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Mystery of the Blue Train

by on 30 April 2021

Le Mot Unjuste

Chantecoq and the Mystery of the Blue Train

by Arthur Bernède, translated by Andrew K.  Lawston

Review by Matthew Grierson

For a great sleuth, a detail speaks volumes.  In the world of Parisian detective M.  Chantecoq, however, volumes are spoken about every last detail. 

No part of The Mystery of the Blue Train arrives without being extensively prefaced, described, attested in dialogue and recapitulated, as though the various hands behind it – the detective himself, his fictional amanuensis, author Arthur Bernède and translator Andrew Lawston – each want to make sure they’ve had a say on the matter.  Rather than being snappy or smart, the dialogue has the laboured quality of bad radio play, with characters patiently explaining to one another things they patently already know.  When they’re avoiding that pitfall, they can’t resist elaborate periphrasis: as the detective instructs his factotum to remove a disguise, for instance, he tells him to “reclaim your normal physiognomy” rather than “take off your mask”. 

You may not have heard of Chantecoq before, the concoction of prolific French writer Bernède in the 1920s.  For those who are interested I won’t précis the fictional sleuth’s career here because his résumé is given out as frequently as a calling card in the course of this mystery.  The real mystery is why we need a translation: there’s no shortage of golden-age crime already, and this one is a long way from the crispness of a Christie or wit of a Wallace

It’s difficult then to envisage what would interest a modern reader or listener in Chantecoq or his milieu, and the more detail accrues around him the less of a character he seems.  The detective repeatedly insists on his own brilliance – appropriate enough for a man whose name translates as “Crowing Cock” – and victims and villains seem happy to share this estimation.  But next to the deftly drawn archetypes of, say, a Holmes or a Poirot, he comes across as a self-inflated balloon.  The only sentiment of his I had any sympathy for was when he opined: “Each minute that we waste puts us further from our common goal.” If only Bernède had adopted this maxim.

Arthur Bernède

Not only does this make Chantecoq boring company for a listener, it eliminates any sense of suspense because we are never left in any doubt that he will solve the case.  And while he is not infallible – disguising himself as a gendarme, he is himself arrested – there is no actual jeopardy, because rather than advance the plot an entire chapter is spent explaining that the police are at fault for doing their job properly, while the fêted detective is let off without so much as a stain on his reputation.  Despite this, Chantecoq is repeatedly, numbingly called the “King of Detectives” and “the Great Bloodhound”. 

Similarly, the supporting characters are without exception exceptional, the very best or very worst of people, with the writing at pains to avoid any nuance.  So it’s abundantly clear who the goodies and baddies are as soon as they are introduced, and Bernède–Lawston hammers home this essentialism in lines such as: “They obviously have crime in their skin, they sweat it from every pore.” This makes the volte-face that is crucial to the plot all the more implausible as the character in question deigns to explain it in the final ten minutes.  “Why all the complications? Why all the crime? Which seems pointless,” another observes.  Quite.

Lawston’s translation is faithful to the point of being dogged, carrying the protracted French of the original into English, when with a critical eye and judicious cutting this might have made a passable potboiler.  But not only do we have the detective exclaim a clichéd “Eureka!” at one point, we are then treated to the phrase’s translation and derivation.  What makes it still worse that the epiphany is one that even a half-attentive listener will have arrived at two chapters previously.

Elsewhere, the detective’s gaze is described “deep, penetrating, sharp, searching” and the piling up of adjectives squanders the incisiveness that one of them used individually would bring.  I lost count of the sentences that began “After having …”, that particular construction in French that makes one feel one is forever late in getting the point.  Occasionally a modern idiom, such as “vibes” or “crashed a party” surprises, but largely the prose lumbers along until tripped by an infelicity such as: “In two words: here’s the thing!” And if characters had been “literally thunderstruck” or “literally petrified”, how much more interesting the novel could have been.

In the mouth of an experienced reader – someone who could have given us an audible wink, say – The Blue Train might have been more endurable.  The translator does his text no favours, though, and his reading is at odds with the heightened quality of the prose.  He speeds along as if to hurry through the interminable adjectives and refrains, leaving no beat after a line of dialogue that would let us mentally switch speakers or savour a dramatic moment, even at the end of a scene. 

At least he reads enthusiastically.  The project has clearly been a labour of love for Lawston, and as such I am loath to be any more critical of it.  However, it’s the labour rather than the love that was far more apparent to this listener.

Matthew Grierson, April 2021

Chantecoq and the Mystery of the Blue Train is available on Audible as part of the Chantecoq series

Images by Alphonse Brenet and Françoise Betouret

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