Romain Slocombe is very at home in Occupied France. Often pictured in a Bogartian fedora, trademark scarf round his neck, he could well be slipping down Avenue Kléber, keeping a wary eye out for the German High Command at the Majestic Hotel, blackmarket supplies tucked discreetly into his overcoat. His knowledge of the period is extensive and the detail is used to great effect in his books. When writing “Monsieur le Commandant”, his only work so far to appear in English, he says he read only books available in that time period.
He trained as an artist and began his career as an illustrator working on comics and counter-culture magazines such as Métal hurlant. He went on to write graphic novels, children’s books, YA and noir often with a Japanese theme. “Monsieur le Commandant” appeared in France in 2011, was nominated for the Goncourt, and received the Nice Baie des Anges prize. It came out in English translation by Jesse Browner in 2013 with Gallic Books (https://belgraviabooks.com/product/monsieur-le-commandant?i=gb), well received – despite the fact, as the Spectator says “There can be few characters in modern fiction more unpleasant than Paul-Jean Husson, the narrator in Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant” (https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/monsieur-le-commandant-by-romain-slocombe—review).
None more unpleasant, that is, until Léon Sadorski. “L’affaire Léon Sadorski” was published September 2016, by Robert Laffont. A crime/historical novel, the first of a trilogy, it is set in Occupied Paris and features a collaborator policeman, Inspector Sadorski: assigned to the “3rd Section” of the Renseignements généraux, the French Special Branch, he is more than enthusiastic in his work carrying out the Nazi occupation force’s bidding in the matter of arrests and deportations of Jews. Running into a spot of bother between the Germans keen to root out double agents in the new high society, and the French Gestapo run by bent ex-coppers and freed gangsters, Sadorski also has to solve a murder and pursue his personal side project of grooming the Jewish schoolgirl downstairs for defloration. “Le pire des salauds, le meilleur des enquêteurs” – the worst of bastards, the best of detectives : you may find yourself rooting for Sadorski in some matter of natural justice or police procedure, but you are often then brought up short by some particularly unpleasant bit of anti-semitism, corruption or sexual exploitation. One of his other pastimes is adding incriminating details to the records of the Jews his office monitors – not that this should be overdone, of course… “One day, Special Inspector Delzangles wrote up an old Polish yid, illiterate and half-blind, as a ‘dangerous Communist and pro-Gaullist terrorist’ His niece filed a complaint, made a right fuss about it”
So why should this trilogy be translated? The Inspector Sadorski series draws on Slocombe’s meticulous research for his previous novel, but also adds the tension and grit of a police novel set in the darkest of times. For readers who have relished the Nazi setting of the sadly missed Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, or Luke McCallin’s Gregor Reinhardt, the attention to period detail is fascinating and provides a very solid sense of place and time. The scenes of Occupied Paris have an element of the alternative history about them, a sense of the surreal that must have hit the Parisians of the time – the swastika flying from the Arc de Triomphe, the German soldiers in the Metro, Hitler sight-seeing at the Eiffel Tower…However, this was all too real, and Slocombe does not hold back from the gritty realities of the times and the dirt and compromise that gusted round the streets of the Wehrmacht’s favourite holiday destination.
Many of the characters are real historical figures from the archives, and there is a pace and tension to the plotting which is never undermined by knowing “what happens in the end” – it is what happens during that matters, and very grippingly so.
An Italian translation came out in November 2019, and the English rights are available: this translator is actively pitching it! (This translator is Margaret Morrison, www.morrisontranslation.com, a returnee to translation having spent a pleasant interlude in confectionery. Translated a graphic novel on the Occupation last year, “Horizontal Collaboration” by Navie and Carole Maurel, out with Korero Press https://www.koreropress.com/horizontal-collaboration/ Keen fan of noir, sci-fi and cli-fi, graphic novels and other misunderstood genres.)
With two follow-ups already in print, and the Liberation approaching inexorably for Léon Sadorski, I think the time is right for “The Sadorski Case” to be opened for the English readership.
“The High Life”
A second guy erupts behind the policeman, and pats his pockets down quickly.
“I’m not armed.”
“So what do you call this?”
In his hand is the little Ruby pistol from the Jewess arrested at Denfert-Rochereau station. Sadorski hadn’t given it another thought.
“That pistol’s empty. I don’t use it for anything…”
The man confiscates the Spanish 7.65.
“Get in! And get a move on!”
Everything happens very quickly. Hardly any passers-by have even given them a second glance. The ones who have realised what’s going on are moving off at speed.
Sadorski is shoved unceremoniously onto the back seat. The guy who searched him sits down next to him, pushing the muzzle of an automatic into his ribs. The guy from the South sits next to the driver.
The Citroen 11 shoots off, turns left on Place Saint-Michel with a screech of tyres, narrowly missing a cyclist, thunders along the banks of the river going west. Sadorski, shaken by the rapid turn of events, protests:
“Hey! I’m one of you… Special Branch, 3rd Section, Deputy Principal Inspector. You’ve sodding taken me from right outside the prefecture! I’ve got an appointment with the Gestapo at 4 pm… rue des Saussaies. I was planning on taking the Metro.”
There is laughter from the front of the vehicle. The one with dark hair replies in a thick Southern accent, without turning around.
“Arrr, poor fella!… There’s your Gessstarrrpo and then there’s your Gessstarrrpo, round here! You aren’t going to the same lot at all today.”
“We know you’re one of the Kraut coppers,” grunts the man on the back seat, who’s from somewhere vaguely northern but who lards his grunts liberally with pure Parisian street slang.
“Shut your trap. Whether a pig like you is happy about it or not, means bugger all to me! Don’t make a song and dance about it, and don’t start shitting yourself, we’re not gonna do away with you…”
His sidekick adds:
“The Boss just wants a friendly little chat with you, Mr. Sadorski… See, it’s about his nephew’s little mousie, latest news is she’s in a terrible quince jelly, poor little mite.”
Sadorski thinks hard about what the expression “quince jelly” is supposed to mean. He seems to remember it means serious trouble. As for the nephew’s “mousie”, presumably it’s Yolande Metzger. None of this heralds anything good. You hear about “friendly” chats – in the fashionable districts of Paris, with the Boche and with certain French – which, on the part of the guest, happen inside a bathtub of cold water, which quickly takes on a bloody tint. The inspector’s neighbour has a prominent chin, a long face and nose, a low forehead, and brown hair plastered against his scalp like a cheap wig.
When they talk amongst themselves, the guy from the South calls him Dédé. The first one’s nickname is Jeannot. The rain has started up again, the driver switches on the windscreen wipers. The Citroën continues along the left bank to the pont de l’Alma. Then, crossing the river, they go up Avenue du Président Wilson to Iéna where they turn right into Rue Boissière.
As Sadorski had feared, they park on Rue Lauriston, very near number 93. A line of big black Citroens are already parked behind a huge Bentley with pristine white bodywork. It’s very near to Avenue Kléber, where the sisters from the Alsace are on the game – or rather, were on the game – with the boys from the Wehrmacht. Also nearby are the Avenue de Malakoff and the flat occupied by Mathilde Ostnitska, Serge Lifar’s most recent muse, who receives, as well as the suspicious Russian, Goloubin, Ambassador Abetz, SS officers with leather gloves, the actress Cécile Sorel, the singer Mistinguett, all the great and the good of the Parisian collaboration set. “Dédé” pushes the barrel of his gun into Sadorski’s kidneys, forcing him out of the car.
A tall, heavy door, a flight of steps up to the expansive hall of the mansion which looks simple and severe from the outside, stuck between two classic Haussman- era buildings. The hall is decorated with a pair of huge paintings, one depicting Chancellor Hitler, the other Marshal Goering. Glass cases display collections of medals and various awards, many of them foreign. The inspector only recognises the Legion of Honour and the Military Cross from the Great War. A guy with brown hair and an elongated face with a low brow, wearing a brown gabardine overcoat with a half-belt, leads the newcomers to the first floor, into a large office decorated with flowers. Vases and baskets are everywhere, overflowing with dahlias, roses, orchids of all colours, purple, red, pale yellow… The furniture is made up of unmatched assortments of pieces, which all look like they cost an arm and a leg.
In a corner of the room, a man with smoked glasses, a long nose and a little moustache, his skinny features framed with jowls, is typing away on a narrow desk. He’s wearing cotton oversleeves and looks like an accountant. Sadorski recognises him as a well-known figure in the police force: Chief Inspector Pierre Bonny, famous for investigating the suicide of a businessman, Stavisky, and the mysterious death of Councillor Prince, head of the financial section of the Public Prosecutor’s office, found decapitated and dismembered on the railway line near Dijon on the 20th February 1934. It was whispered in the corridors of the prefecture that Bonny himself had staged this assassination on orders from those at the very top, who were terrified by the riots of 6th February and the prospect of revelations from Prince, who held the evidence of their corruption: the stubs of cheques paid out by Stavisky. As a reward for his good offices, the police inspector, tasked with hushing up a case which he knew intimately, found himself charged with corruption and misuse of public office, and collusion, was dropped and dismissed like a piece of dirt by his superiors, who had once referred to him in the press as “the finest copper in France”. Now here he is, a secretary, or some kind of accountant for the Carlingue, the French Gestapo…
A tall, slender and well-proportioned individual is coming and going across the room, dressed in an elegant dark blue pinstripe suit. He has a narrow, rather drawn face, with thin lips, a large nose and dark hair smoothed back. The only discordant note is the voice of this tall, dapper man, who looks like a wealthy member of the middle classes, with a dignified and imposing appearance – it is high pitched, oddly broken, almost feminine. Despite this the occupants of the office listen to him with respect mingled with fear. The fellow is clearly a leader, he has a natural authority about him. This must be Lafont, the famous “Monsieur Henri”, head of the main office of the French Gestapo. Once a delinquent orphan, Chamberlin, as he was christened, started life in the slums of the thirteenth arrondissement where he had to eat out of rubbish bins to survive, and is now the most powerful man in Paris after General Oberg, the new head of the German security police, General von Stülpnagel, who commands the occupying forces, and the Reich ambassador. The Prefect of Police practically takes orders from him, and it is rumoured that Lafont is seriously considering taking his place.
He hardly pays any attention to Sadorski coming in accompanied by Dédé and the man in the gabardine coat. Holding forth all the while, he bends over a bouquet of dahlias, another of orchids, breathes in their fragrance with exaggerated ecstasy. The scene has something staged and theatrical about it. Mr. Henri, dominating the room like a ballet teacher, always seems to be on stage. He turns on the charm, delivering a stream of jokes full of Parisian banter. The phones ring on the desks, people transfer calls to him, he answers one and then another in his nasal voice, mentions money often, casually juggles millions.
The phone callers are German generals, French officials, personalities from the Paris crème de la crème who he talks to intimately and calls by their first names. Jean (Luchaire), Guy (de Voisin de Lavernière, husband of Corinne Luchaire), Mireille (Balin), Tino (Rossi, the singer), Viviane (Romance, the actress), Alfred (Greven), Lionel (“Marquis” of Wiet), Mara (the real Countess Chernycheff), Magda (“Baroness Thévenin”), Sylviane (“Marquise d’ Abrantes’) … Sadorski, who was made to sit on a chair by the window, can hardly believe his ears. Other names are more difficult to identify. Out of habit he concentrates, without appearing to, and commits things to memory.
It’s been a while since the time set for the meeting with Albers and Kiefer has passed. He hopes that the Gestapo won’t hold it against him. Ex-police-officer Bonny’s typewriter carries on clacking in the background. Fellows with gangster faces, broken or twisted noses, slicked back hair, come and go, pass messages to the Boss, hail each other in an unusual mixture of slang and high society terms. Glasses of champagne are being handed round. The fanciful nicknames reveal the presence of members of the criminal underworld: apart from Dédé (also known as “Dédé the Cow”) and Jeannot who have already been encountered, there is a Totor, a Riton, a Mimile (this one has a German accent), a “Gaston from the rue de Lappe”, a “Jo the Corsican”, a “Doumé from Marseille”, a “François The Bad”, a “Frédo the Terror of the Nick”, a “Tony the Pruning Knife”, a “Crazy Armand”, a “Big Bill” AKA “The Mammoth”, a “Robert the Pale”, a “One-eyed Michel”, another Michel, known as “Fire Nose”, a “Golden Mouth”, a one-armed Arab whose pseudonym is Begdane von Kerbach, a George the Armenian, a Riri the American… and some sort of middle class fellow with glasses that the others are heckling, calling him “The Phenomenon”: most of the time he stays sitting in his corner, absorbed in reading “Monsieur Teste” by Paul Valéry. With the exception of the quiet intellectual, strangely out of place in this gangster film-set, done out with flowers like a funeral home, Sadorski has rarely seen such an assortment of unnerving faces. Lafont finally notices him.
“Well, who is this white-haired freak?”
The typewriter suddenly stops.