The Paul Berna Challenge – The Clue of the Black Cat (1963)

The Clue of the Black CatIn which we meet young Bobby Thiriet, living in a tiny apartment with his family in the Paris suburb of Puisay. One day his father is offered a deal that sounds too good to be true – a luxurious new apartment in the Belloy Estate. M. Thiriet parts with his savings only to realise he is the victim of a confidence trick. But Bobby, his brothers and his friends are not going to let the crooks get away with it that easily. And what is the secret of the black cat?

The Clue of the Black Cat was first published in 1963 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Témoignage du chat noir, which translates literally as The Testimony of the Black Cat, with illustrations by Prudence Seward. As “The Clue of the Black Cat”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1964, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the third printing of the American edition, printed by Pantheon Books, and dated September 1966. A few second-hand copies of this book are available to buy at the moment from the usual online sources!

Along with A Hundred Million Francs and Flood Warning, The Clue of the Black Cat was one of the three children’s books written by Berna that he himself thought were his best. The book was inspired by his own experiences at school where he worked on a school newspaper, so I think his fondness for this book is purely sentimental! But this book does have the power to inspire children to do the same – I remember how desperately I wanted to start my own school newspaper after reading this book, and I used to play at home for hours creating news pages.

Berna is still happily in his comfort zone expressing what it feels like to be part of a gang. But whereas with the previous gangs we’ve encountered (Gaby, Charloun) it’s been the oldest member who takes control, in The Clue of the Black Cat our new hero is Bobby, who is the youngest. This puts a slightly different perspective on how we experience the story. He’s also part of two gangs; he and his siblings form one, and the staff of the student newspaper form the other. The other aspect which gives this book a very distinct flavour separate from all other Berna books is its thriller/whodunit nature. It’s called The Clue of the Black Cat because the cat is the most important lead they have in trying to work out how the swindling of George Thiriet’s ten thousand francs takes place, and who the culprits are.

Like the Gaby books, Berna continues to use the juxtaposition between wealth and poverty as a strong foundation for the book. The Thiriets live in the worst part of town in the tiniest apartment and theirs is a miserable existence. When they see the apartment in the Belloy estate it’s another world for George and Bobby. The contrast between the two is tangible. The Thiriets are lucky to have a superb family relationship, and they endure their hardships with unity and self-support. They don’t show envy for those that have; but simply want justice and to have their money returned. They’re not interested in any further recriminations.

Inspector Sinet makes a return appearance, and he reveals a fascinating motivation for continuing to work alongside Bobby and the other kids. “He nearly pulled off his black hat and hurled it to the ground in rage, as in those days of the horse without a head and the street musician. But a ghostly hand restrained him. It belonged to another Sinet who had never enjoyed the happy childhood of his fellows and who felt he still had a claim to those lost years.” Sinet loves working with the gangs because it reminds him of the childhood that he never had; on a personal level, I completely understand that, because I never felt that I had a gang I could belong to, and Berna creates such a lively and engaging gang atmosphere that you feel it’s never too late to join!

Sinet defends the boys in conversation with the caretaker at the Agramon estate. It’s an excellent summing-up of their character: “They are decent, straightforward kids, not like the young toughs you read about in the newspapers. They’ve got might and right on their side, as well as a certain scorn for official procedure which I would be the last to disapprove of.” They are indeed good kids – no wonder we like them.

This was always my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I love the characters, I love its genuine thriller/whodunit structure, I love the enterprising newspaper spirit of the junior journos, and I love its feelgood factor at the end, with justice being done and a happy-ever-after vibe that doesn’t feel artificial or over-sentimental. I also like how Berna sets up his next book The Mule on the Motorway from the ashes of this case.

The story takes place in the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This is Inspector Sinet’s new work place; when we knew him from his time sorting out Gaby’s gang’s escapades, he was based in Louvigny, but he has been promoted to Commissioner and now works in Puisay. I think it may be based on the real town of Antony.  The Parc de Sceaux, where the Belloy Estate is to be found, is a real location in the suburb of Antony in the south of Paris. In The Mule on the Motorway, which also features Bobby and Sinet, he includes a street map of his fictional Puisay. There’s a very evocative moment, when Bobby and the gang, the PSN crew and Commissioner Sinet are all on the trail of the black cat. “After half a mile the Commissioner was frankly puzzled. He had memorized the general layout of the map, and the route the cat was taking seemed to lead to nowhere. Beyond the Rungis viaduct, over the lanes of the expressway, was a drab desert of factories, waste land, and derelict warehouses. The Paris of tomorrow had not pushed its tentacles that far, and it was hard to imagine a skyscraper rising on that joyless horizon.” I love how Berna realises that, whilst the area is currently derelict, in the future it won’t be. In 1969, the food market at Les Halles relocated to Rungis and today it is the largest wholesale food market in the world.

Berna also expresses beautifully the territorial nature of a gang, as they follow the cat. “Over the concrete arch that spanned the expressway went the whole gang, scooters and all. The boundary of Puisay passed through the middle of the bridge, and both policeman and boys felt the difference when they crossed it. Beyond was unknown country into which, close though it was, no one ever went. For the last five or six years the two adjacent suburbs, once joined by a network of friendly streets, had ben cut off from one another by the bold sweep of the expressway, as though they stood on opposite banks of a river linked only by the majestic bridge under which the main road traffic flowed day and night. Rungis was as distant as a foreign country to Charlie and his friends, and to Sinet, who had never set foot in it.” Modern developments, like the expressway, divide old communities and make life harsher to younger generations.

If I have a complaint about this book, it’s that it lacks a strong female presence. Gaby’s gang features the redoubtable Marion, to whom all the members look for inspiration and confirmation that their ideas and plans have merit. The only female characters in this book are old women, the villainous Natasha, and Charlie’s sister Lily who plays a very minor and non-feminist role, acting as secretary and typist at the PSN instead of going out on adventures. Belle, the oldest Thiriet sibling, is barely present in the book as she has left school and has a job; so, again, she doesn’t participate in the gang mentality or have any fun. The book does, however, contain cats! Perhaps replacing Marion’s dogs in this book, Berna gives us a cast of cats including Toddles and Casimir, and another nameless cat – there may even be more!


Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!


Chapter One – The Bowels of the Earth – Rue Mirandole. George Thiriet meets his son Bobby at the school gates and tells him how the plans to move into a new apartment had fallen through – again. George is embarrassed; but Bobby is resigned. Bobby suggests moving to a different suburb of Paris, but George says it’s impossible because of everyone’s work or school commitments.

As Bobby sits and waits his turn at the barber’s he pulls out a copy of PSN to read. No one had heard of it – it’s the Puisay Students News. Bobby explains: “there are three thousand of us in that barn of a place and you can’t get to know everyone. So the PSN helps us to keep in touch. Anyone can write what they like about anything – even if it’s offering a second-hand transistor in part-exchange for a guitar.” The conversation grows to George chatting about how proud he is of all his family, but they do have one severe problem – accommodation. He confesses six of them live in two tiny rooms in a basement in the worst tenement block in the Rue Mirandole. One of the men having his hair cut is none other than Inspector – now Commissioner – Sinet. Another of them criticises George for his bad money management and earnings, and the atmosphere turns sour. Bobby wishes his father wouldn’t talk about their money and accommodation troubles so openly.

However, walking home, one of the men from the barber’s shop appears and explains to George that an apartment in the beautiful Belloy Estate is to become available for them at a relatively modest rent. He is Henri Dupont, the managing director of Metropolitan Properties who own the Belloy Estate, and George and Bobby can barely believe their ears. The current tenant will look for a payment of approximately 10,000 Francs for the fixtures and fittings, which is just within George’s budget.

Dupont offers to take George and Bobby over to the apartment straight away so they can look at it. The building is sumptuous; George thinks it’s just too grand for his family, but Bobby is entranced. Mme Papadakis, the current tenant, is at home and agrees to show the Thiriets around the flat. George feels it’s too risky just to hand money over to Mme Papadakis, but Dupont steps in and says his money would be safe: “nothing can be done without Metropolitan Properties’ consent”. It’s while the adults are negotiating that Bobby notices a big black cat curled up on top of a cabinet in the corner of a room. He approaches it carefully, scratches it behind the ears, and the cat purrs with pleasure. When Bobby comes back and says he’s been making friends with the cat, Mme Papadakis says she has no cat, and the boy must be mistaken. Dupont suggests it must be a neighbour’s cat.

Walking back to Dupont’s car, he confirms that “the Belloy Estate awaits you and you can count yourselves as good as there already. Remember where we’re meeting tomorrow – Number 6, eighth floor, Apartment 12”. ““Goodbye Rue Mirandole!” Bobby cried, and danced for joy.”

Chapter Two – The Keys of Paradise. Bobby’s siblings, Belle, Jacques and Laurent have been waiting with their mother for George and Bobby to return home for dinner. They start without them; but when George and Bobby finally get home they sneak in quietly in order to spring their big surprise. As a result all the meal things get knocked off the table. But Bobby confirms the truth – they really have found an apartment for them all.

Excitedly, the family spend the evening making plans, allocating bedrooms, working out how the furniture will fit, dreaming of cool summer dinners on the balcony. The next day Jacques prepares a moving house announcement for the PSN, but he is too late – that week’s edition had already gone to press. Jacques’ friends can’t believe the family’s luck – and make Jacques feel that it will all come to nothing like all his father’s previous plans. But Bobby is 100% certain this will be their big lucky break.

They all pack furiously to get everything ready for the move tomorrow. George has gone to see Mme Papadakis with Dupont to make the payment. When they return, they can’t believe that the sale has actually gone through. Sophie has a concern about their dresser though – will it fit? Bobby is to take the bus and a tape measure to go and check whilst the rest of the family finishes packing.

 Chapter Three – Apartment 12. Without a care in the world, Bobby makes his way to the Belloy Estate, up in the lift, and down the corridor to Apartment 12. But his key doesn’t seem to work. He notices the nameplate for M. and Mme Papadakis is still screwed to the outside, so he knows he has the right apartment. He tries again, but still no luck. Then the door opens to reveal a white-haired old lady, looking surprised at Bobby with his keys. “You’ve got the wrong floor dear” she tells him. “Or perhaps the wrong building.” Bobby stammers out that his father has signed a deal to take over the apartment tomorrow and that Mme Papadakis is moving out today. “The old lady began to laugh and pulled the door wide open. “Come, come, a joke’s a joke,” she said, her cheeks going quite pink. “I am Madame Papadakis.””

Bobby can see that the apartment is fully furnished as it was before. He also sees the black cat. Bobby explains to M. Papadakis what has happened, and Papadakis realises that the family must have been the victim of a confidence trick. He starts to telephone the police as Bobby cries quietly to himself. The family arrive with a plain clothes policeman who establishes the veracity of the Papadakis’ story – that they had been away but got back today, and they do indeed own the apartment outright. The caretaker confirms that there is no Dupont, and all the flats are privately owned. They realise that somehow George was tricked into viewing an empty apartment downstairs but that has been sold to another family who are arriving in two weeks. So who has swindled George out of his ten thousand francs? It becomes a case for Commissioner Sinet.

Sinet is excited to be in his brand new police station in Puisay, and happy to be given the Thiriet case to work on, although he is alarmed at the sight of the family containing “an eleven-year-old ragamuffin hemmed in by two scowling elder brothers. All the misfortunes that had checkered his career as a police officer had been caused by birds of that feather.” He criticises George for being so gullible; “managers of property companies don’t go around offering luxury apartments to the first poor fool they meet. It’s unthinkable!”

Sinet asks Bobby to describe “Dupont” and he does, with great accuracy – he refers to him as the White Hedgehog. He also points out that Sinet would have seen him in the barber’s shop. When George then describes the woman whom they thought was Mme Papadakis, the real Papadakis’ realise it must be their old housekeeper, “the Grand Duchess”, Natasha Popova. She must have taken an impression of the keys before they fired her.

Bobby tells Sinet there was one more witness to the crime – the black cat. Mme Papadakis confirms that the cat, Toddles, belongs to them, but they took Toddles away with them, so whichever cat it was that Bobby saw in the apartment previously, it wasn’t Toddles. But he’s convinced it’s the same cat.

The family return, dejected, to their old flat, and it takes ages to do all the unpacking. George blames himself terribly for his stupidity; but the brothers vow to find out where the money is and get it back somehow. They’re determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and see justice is done!

 Chapter Four – P. S. N. Having kept quiet about the events of the previous day, the three brothers turn up at the storeroom of the PSN after school. Charlie’s network had already alerted him to the con trick, so gets the brothers to open up and explain all. Charlie is thrilled at the prospect of a really strong story for the hundredth issue of the newspaper. But reporter, writer and all purpose worker on the paper Flatfoot thinks they should deal with this story differently. “You ask your father to print two issues a week and we’ll start a twenty-five part serial – a thriller with a really good title like The Clue of the Black Cat! We can’t lose! The PSN will sell like hot cakes!” They plan to write it as a work of fiction, “translated from the English by Lily Baron”, (editor Charlie’s sister) and, because they don’t yet know the end of the story, the Thierets account will be the first two episodes, and then they’ll take it forward depending on what has been discovered by the detectives. The first edition ends with Peter Pancake (the fictional name for Bobby) turning the key in the lock to no avail.

But the real case is moving slowly. George spends every evening combing through suspect photos; detectives have been to the barbers, and the Belloy Estate; even the Papadakis’ have brought a case against the villains as they discover some items have been stolen from their apartment. And Bobby is upset that he feels the writers are ignoring the cat, and the special relationship that should had formed between it and Peter Pancake. By the end of the second episode, interest in the story is at fever pitch – and the writers have brought the black cat back to add to the suspense – but there are still no official developments in the case.

However, that night Sinet gets a call from the caretaker at the Belloy Estate, M. Breton. He confirms that he has also seen a black cat in the basement of the building. But it definitely isn’t Toddles. Sinet tells Breton that he must catch the beast!

Chapter Five – The Trail of the Black Cat. Friday’s issue of the PSN sells like hot cakes, and Charlie’s editorial leader shocks the school: “The Pancakes and their four children, Sybil, Herbert, Sam and Peter, are no mere creatures of our imagination. The three boys are your schoolmates at the Lycée Alfred-Jarry. Perhaps one of them is in your class; you may even be sitting net to him. We have exposed their distress in all its nakedness and you have taken this courageous family to your heart. Do not withdraw your sympathy from Jacques, Laurent, and Bobby Thiriet. They belong to us; they are part of our daily lives.” The rest of the article implored the readership to do what they can to investigate and help the family’s cause. “We call upon your initiative ad your ability to pick up the scent and stick to it. Success, we are sure, will crown our joint efforts.”

Other articles are entitled “What Are the Police Doing?”, “Housing and Crime!”, “Do You Know These Two?” with drawings of the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog, and there is a call for anyone who has any information to bring it to the attention of the PSN straight away. Finally there is a drawing of the black cat, who is captioned to say “I alone know who the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog really are […] I’m only a black cat like thousands of others, but if you should happen to come across me, I will lead you straight to the gentleman who poses as a public benefactor and to the lady who denied my existence to Bobby Thiriet’s face.” As a result, the PSN offices are swamped with visitors. One boy, Poussard, identifies the White Hedgehog as the maths teacher, M. Vacherin (or Freckleface, as he called him). Poussard is given the job of confronting Freckleface and asking for his alibi. But Bobby confirms that M. Vacherin is not the guilty party.

Meanwhile Sinet goes to the basement of the Belloy apartment block to see if the black cat makes an entrance. He does, at 8pm. He purrs at Sinet, who makes friends with the cat. Bobby, too, is watching and starts tailing Sinet, who is tailing the cat. He goes to the 8th floor, and heads straight for Apartment 12.

Chapter Six – The Clarinetist.  The cat sits outside No 12 and mews loudly. Eventually the door opens and Mme Papadakis comes out. “There he is, the little rascal! […] come in, you naughty kitty! Come say hello to Toddles!” She takes the second cat indoors. Sinet spots Bobby and they unite over the common cause of trying to work out what’s going on. They reflect on how perhaps the Papadakis’ are not as innocent as they seem – they’re not that upset about the theft of their assets, after all. They agree that the cat is key to their investigations.

Bobby convinces Sinet that he should knock at the door and simply ask for the cat – and to make sure it’s the right one. Unsure at first, he decides to throw himself into the adventure. Mme Papadakis is furious at his demands, ridiculing him with the suggestion that he should want to arrest a cat. Sinet bellows so loudly that the cat makes a bolt for the door, escapes past Sinet and Bobby and makes a run for it, hurtling down the staircase. Mme Papadakis closes the door in Sinet’s face.

Also in the corridor is a clarinetist, apparently waiting for other band members to play music. Sinet hurries him along. After all the adventures, Bobby reveals that he has realised that one of the cats – “the crooks’ cat” – has a very thin gold chain around its neck. It has a disc on the chain too, but the cat escaped too quickly for Bobby to take a look at it.

Chapter Seven – Extra! Meanwhile, the PSN are going to release a Sunday four-page special devoted entirely to the black cat. But they need a big story for the back page. A boy called Belmont makes a case that the whole crime against the Thiriets was premeditated: “was it just by chance that the White Hedgehog was in Fred’s barbershop on the same evening as Bobby and his father? […] the way the confidence trick was worked shows that it had all been planned beforehand and wasn’t just to catch the first person who came along […] someone knew Monsieur Thiriet’s difficulties, and it looks as though he found out all about his timetable too.” But who might be in on the deal? Fred for one. Laurent arranges to go for a haircut to check out the lie of the land.

The next visitor to the PSN offices is 80-year-old Mme Deuzy, who has recognised the picture of the Grand Duchess. She says she’s none other Mme Papadakis. Jacques explains that she must be mistaken, but Mme Deuzy is adamant. She first met her the previous spring when she was trying to find a home for her own cat – named Toddles! When a pompous lady came to collect the cat she introduced herself as Mme Papadakis – but Charlie intercedes in the tale and explains that must be Natasha Popova whom she met. But Mme Deuzy saw her in the street six months later and accosted her over the cat, demanding to know where she lives and wanting to see it. The local baker’s boy recognised her as Mme Papadakis and knew her address – No 6, Apt 12, Belloy Estate – and said she’s one of the worst payers in town. Mme Deuzy went to her apartment; she met Toddles there; and she hopes she goes to prison!

Mme Deuzy has provided PSN with their big back page story. But what about the headline. Like all sensationalist journalists they’re not above inventing facts for their own purpose. And what do they choose? Black Cat Murdered.

Chapter Eight – The Death of the Black Cat. Bobby is back at the Belloy Estate, where he sees the musician again, looking out of place as he sports a Tyrolean feather hat. He seems to recognise him from somewhere else. Sinet is also there, waiting for M. Breton to let them all down to the basement with the boilers, where the black cat likes to rest in the warmth. The heat was burning, and the roar was deafening. Bobby knew the cat was there because he had seen the glitter in its eyes, but was hiding. Just as they were leaving to search elsewhere, the cat makes a bolt for it. Ending up on the eighth floor landing, the elevator opens to reveal the clarinetist. The cat is right in front of him. He opens his music case, and two shots ring out. One is a direct hit, and the cat appears to be dead. The marksman grabs the chain off its neck, and makes off.

By the time Sinet and Bobby reach the cat, it’s struggled halfway down the stairs, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Sinet is furious and Bobby is hearbroken. But cats have nine lives, and Bobby takes him home to care for him. It seems as though the PSN headline has almost come true.

Chapter Nine – A Gentleman Called Dupont Whilst Laurent is waiting at Fred’s for a haircut, the barber’s youngest son and occasional assistant, Gaston, arrives, a music case under his arm. “How did the rehearsal go?” asks Fred. “My clarinet played like a dream” he replies. After his haircut, Laurent returns to the PSN offices. “Didn’t see anything odd”, he reports. However, he lets slip that his hair was done by Gaston, who’s a clarinetist with the Wild Cats of Puisay. Lily, Charlie and the others instantly recognise the significance of this and head off to see Sinet.

Charlie and the PSN team tell Sinet of their discovery – but he already knows, as the man having his haircut next to Laurent was a plain clothes policeman. Belmont suggests they try a new tack – trying to identify the M. Dupont that the White Hedgehog impersonated. And lo and behold, Dupont is in Sinet’s office at the same time. Charlie challenges Dupont to recognise the picture of the White Hedgehog in the PSN – and he does. He identifies him as Papadakis. They met at a cocktail party and exchanged business cards, but Dupont tore Papadakis’ up as he didn’t trust him.

Belmont has another flash of inspiration. ““Bobby’s the only one of us who really knows this mystery cat […] it feels at home on the Belloy Estate, but its instincts could be fooled by its surroundings. In other words, it thinks it’s at home because its home surroundings are exactly the same.” The idea had already crossed Sinet’s mind. He had not dared pursue it, for thirty years in the Force had only served to strengthen his ability to stick to the wrong theory, and boys who were too clever made him uneasy.”

And what of the cat? He slept in the bedroom at Rue Mirandole. Bobby slept also, his mind at rest, full of the “excitement (that) came from being part – every minute of the day and night – of this unexpected adventure.”

Chapter Ten – Sunday News The Sunday Extra edition of the PSN was full of the news of the attack on the black cat. Charlie’s headline had the fictional cat admitting that the Belloy Estate seemed like home, but wasn’t – as per Belmont’s suggestion. Meanwhile, the vet had removed the bullet from the real cat, who was convalescing on a large portion of cod. After a dessert of cream and a good after dinner nap, the cat is alert, and bounds into action, scratching on the window. Bobby is unsure about letting him out, but eventually is convinced it’s the right thing to do. Once the whole PSN gang have been stationed outside ready to follow the cat, Bobby lets him out. Once they’ve established which direction he’s going, they’re on his tail. Drawing up the rear is Sinet, who’s never been following a suspect like this before. The cat boldly wanders on over the bridge over the expressway, out of Puisay and into Rungis.

The cat heads straight for an estate that looks exactly like Belloy – but isn’t! Its layout and setting, even the trees planted around it, look identical. Bobby follows the cat inside, and it slumps itself down outside Apartment Five at Building No Six. A plump woman hears him cry outside and instantly throws the door open. “Casimir! […] You’ve had Auntie so worried and poor Uncle’s spent the last twelve days trying to find you in all the back alleys of Rungis”. Charlie unfolds his copy of the PSN and asks if she has seen these people before. “Of course, I know them well […] a charming couple” He’s on the stock exchange. Such a sensible man. I’m going to cash in my savings bonds to buy Puerto Rican oil shares. I’ll double my money in a year.” They decline the old lady’s invitation to a tea party but only after she has given them the name of the couple: Vladimir and Natasha Gorine, who have been renting an apartment opposite for a month. “I shall miss them terribly when they go.”

Chapter Eleven – The Hedgehog’s Gift to Charity Meanwhile Sinet has taken up observation in the Caretaker’s office in front of the building. The Caretaker is suspicious of the boys’ motives, but Sinet defends them and tells him they are the police’s best chance of catching the fraudsters. “You can be pretty sure those boys have worked it all out already and have decided to get back what’s owed to them by hook or by crook.” Twenty of them were stationed around the apartment block, ready to act.

Having ascertained that the hedgehog and Natasha were in, the boys all gathered round and summoned them to the door. “We’re selling raffle tickets for the Winter Vacation Fund” says Charlie. The Hedgehog is about to slam the door on them when he thinks twice and asks them about their methodology of going door-to-door mob-handed. They explain the part each one plays, and then Laurent challenges him to make a contribution. Bobby watches him with fury. “Even a hardened confidence man has moments of weakness which make him fall into the same state of mental blackout as his victims.” The Hedgehog buys a ticket.

Chapter Twelve – The Biter Bit As Vladimir enters the apartment to get a coin, the boys all follow him in. Natasha is reclining with a cigarette watching television and both are extremely annoyed that the boys have entered without permission. Belmont tells him that they think he should give them more than a franc. Bobby suggests ten thousand francs – and for that they’ll see that the pair win the raffle. Slowly the boys reveal that they know that the Gorines are responsible for tricking the Thiriets out of their money; and the pair start to get very anxious. Natasha runs off to a bedroom and starts to prepare for an escape. She’s halfway out of the window when a boy outside makes to help her exit – she retreats back inside. She tries the kitchen door, but two other boys are waiting there to prevent her. Charlie confronts Vladimir for the full amount – the crook knows the game is up but says he hasn’t got the money to hand. Charlie lets slip that Fred and his nephew were arrested last night. Eventually Vladimir throws the money at Belmont and the boys depart – leaving Vladimir and Natasha to recriminate with each other where the whole scheme went wrong.

Still aiming to escape, Vladimir goes to his car only to find that the wheels have been removed and a cat’s head has been painted on each of the doors! So they ring for a taxi. Then Uncle and Auntie from next door catch up with them and offer them Casimir. They say they’re going away for a few days. When they get to the apartment block foyer there are about fifty people there watching them. They get into the taxi – only to discover Commissioner Sinet is in the front seat and he’s taking them to the police station.   

Chapter Thirteen – Merry Christmas! Charlie holds an impromptu party at the PSN offices. A friend of Laurent’s, Dauphin, reports that he has seen Sinet take the two suspects into the police station. But Charlie’s concerned as to how the new developments will affect the PSN reports of the crime. He’s going to make it become more and more like fiction so as to stay different from the mainstream media. What comes after a black cat? “It doesn’t matter if it’s a horse, a dog, a sheep, piglet, canary or fish, the important thing is to bring it into a story and to keep it there until the readers have had enough.” Bobby remembers a story he had read last week about a mule strolling along the expressway. “In the end the poor old thing got himself run over down by the Chevilly bridge. Where did he come from? Where was he going? Nobody knows, and needless to say his owner’s keeping quiet.”

Christmas has returned to the Rue Mirandole. The decorations are up, the drinks are bought. Now for Father George Thiriet to hear the good news. But he has a surprise for them too – he’s found a new apartment!

Sinet tells Bobby that the Hedgehog and the Grand Duchess will face at least five years behind bars. And he has a surprise for Bobby – a black cat. “It’s the cat that Uncle was bringing home to Auntie at the very moment that Casimir came back to his own hearth. They very kindly gave him to me, and I took him out of the goodness of my heart. I’m passing him on to you in the hope that you won’t be too hard on the the confounded purrer. Take him away! His basket’s on my hatstand.” Bobby leaves Sinet on the understanding that he’ll be back to look further at the case of the mule on the expressway.


Mule on the MotorwayTo sum up; this wonderful read is a superb blend of whodunit and children’s adventure, with a very satisfying ending which leads on to Berna’s next book, so we know this is not the last we will see of Bobby and his brothers. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that has been telegraphed in the final chapters of this book, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, translated into English as The Mule on the Motorway. Surprisingly it took four years for this next book to emerge; in any event, I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

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