Sunday, July 31, 2011

July in Paris - detection on film

Quai des Orfevres directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot is a real treat. Ambitious singer Jenny Lamour is not above being courted by a lecherous old sleaze if it will further her career. Her weak husband is consumed with jealousy and pursues them to a rendezvous, intent on killing the old man - only to find him already dead. Detective Antoine investigates the dance halls of 1940s Paris to track down the killer.

The story was ostensibly based on that by Belgian crime writer Steeman, but when the time came to write the script Clouzot couldn't get his hands on a copy of the book so he wrote what he could remember, which wasn't much. The film has a snappy script and wonderful pacing. It fairly zips along. It's also a little racy! Here's lots of lingerie on show and a strong lesbian character played by the beautiful and feminine Simone Renant. The film is a policier, a story of an investigation. And like much of the French detective literature I've read, it's less a who dunnit than an exploration of character. In the spirit of Simenon, Clouzot shows real compassion towards his flawed characters. They are weak, naive and conniving but are treated sympathy and humanity. Which is a little surprising as apparently the director was a real bully on set.

The film offers a fascinating glimpse of Paris dance halls - burlesque stars, singers, performing dogs - with weary coat check girls and harassed managers. The director describes the investigation as documentary - in which cases it provides a wonderful insight into police methods of the time. You can just imagine Maigret in such a setting. There are cynical crime reporters, tired homicide police, resigned prostitutes and defiant crooks. Fascinating.

The movie also features some of the best 1940s hairstyles ever!

The Man on the Eiffel Tower, however, is simply turgid. It had a troubled production and the lack of sure direction shows. It was also filmed using ANSCO Reversal film, a technique to rival Technicolor. Sadly, the film stock has deteriorated to a murky brown. Yucky. Laughton is a dreadful Maigret. Dismal. It's almost a cliche to say so, but if only Hitchcock had got his hands on it! There were some nice hats in it though.

I followed this with more Maigret - this time with Michael Gambon in the title role. I didn't mind this, though i've not seen many other Maigret's to compare - many of the others aren't available with English subtitles). He's certainly compassionate and I liked his relationship with his team. Madame Maigret, played by Barbara Flynn, really comes to life. The series was shot in Hungary, which is an adequate stand in for Paris, and is set post war but pre New Look (maybe 1948 before Dior's new fashion became widespread). I do suspect it's not period perfect. I'm halfway through the 12 part series and it's like a gentle Foyle's War.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Paris in July - Murder in Memoriam

Having a bit of trouble with my French book supply so we're skipping forward a few decades to a work written in 1984.

Didier Daenincxx's Murder in Memoriam caused a furore when it came out. It covers two pretty hot topics - covered up police brutality against Algerian French at a 1961 Paris demonstration, in which hundreds of unarmed protestors were killed, and collaboration during WW2. It was this historical angle that attracted me to the book. Sadly, despite some truly shocking historic incidents, Daenincxx does nothing with his subject matter. Two dark moments in French history and their shameful cover ups are outlined but not fully explored. They just kind of sit there as two isolated lumps in a very thin story. There's no characterization, no atmosphere - and coming from a diet of Simenon this really shows. There's not much of a mystery either but I've come to expect that from French detective stories and I don't mind that so much, I can tolerate the ginormous holes in his plotting. It's a pretty slim novella with very plain, perfunctionary writing. I was most disappointed.

This book won the French Prix du Roman Policier, largely I suspect for Daennicxx's courage in broaching a taboo subject. The book is credited with being a catalyst for forcing the French to re-examine its past by trying Nazi collaborators and making President Mitterrand declare 16 July a day of national reflection on fascism and racism. Pretty big claims.

As an agent for change, the book was clearly successful - though to an outsider it appears to be a timid attempt at a cry of outrage, this perhaps reflects how difficult it was to even raise these matters. As a work of literature however, it falls short. Shame, because there's a powerful story here that needs telling.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

DVD haul

There's a seedy looking dvd store in the city, down near the high end camera stores on Elizabeth Street. Once inside, avert your gaze from the sizable x rated section and you come across b grade movie nirvana! Looking for Jimmy Stewart's worst film? Of course you are! I couldn't resist Pot o Gold with Jimmy and Paulette Goddard. Described by publicists as the 'the swingiest, singiest, danciest, romanciest movie of the year'! Who could resist that? If you're a Victor Mature fan, why, they've got the lot (guaranteed shirtless scene in every one). And if I ever get into Westerns or Biblical epics, I've hit the motherlode.

How about 1930s serial Tailspin Tommy?

Or 1942 Captain Midnight?

Yes, I find this stuff irresistible. There is also good stuff hidden amongst this. I'm eying off Samuel Fuller's Hell and High Water, Lana Turner's Keep Your Powder Dry (ok, maybe calling that good is a bit of a stretch, but it's a tribute to women's war work and there's not much of that) and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die (screenplay by Bertolt Brecht). Plus we found a copy of the long awaited Apocalypse Now full disclosure blu ray.

We also stopped into JB and picked up Detective Dee - based on an 18th century Chinese detective series - loved the books and the movie features Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau so how bad can it be? And the Red Baron - daring do in the skies!

Lots of movie fun!

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Le Tour

Yay Cadel! And hooray it's over because my nerves and stamina weren't going to see me much further. I pretty much got dropped on the first stage and the last week's been too nervous making. We had a friend over last night and there was a lot of shouting at the tv. Good thing our neighbour's a road cyclist too. One more late night and then we can get some much needed rest.

It was also my chap's birthday this weekend and we've been very very busy. Lots and lots of treats! So I didn't get time for reading or DVDs. I'm having some time management issues! This month I was all set to catch up on some minor authors from the Golden Age of detective fiction. I had an enormous stack of books ready. I was also going to take part in a war book /movie readalong (Hiroshima Mon Amour) I think i'm having French New Wave fear so I've been putting off reading and watching it. I'm sure there will be long silences in the movie and it will be very sad and I won't understand it. Then I decided to take part in Paris in July. And now everything's getting a bit out of control.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

July in Paris - Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux's Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) is considered one of the best locked room, impossible mysteries ever written. You know the story - a crime takes place in a locked room, in which it is appears certain that not a single soul has entered or left.

I've read the Yellow Room before and not enjoyed it but thought, in the spirit of my investigations into French detective fiction, that it deserved another go. Readers, I hated it. I must say that I'm not a fan of the genre. Locked room mysteries, by their very nature, require outlandish solutions, such that any criminal would be a nincompoop to attempt.

People are still not entirely convinced about the honesty of policeman so our detective is a journalist, Rouletabille. His approach is that of Holmesian deduction - reason above all! He also shares Holmes irritating trait of intellectual superiority and snobbery. And he withholds clues! Not playing the game at all! I'm also particularly unimpressed by the character of the noble, sensitive female who clearly knows who did it but refuses to speak (she crops up quite frequently in detective fiction of this era). Ladies, there is no reason for this! Speak up and we can all go home.

What this work does do is further the development of the detective novel. It combines the creepy otherworldliness of the gothic thriller with the clear logic of Sherlock Holmes. It also makes use of a journalistic style to continually challenge the reader - there is a rational explanation to this seemingly supernatural crime. This introduction of a journalistic style appears a number of times around detective fiction of the era and has a number of effects. It adds a level of veracity - for all that the style seems sensationalist. to the modern reader. It also adds pace and urgency to the story. You feel as though you are getting updates hot off the press. The challenge to the reader is a new feature - sure, some clues are withheld, but it's the seeds of the puzzle mystery, where the reader is invited to be the detective.

I've also been disappointed by my second Garboriau mystery, The Blackmailers (1907). It starts off as a locked room mystery but quickly becomes a tale of...well, it becomes a bit of a mess really. What I applauded earlier in Monsieur Lecoq as swift energy in the narrative here comes a cross as ill conceived and hasty. I feel that not a lot of care has been taken, I'd readily believe that this was scribbled on the back of an envelope! I confess, I didn't finish it. I simply didn't care about the story or the characters and the mystery wasn't really very mysterious. There is strong evidence again of the influence of earlier French fiction of the turn of the century - family scandals, illegitimate children, blackmail and people fleeing the country wrongly accused of crimes - the whole melodrama. There's a more marked enthusiasm for disguises - which is somewhat endearing but really, the detecting side of things is quite ludicrous. And the writing is just plain bad. Quite a disappointment. It was, however, a popular book in its time. Again we see the influence of Vidocq - readers are interested in the outlandish thrill of the trace, exciting disguises and all the crafty ruses of the cunning detective.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Paris in July - Claude Aveline

I'd like to tell you about Claude Aveline but there's not much about him in English. Wikipedia offers this - Claude Aveline, pen name of Evgen Avtsine (19 July 1901 – 4 November 1992), was a writer, publisher, editor, poet and member of the French Resistance. He was friends with director Jean Vigo. One of his works inspired Camus to write The Outsider. He wrote his first mystery novel in 1932, The Double Death of Frederic Belot. I don't seem to be able to find any more and it's been a little hard to get my hands on library copies in English. I'm not sure if what I've read is typical.

I've just finished The Fountain at Marlieux (which I think was written in 1954). The mystery is small and the detective, Inspector Belot, appears only briefly. Yet for all that I liked it. Like many French mysteries, the focus is on character and place. A celebrated Colonel, forced into retirement, returns to the village of his childhood. An old friend is distressed that his daughter has retired to a convent. The question is why? Despite the time of it's writing, the story seems set in a much older age. The setting is lovingly evoked and you'll be transported to a country village. The detecting, such that there is, is based on intuition rather than evidence. People talk and the truth comes out. It is an overwhelmingly sad story. Much of it is about the passing of time - the slipping away of childhood, the fall from grace of a hero, the loss of parents and probably, in a way, the passing of the French Empire with the uprisings in Algiers. There seems to be a far greater influence from literary fiction than English novels of the same period. A sorrowful psychological study.

I'd very much like to read further works by Aveline so will have to see what I can track down.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A visit

Mum came up from the country for a few days and I took some time off work to escort her around Melbourne. She was doing some talks at libraries about her book Macrobertsonland - on Melbourne chocolate magnate Macpherson Robertson.

We went to Glenroy (eeek!) and we went to some other place that took about an hour to get to. I can't even remember what library it was now. It was a long way out anyway.

I forwent the opportunity to hear the talk yet again at the City library (where they served champagne! What public library can afford champagne?? Jealous!) we spent alooooooot of time on public transport. During the middle of school holidays...

A visit from my mum is really just one long afternoon tea. We require frequent fortification. I don't think I'll need to eat anything sweet for the rest of the month. We also did a fair amount of shopping and I got spoilt rotten! Highlights were several trips to Journal in Flinders Lane (excellent source of tea for the weary traveller), some absolute bargains at the closing sale of Readers' Feast bookstore (actually, that's quite sad - but I did very well out of it) and my first visit to the absolutely gorgeous Kim at vintage haberdashery store Lucello, in the beautiful and crafty Nicholas Building. It was love at first sight. Millinery flowers, embroidery thread, ribbons and trims... Sigh... all so pretty and inspiring. I picked up some truly gorgeous vintage buttons and will soon be popping back for some repro feedsack. And the 40s dead stock rouge. And the little Eiffel tower needlework scissors.

Oh and the other treat was at the Provincial Hotel. Mum conducted a walking tour through Fitzroy (I admit, I skipped that bit) and then finished it off at the Provincial - where I arrived just in time for tea and dessert. The chef read the book, was inspired by MacRobertson's chocolate creations and did his own interpretations. We had a chocolate trio - pistachio caramel with bits of chocolate 'sand' on top (I don't know what it was but it was yum), a syrupy liquor sploshed version of the classic Cherry Ripe, and a blob of chocolate that, when prodded with a spoon, oozed with grapefruit ice-cream. Yum. Yum. Yum.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

July in Paris - Monsiuer Lecoq

The first stirrings of detective fiction were undoubtably influenced by the colourful (and slightly fictionalised) memoirs of Eugene Vidocq (and I quote freely from Wikipedia!) a former crook who subsequently became the founder and first director of the crime-fighting Surete Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. His memoirs were extremely popular and spawned a rush of pulp criminal memoirs, setting the stage for much of the interest in detective fiction that was to follow.

I've borrowed the memoirs from the library before but not found time to read them. I have the work on request so hopefully we'll get around to them in time for our July readings. Suffice to say that the image of the detective in France of the 19th century was that of a rogue, an underhand spy or informer well versed in the way of the criminal classes. Though it became unlawful to recruit former criminals to the police force in 1833, the prevailing notion was that you needed to set a thief to catch a thief.

It's in this context that Emile Garboriau wrote his popular Monsieur Lecoq mysteries. We first meet Monsieur Lecoq as a minor character in L'affaire by Emile Gaboriau (1866). He too is a former criminal turned detective. In subsequent works his past is tidied up - it is suggested that he merely planned elaborate crimes, but did not enact them. The Orcival Crime, File 113 and Slaves of Paris followed. Then in 1869 we get Monsieur Lecocq, telling the story of his first case. What 's work gives us is the first police procedural. The process is haphazard, opportunities are lost but on the whole it is recognisable - and this is quite exciting.

The police force was just coming into it's own. Cities were growing, the criminal underworld expanding. Into this maelstrom steps the new detective, master of reason, science and evidence. The detective is to become associated with ideas of progress and modernization, of bringing illumination to a dark underworld. He will be honest and trustworthy. You can see the cross over in Monsieur Lecoq. There is the now virtuous Ledocq, but also the petty, jealous and backstabbing Inspector Gevrol.

Garboriau declared that he wanted to bring close scrutiny to his works - and he does. We follow footprints, find caught threads and minutely observe the facial expressions of the accused. (And yes, Conan Doyle acknowledged the influence!) We also get a cracker of a street chase, down Parisian lane ways, shadowed doorways, brawling bars with dirt floors, by carriage and by foot. There is a tremendous amount of energy to the narrative and I must say Garboriau throws his detective some awful runs of mischance, bad luck and plain mistakes. The energy is infectious and I found it hard to put the book down to go to work (NOT why I was late this morning!)

A word of warning - this is a two parter. You get a solution to the mystery but not a resolution. I'll certainly be tracking down the other Lecoq works to continue the adventure.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Care package

A surprise at work! A care package for me!

Jumper knitted by my mum from a 1940s wartime pattern. Crazy lady hair courtesy of the wind and rain on my way home. Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, July 4, 2011

July in Paris - Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief

'If you were a French newspaper-reader of pre-1914 Paris, you took your Lupin between sips of Pernod at cafe-tables on the boulevardes: you allowed him to entice your idle eye away from neighboring columns about Bleriot's channel-crossing or the assassination of Archduke Charles' (British critic William Vivian Butler)

I would have liked to have followed the development of the French crime novel in chronological order but when you're at the mercy of public libraries you'll have to read what you can get. Here we'll step back from Simenon's policier novels to look at turn of the century French crime writing.

Maurice Leblanc began his writing career with realistic works influenced by Maupassant and Flaubert. In 1905 he was commissioned by the publisher of Je Sais Tout journal to write a story in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle's brother in law Hornung (author of the Raffles series). Leblanc created Arsene Lupin, gentleman-thief.

Well groomed and debonaire, Lupin steals from the rich and gives (a little) to the poor. He is the master of disguise (this in the era before fingerprints). He delights in a challenge and is always ready to show off. He is, above all, a charmer. There is a definite element of humor in his escapades. The stories are treated in a way as an elaborate joke - with Lupin chuckling as he escapes with the booty.

It's speculated that Leblanc was influenced by real thief Marius Jacob (an anarchist who vowed never to kill and only steal from the rich - yet there were other gentleman thief characters around, which seems a more likely factor. You can also see the influence of fictional rogue Rocambole. Leblanc himself pointed to the works of Edgar Allen Poe as a major influence and you can see this in the fantastic nature of the crimes (Poe has a significant role in the history of French crime novels and deserves a blog post of his very own) - but it would be hard to see how else.

The Penguin edition, Arsene Lupin, gentleman-thief, translated by Michael Sims, is something of a 'best of'. As much of Leblanc's work was serialized, this book is made up of short stories and covers tales from the early to late period. It also includes an encounter with Sherlock Holmes. Leblanc included Holmes in several stories - though after an exchange with Conan Doyle's lawyers, he appears as Herlock Sholmes. In my opinion these stories are best forgotten. The remaining stories are very engaging - Lupin is a delightful character.

The Penguin edition is prefaced by an excellent essay - in which I learn that, such was Lupin's fame, Agatha Christie briefly toyed with the idea of creating Hercule Poirot in his image (and what a loss that would have been!) Like Maigret, Lupin was the subject of many films. He has inspired a Japanese manga and anime series (the best of which, The castle of Cagliostro, was directed by one of my favorite anime directors, Hayao Miyazaki). Only this year, Guerlain released a fragrance in Lupin's honor! And of course, it goes without saying that the Lupin tales led to the creation of The Saint.

They're not really mysteries as we know them. Lupin specialises in the impossible and there's many a 'locked room' theft. It all requires a huge suspension of disbelief but it's such awfully good fun. You'll be shaking your head wondering how he'll pull things off. In the later stories he takes on more of a detective role. Whatever the situation, he's a real charmer.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

July in Paris: Georges Simenon and Maigret

If Agatha Christie is the Queen of Crime, Simenon is surely the King. His Inspector Maigret (and his pipe) is one of the most famous detectives in literature. Simenon wrote hundreds of books (often three or four a year), from which over fifty films and television series have been made.

Simenon wrote his first Maigret 'official' novel in 1931 (there were a many anonymous works but he considered them outside the main sequence). His early commercial work was proof read by Collette, who did much to create his style. She urged him to cut adjectives in favor of a sparse, lean prose. Not a word is wasted. ('I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words.') Simenon famously wrote his novels in about ten intense days, leaving him physically exhausted. He'd start with a theme, chose a location and then his characters, all before devising a story.

Simenon's focus is human nature. His characters, however fleetingly glimpsed, live and breathe. He looks at them straight on, in all their squalidness, but with pity. As important as his characters is atmosphere of place. Place is so important to Simenon that you can get maps and tours of the locations of his novels. Though born in Belgium, France - and particularly Paris - was his true home.

I've never been a huge fan of his work. I go in expecting a classic mystery and get something else. It's perhaps inevitable that I would compare his work to that of the British authors of the Golden Age. There is no similarity at all! The Golden Age was typified by the problem puzzle. In Simenon's work, mystery isn't the focus. You're not presented with clues and invited to solve whodunit. British mysteries of the same period are genteel affairs, in an upper or middle class milieu. Simenon takes you straight to the gutter. His characters are long time criminals, gangs and prostitutes.

His themes are bigger too - escape, honest communication between individuals ('The fact that we are I don't know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world.'), the 'essential humanity of even the most isolated individual' and the sadness of being human. Not quite Ngaio Marsh!

To kick off Paris in July I'll be starting with two works, Maigret at the crossroads and Maigret and the enigmatic Lett. So far, it's a real treat. It's perhaps a cliche to talk about atmosphere with Simenon but this is fabulous stuff. He does so much with so little. The crime aspect is slightly over the top but I don't mind. We're not here for a mystery. We're here to dive into the criminal world of France. I'm just learning about Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle. With his trademark pipe, he is not a brilliant detective, but patient, methodical and unrelenting- and not adverse to punching an opponent. He does seem to drink a lot, but is not a drunk. As his character develops through the series he apparently becomes more psychological in his approach - he relies on his knowledge of the human character to solve the crime. He appears to be a weary, solid figure - aware of the sadness of the world and compassionate and unjudgemental of the criminals he encounters.

Loving them so far - and best of all - there are about 70 more to go!

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Friday, July 1, 2011

One more sleep

Until le tour!

I want a yellow suit!
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