Sunday 13 October 2019

Chantecoq - King of Detectives, Master of Disguise

Arthur Bernède (1871 - 1937)
The long wait is over, and the King of Detectives series is here. Belphegor: Chantecoq and the Phantom of the Louvre led the charge in September, and now my first translation in the series - Chantecoq and the Mystery of the Blue Train is available on Kindle for just £0.99 / $0.99.

I first translated the detective's original adventure, Chantecoq and the Aubry Affair, back in 2014, and this current run of books was mostly translated over the last twelve months. At sixty thousand words a pop... well, I've worked out I've translated well over half a million words of Chantecoq adventures to date, and there's still four books I've not even looked at.

Blue Train, as I'll call it for the rest of this post, marks a landmark in Chantecoq's career in several respects. It was published in 1929 as the first of the Further Exploits of Chantecoq series. Introduced by a short preface where the detective himself turns up at Arthur Bernède's house to complain that the author has forgotten about him, Chantecoq has moved on, even from the events of 1927's Belphegor. His daughter, now married to reporter Jacques Bellegarde, comes over to visit, but her supportive role has been taken over by Météor, a young man who idolises the king of detectives, and who will develop over the course of eight books with a care and attention to detail which is rarely afforded to supporting characters in pulp fiction.

But although Blue Train heralds a new chapter in Chantecoq's life, it surely can't be coincidence that it appeared barely a year after Agatha Christie published the Poirot novel Mystery of the Blue Train in 1928. The similarities end there, however. While much of Christie's book unfolds on the "Train Bleu" itself, Chantecoq's adventure takes place almost entirely in Paris, as he investigates a murder committed in Marseille several months earlier.

A prolific novelist and screenwriter, and a shrewd operator, it's fair to say that Bernède certainly wouldn't have been above riding Christie's coat-tails with a familiar title for the first novel in his new series. But he had the confidence to avoid echoing any more of Poirot's adventure as he instead establishes the template for the next eight novels. This is more of an adventure story than a true mystery, and while Chantecoq's "little grey cells" are easily a match for those of his famous Belgian counterpart, Bernède makes sure that the reader is always half a step ahead of the great bloodhound. Chantecoq's ability to solve a mystery is never in doubt. What Bernède seeks to show us is a detective who is completely confident in his abilities, to the extent that he intends to have some fun while exposing a murderer and clearing an innocent's name.

The "Further Exploits of Chantecoq" have never been translated into English before, and they're hard to get hold of in French. It's my serious hope that through these translations, Chantecoq will soon win back his rightful place in the pantheon of literary detectives.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Chantecoq Rides Again!

Yes, I now own a 1916 newspaper supplement.
Developments! At last!

Long-time readers may recall that I once translated and self-published two early 20th Century French pulp novels by the prolific Arthur Bernède, under the titles Chantecoq & The Aubry Affair, and Chantecoq & The Père-Lachaise Ghost.

Chantecoq is a half-forgotten hero of French pulp fiction, but he had many popular adventures spanning two decades, from the eve of the First World War right through to the early 1930s. He started life as a secret agent, before becoming known as a private investigator. Though amusingly he's always described as a detective even in his wartime adventures, as the French didn't like to admit that their nation would ever resort to espionage. Even though it's a French word.

The books represent a halfway house between 19th Century sensibilities, and 20th Century pulp adventure. Telephones, electric buzzers, aeroplanes, and cars are all portrayed as the trappings of a cutting-edge techno-thriller. And I suppose they were. In the earliest books, all the characters are incredibly, melodramatically, nationalistic, but with the innocence that comes of having been written before two world wars: Franco-Prussian rivalry seems barely as serious as the Britpop feud between Blur and Oasis.

As the years roll on, Chantecoq's skills as a master of disguise are boosted by a taste for gadgets and his the growing capabilities of his irrepressible assistant, Météor. Oddly, the strong female characters of the wartime books become increasingly downgraded to cookie cutter femme fatales and trophy wives in the 1920s, but at the same time the rampant nationalism is toned down. A bit.

Now, I've spent the last eight months not just neglecting this blog, but translating seven more Chantecoq novels. Yes, seven. And also liaising with a fellow translator and author who has translated the most famous Chantecoq story of all: Belphégor.

In the next couple of months, all eight of these books will be self-published and coming to a Kindle near you. Seven haven't been reprinted since 1929. Six have never before been translated into English.

Get ready. Chantecoq is coming.