“My name’s Nestor Burma. I used to be a private detective. Before the war I used to run the Fiat Lux Agency.” We are already 8 pages into the comic before our hero enlightens those of us that do not know, exactly who he is. Leo Malet’s character, the subject of 33 novels, is his most well known and best loved character, a household name in France, but little-known by English speakers.
The story unfolds in a German prisoner of war camp, Stalag XB, full of French soldiers after their capitulation to the Nazis in 1940. A mysterious prisoner arrives, unable to remember who he is or anything else for that matter. Needless to say, the mystery is finally explained in the denouement at the end of the book, and the complicated twists and turns are all satisfyingly put together.
Nestor Burma lives in a time that many Frenchmen consider Frances darkest and most shameful hour, when moral compromise was the norm, even for Hergé, for example, working for the collabative Nazi newspaper ‘Le Soire’. Burma, however does not compromise himself, keeping a disdainful distance from the Germans, and in fact, just about everyone. Usually wearing a frown, the best he can manage by way of a smile is a self-satisfied smirk or a wry grimace.
Tardi is a master when it comes to drawing believable faces and expressions. His characters are so real and lifelike, with the years of pain and disappointment etched into their faces, or indulgence, like the flabby face of the attorney, and sometimes, when Tardi is feeling kind, innocence and naivety.
He also draws the streets of Lyon and Paris, the huts of the stalag and the interiors of the rooms Burma visits, with great skill and meticulous research. The office of the policeman Bernier is one beautiful example of this, with typewriter, lamp, fireguard, filing cabinets and telephone, the two men framed by these details.
The book is black and white, with tones of grey, and Tardi’s excellent handling of light and shadow creates strong moods and atmospheres, such as the snowflakes falling against a darkening sky as they visit a country house, and the deserted snow-filled streets of Paris after the curfew, as they are caught in the middle of an allied air-raid.
The English translations of the graphic novels are quite hard to come by, although ‘The Bloody Streets of Paris’ is available on Amazon. It is 190 pages long, so a quite substantial book, beautifully drawn and well researched, which is the reason I keep on re-reading my copy.