‘Je roulais […]. Je stoppai.’Malet, Les Eaux troubles de Javel Urban Modernity and the Automotive Saccadism
Léo Malet's oeuvre stands at multiple generic, temporal and spatial crossroads. Eschewing the formulaic stasis of detective fiction in favour of surrealist surprise mixed with hard-boiled cynicism, Malet always drew outside the lines. The hybridity of his fiction was already visible in 120, rue de la Gare (1943), which criss-crossed the Occupied Zone of Second World War France with American noir tropes and proto- Oulipian linguistic play and punning (Goulet 2015; Gorrara 2001). And while his arrondissement-bound Nouveaux mystères de Paris of the 1950s might seem to narrow his scope to the French capital's city-space, its very title alludes to a tradition that refused to stay within national limits: as recent critical work has explored, Eugène Sue's 1842 Mystères de Paris was ‘always already’ transnational (Kalifa and Thérenty 2015). In addition to this transnational mobility, Malet's unfinished Nouveaux mystères are also generically mobile; indeed, they represent the intersection of multiple generic referents that include not only the global urban mystery, but also Poe's Dupin stories and the American wartime noir – each with its own unstable formal conventions. Any generic instability, moreover, maps onto a fictional space in Malet that grapples in surprisingly literal ways with the central tension between mobility and constraint.
It is hard, in fact, to think of a writer whose prose rhythm is more stop-and-go than Malet’s. In his Nouveaux mystères de Paris, a scene of stillness (quiet as a corpse) will suddenly burst into a volley of frenetic violence: shots and motion appear out of nowhere; the narrative pace quickens to the sound of rat-a-tat gunfire or screeching tyres; and the chaotic momentum builds until it hits the abrupt wall of a ‘k.o.’, or knockout, for detective Nestor Burma. When a pistol butt or slab of concrete invariably hits Burma's head, the frenetic paragraph ends and the reader is given a breather, indicated by a break in the text and corresponding to Burma's temporary loss of consciousness. Then it starts all over again…
Inertia and mobility, spatial stasis and explosive entropy: these are the poles that determine the saccadic, alternating rhythms of Malet’s unfinished series of arrondissement mysteries.