coup de crane or from losing a fight on a flight of stairs. In Boulevard ... Ossements, after using his pipe cleaner to break into a dead man's apartment in order to look around, he lights his pipe without thinking twice. Yet the pipe also provides a reminder of his presence at the crime scenes where he really should not be to begin with. The particular odor of his pipe tobacco lingers, and the distinctive bull-head shape of Burma's pipe is rarely forgotten by potential witnesses. In another novel, Les rats de Montsouris, he congratulates himself for behaving and controlling his urge to light up, but such triumphs are rare in the series. In addition to the easily identifiable odor of Burma's pipe, the bull-head shape is even more memorable. The stubborn and macho image of the bull is significant in describing Burma's general demeanor: an independent operator who subverts the justice system until he can use it to his own advantage. In Micmac moche au Boul' Mich', in an effort to get information from a young window washer about a man he is looking for, the detective tells the boy that he is a journalist, his favorite disguise. Unfortunately for Burma, this disguise does not include a cigarette or a regular shaped pipe. When the police later question the young man, he remembers Burma's pipe, leading the police directly to our detective, who they have seen on many occasions. The commissioner, Florimond Faroux, tells Burma, "De temps en temps, vous devriez vous arreter de fumer" (2: 240). …

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