The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mule on the Motorway (1967)

Mule on the MotorwayIn which we make a welcome reacquaintance with young Bobby Thiriet, his family and friends, and the student journalists who work on the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students News. At the end of The Clue of the Black Cat, it was reported that a mule had been found running along a motorway. How did it get there, and what was it running from? Did it survive the experience? Charlie Baron of the P. S. N. thinks there could be a story in this – and he is right! What is the story of the mule who was found dodging the traffic, and if there are criminals involved, will Bobby and the gang get to the bottom of it?

The Mule on the Motorway was first published in 1967 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, which translates literally as Commissioner Sinet and the mystery of the southern highway, with illustrations by Gareth Floyd, a prolific children’s illustrator best known for his illustrations on BBC TV’s Jackanory programme. As “The Mule on the Motorway”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first edition. It was published in the US under the more appropriate title The Mule on the Expressway. Currently I can only see one second hand copy for sale online, in Australia.

Once again we’re in the company of Bobby Thiriet and his friends, whom we met in The Clue of the Black Cat. Commissioner Sinet is still in charge of the local Puisay police, and the students at Bobby’s school still run the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students’ News. The story of the Mule on the Motorway was set up at the end of the previous book, so it’s quite a surprise that it took four years for the book to come to fruition – in the meantime Berna had been writing other books (for adults) under his pseudonym Paul Gerrard. The first chapter makes it clear that the activity of The Clue of the Black Cat wasn’t very long ago – those missing years have vanished into thin air!

As always, Berna gives a great insight into what it’s like being a member of a gang. In the previous book, it was Bobby who, although he’s the youngest in the group, is definitely the hero of the story. In this book, Bobby sits at one end of the story, with his preoccupation with looking after Quicksilver, the mule, and providing his voice in the back column of the newspaper. But at the business end of the story, Charlie Baron plays a much more prominent role as the editor of the P. S. N., generally masterminding everyone’s activities and bringing the story together under one narrative roof, so to speak. The gang mentality is always there in the background, but isn’t forced to the forefront of the story as it sometimes is with Berna. In the previous book, it was Sinet who revealed himself a little jealous no longer to be a gang member; in this book it’s Bobby’s father George. He continues to admire his sons’ activities, with just a tinge of remorse: “George Thiriet was once more discussing the activities of the boys with a sarcasm and a bitterness which cloaked his jealousy, and, no doubt, his regret at having grown too old to join in.”

Now that the Thiriets live in the Belloy Estate, there isn’t such a distinction to be made between the wealth or poverty of the characters, as there was in The Clue of the Black Cat. In fact, classes mix seamlessly in this story, with the obviously wealthy and well-to-do Colonel Brousse exercising his largesse and allowing Quicksilver to live in his stables. With Bobby almost exclusively at the stables while he’s not at school, there’s no real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this story.

Commissioner Sinet is once more in charge, initially disappointed not to have had any communication from Bobby and the guys, but the story soon makes up for that. We also meet the Gendarme Patard, whom Bobby first thinks might be a character they could poke fun at, but later plays a small but very significant part in the investigations. Later we also discover Sinet’s colleague Commissioner Charrel, an avuncular, pipe-smoking, decent sort of chap whom Sinet has briefed well about the capabilities of the gang.

It’s an excellent companion piece to The Clue of the Black Cat, which remains my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I like how the characters have developed from how we met them in the first book; Bobby’s love of animals continues to play a focal role in the stories, and it’s essentially another exciting thriller/whodunit, with a genuinely surprising secret that gets revealed towards the end. Plus there’s the fun of the student journos; and once again Berna sets up his next book A Truckload of Rice from a throwaway line by Charlie towards the end. With the Black Cat up front and the Truck of Rice at the back, the three books more or less make a mule sandwich!

PuisayAs with the previous story, the setting for this book is the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This time, Berna has furnished us with a detailed map of the town, showing the location of the police station, the Belloy Estate and more. We can locate the riding club, M Broquin’s nursery, Patard’s home in the Rue Gaboriau, even the premises of Ariméca. He shows us the areas that are old Puisay, new Puisay and those areas scheduled for redevelopment. The district of Puisay does not stand still. However, of course, just outside Puisay Berna brings real locations into the story. Verrières-le-Buisson, for example, where Poussard discovers M. Lantoine, does exist; it’s the next-door town to Antony. Wissous, site of the Carbonato car lot, is also a real town, adjacent to Orly Airport.

I had noted that the one thing the previous book lacks is a strong female presence. Again, this book very much has the same cast of characters, and it’s still an issue. The only active female presence is Lily, and she is still rather put upon and her brother Charlie only allows her to do the typing –  very misogynistic in its approach. She’s sent out to see Broquin because he sells flowers and “flowers are girls’ things” says Belmont. Charlie is very dismissive of his sister: “Run a comb through your hair and get your make-up on!… Look at her! She looks as though she’s been pulled through a hedge backwards.” However, her role does develop during the course of the book. When she comes up trumps with suggestions for pushing the investigation forward, Charlie comments: “We’ve been making a big mistake in shutting you up in the news-room all the evening. You’re as good as Flatfoot or the three Thiriets on an outside job.” High praise indeed, he says, sarcastically.

Naturally, Berna’s writing is a joy throughout the book, but the short paragraph I enjoyed the most is when he describes the crushing procedure of the scrap metal at the site in Wissous. “The burnt-out or shattered wrecks were laid out in some sort of order, depending on their state of damage. Tractors were continually moving up and down the lines to tow away he better samples to the salvage depot which formed one end of this mournful motor show-room. Men in asbestos gloves and fibre-glass masks cut the wrecks up with blow-lamps, removing the last scrap of alloy or special steel, and leaving merely a shapeless mass of chassis or coach-work. This was then picked up by a mobile crane and dropped into the jaws of a gigantic hydraulic press, mounted on rails and dominating the landscape […] The jaws of this mechanical ogre crushed the metal with a sinister snapping sound. The mass, now reduced to two-thirds of its original size, was passed on to be squeezed still smaller in the angry hiss of the steam-press, to become first a cube, then a rectangle and finally, at the end of the process, to be thrown out like a parcel. All that remained of what had once been a gleaming, speeding car was reduced to the ridiculous dimensions of a suitcase.” There’s a sense of innocent excitement, and an admiration for the skill and ingenuity involved, at this industrial procedure that otherwise might simply be a commonplace observation. Berna can wring delight out of the simplest thing.

The other aspect of the book which strikes you so strongly today is the prevalence of smoking amongst the young people. As in Magpie Corner, it’s so alien to our minds that a children’s book should have anything involving smoking. But this is France in the 1960s, which was a very different society. In one scene, played for laughs, Sinet offers Quicksilver some Gitanes cigarettes, and the mule obliges by chomping and chewing them. In another scene Charlie offers the Gendarme Patard his last cigarette. Can you imagine today a boy offering a policeman a cigarette?

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. By the way, this is only the third Berna title (after Magpie Corner and Flood Warning) where the chapters don’t have individual titles. 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. Bobby Sinet and PatardBobby Thiriet arrives at the police station wanting to meet Commissioner Sinet. New policeman Patard wonders why the boy is so familiar with Sinet and the station, and Malin, “the Commissioner’s right-hand man”, explains the con trick that the Thiriets endured a few weeks before – the plot of The Clue of the Black Cat. Surprised, Patard is given a copy of the Puisay Students’ News where he reads how the case of the black cat had now come to an end. But now there is a new problem to solve – the stray mule who was “run over one December night on the motorway between Arcueil and Rungis. Where had he come from, and where was he going?”

PatardPatard is unimpressed. But Malin recommends he keeps reading future editions of the P. S. N. – and if he rubs Bobby up the wrong way, he’ll end up appearing in the paper “under a false name, but everyone in Puisay will be able to recognise Patard the policeman.” Meanwhile Sinet is disappointed that Bobby hasn’t kept in touch much recently. Sinet has a bombshell for Bobby – the mule didn’t die in the accident. However, it has been sent to the abattoir at Vaugirard, to be auctioned in a few days’ time. That’s one slaughtered mule and one story less for the P. S. N. Is there anything that can be done about it? Bobby and Sinet go into secret discussion.

The scene changes to the offices of the P. S. N. Charlie Baron is in charge; his ace investigators are Bobby’s brothers, Jacques and Laurent; Belmont is the best at doorstep interviews, Patureau – better known as Flatfoot – is the cartoonist and photographer, and Charlie’s sister Lily is the typist. Bobby arrives and tells them what Sinet said – including that, if they could get the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to back them, they might be able to buy the mule from the slaughterhouse. Charlie’s thoughts turn to how to re-write the P. S. N. headlines – including a subscription for the rescue of the mule.

IvanhoeMeanwhile, back at the Thiriets’ apartment, George, Bobby’s father, doesn’t see how the “flimsy story” of the mule is going to be of any interest to anyone. Bobby plays with Ivanhoe, the black cat that Sinet gave him at the end of the previous book; he doesn’t agree with his father. “That mule didn’t get into the rush hour traffic from Paris all by himself. So one of two things must have happened: either someone must have wanted to get rid of him so badly that they pushed him on to the motorway and they’d have to be pretty good swine to do that, or else the mule was being ill-treated and chased by some toughs and this was the only way to escape his pursuers.” Not only that, but the mule was pulling a cart – and there’s no sign of that anywhere – where is it? Thiriet is certain that the boys shouldn’t interfere with the police and should take no further part in the investigation. But the Thiriet boys have other ideas…

Chapter Two. On the roadOn Friday morning the P. S. N. was on sale as usual. Flatfoot had come up with an excellent photo of a mule – albeit not the one in question, but who was to know? Charlie has written some purple prose to accompany the image, referring to the “beseeching, almost a reproachful, look in his dim eyes”. It’s accompanied by a demand for the readers to donate money to save “the poor orphan”. Some students planned to be generous with their contributions; others saw it as just a joke. Flatfoot does some investigating and concludes that 39% of the school are behind them all the way.

At the P. S. N. offices, Lily is in charge of receiving the cash. But the initial response is not as good as they had hoped. ““Ninety-five francs fifty,” Lily announced. “That’s not a very bright start.”” No one is waiting to make a donation. “Perhaps the chaps thought this mule on the motorway was an April Fool joke,” suggests Belmont. Charlie rounds on Flatfoot for his poor quality research. Just then, one of Bobby’s friends, Poussard, Broussepopped in with two francs, apologising for not being able to give more. This gives the others hope that they might be on the right track after all.

Just then, an unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Colonel Brousse, who runs the local stables and riding club. He makes an offer to stable the mule for free, in return for its doing some odd jobs. Charlie is overwhelmed. Brousse criticises the write-up though – the mule needs a name, and the photograph is of a Picardy donkey! He donates fifty francs and leaves. The boys suggest a number of names but in the end it is Laurent’s suggestion that wins favour – they decide to call the mule Quicksilver.

Chapter Three. QuicksilverSinet has taken responsibility for buying the mule from the auction, but the prices are rising. ““By Wednesday evening mule-on-the-hoof had risen to a thousand francs, and they were very far from having that amount of money. “Got it?” Monsieur Sinet asked the youngster, with deliberate coldness. “Only eight hundred,” Bobby answered with a tremor in his voice. “And even that’s the result of a terrific effort on our part.”” Bobby and Sinet realise there might be something suspicious in the fact that so much money is being offered for the beast. They’re 250 francs short – but a Madame Gilardoni, who runs The Society for the Welfare of Slaughter House Animals, has donated 150 francs, and Sinet himself is prepared to give a hundred “in memory of all the excitement the Black Cat gave us.” Sinet also reveals that it was he who advised Brousse about the mule, so the offer of the stabling is genuine. Sinet says they should pick a name for the mule – and when he finds out what they’re calling him, he buries his head in his hands.

The Thiriet brothers arrive at the Saint Just riding club, and meet Joel Brousse, the stable lad. He shows them the stable that’s been prepared for Quicksilver. Flatfoot arrives on his Vespa, accompanied by the Colonel, Sinet and the mule, who is distinctly skittish. “What do you think of him”, asks the Colonel. “At first Charlie and the others could not speak. They were amazed and appalled by the sheer ugliness of the beast, for it was still in its winter coat, a tangle of coarse, dull black with a coppery sheen in places. The scar from his accident had left a broad strip of bare, black skin running along his right side from shoulder to haunch. To add to it all, his groom at the slaughterhouse had shaved his mane and docked his tail, as they do to all horses before they are killed. “What a ghastly sight!” Lily sighed. “To think we took all this trouble to save that old door-mat from the knackers…””

From his teeth, two stable lads estimate the mule is nearer twenty-five years old than twenty. But he has good hoofs and shoes, and Charlie is convinced they’ll drag the mule’s secret out of him – or Bobby will, with his way with animals. In fact, Bobby spends some time with Quicksilver, giving him food, helping him settle in to his new stable. He tells the others that he and Quicksilver have had a private chat. “He doesn’t want to meet those shady characters in Puisay again; the ones who hung around offering three times what we paid for him.” This chance remark fills Charlie with optimism for good material for the P. S. N. and arouses Sinet’s suspicion that All Is Not Quite Right.

Chapter Four.Lantoine Friday’s P. S. N. is dominated by news about Quicksilver. News, opinion, maps and a back page piece by Bobby written as though by the mule himself. He confesses he has lost his memory, but guesses he was mistreated by his former master and wonders where he is hiding now. He also refers to the large sums that were surprisingly being offered for him. Quicksilver challenges the reader to solve the problem and work out what happened to him and who was his master. He also reveals that he can be visited – for free if you had contributed to his fund, or for one franc if you hadn’t.

MarkovitchQuicksilver receives twenty or thirty regular visitors, much to the delight of Colonel Brousse who expects to increase his membership as a result. Lily is also delighted at the additional income. But the investigations quickly come to a standstill. Belmont suggests they widen their search area. But then Poussard arrives with news from Verrières-le-Buisson; it might belong to M. Lantoine, the market-gardener. Lantoine told Poussard that his mule Dynamo wasn’t missing and was well-behaved; but Poussard didn’t believe him. Flatfoot leads a group of them to Lantoine’s farm on the pretence that they have to take a photograph of a mule. Lantoine lets them visit Dynamo’s stable, but warns them he can be grumpy. But true enough, there’s a mule there, who got very grumpy when they photographed him.

Meanwhile at the riding club, Brousse gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Vlado Markovitch of the Brandenburg Circus in Rotterdam, resplendent in a Tyrolean hat, looking for a mule to join the Bengal Tigers in their circus act. It sounds very unlikely – but Brousse directs him to where Quicksilver is stabled.

Chapter Five. Inspecting QuicksilverBobby has been spending all his spare time looking after Quicksilver, and already the mule is in better condition. Bobby was just chatting to him and preparing to leave for the evening when Markovitch approached him. He repeats his unlikely offer (which includes five thousand francs for the owner) which has Bobby in fits of laughter. Bobby tells Markovitch to tell Quicksilver the plan, at which “the mule suddenly shot out its neck. Its teeth snapped so close to Vlado’s ear that the Tyrolean hat flew up into the air.”

The offer obviously rejected by both boy and mule, Markovitch goes off, muttering angrily. The Colonel asks how much he offered Bobby, and deduces “I’m beginning to think that the animal’s been involved in something pretty murky.” Bobby agrees – but anything that Quicksilver has told him is staying a secret for the moment. Sinet arrives, and goes up to the stall. The Thiriet brothers are there, talking with Joel Brousse and Poussard. Meanwhile, Quicksilver enjoys chewing on Sinet’s Gitanes cigarettes.

They are all perplexed as to why people are willing to part with so much money for the mule, when he’s not worth anything like that much on the market. Sinet’s suspicion is that he was “used in some criminal activity, and that he might be recognised by someone who witnessed what happened, and that this would give the police a lead to the crooks who used him.” He thinks further: when the crooks thought the mule had died, they thought they were in the clear. But when they discover that he survived, and has been bought from the slaughterhouse, they have to do something to get him back. And Sinet’s not convinced that Lantoine has no connection with the crime either; although there’s no need to question him further at the moment. “Just leave it all to Quicksilver, or rather to Bobby.”

Chapter SixQuicksilver and the cartBrousse secures his copy of the latest P. S. N. It tells how a character (now named Igor Popovitch) has appeared at the stable wanting to buy the mule. Quicksilver’s own reminiscences are also in print (courtesy of Bobby). He says he remembers being led away by Popovitch and then being knocked down by more than one car and left to die – and when Popovitch returned to collect him, he refused to go along with his story. “I’d rather have died in the slaughterhouse than trot round the ring in front of five thousand people with a Bengal tiger perched on my back.”

That afternoon at the stable, an older boy named Langlais – one of Charlie’s enemies – comes to see Quicksilver. It turns out he knows Lantoine and Dynamo. Dynamo has a tendency to escape and cause damage, so Lantoine decided to get rid of him. Langlais is convinced Quicksilver is Dynamo. Bobby tells him to go to the P. S. N. offices, tell Charlie, and go off with Belmont to confront Lantoine.

Langlais and Belmont help the market-gardener with some work and Langlais goes to see Dynamo. He realises it’s a different mule – and Lantoine confirms this. “Every mule I’ve had for the last twenty years has been called Dynamo. This one’s the fourth in the line.” Lantoine goes on to tell the boys what happened to the previous Dynamo. “About the middle of December, some idiot came round and gave me two thousand francs for that lump of dogs’ meat. I managed to replace that horror and still have a bit over as well – this mule only cost me half that.” But who was it who bought the mule? Broquin, an ugly nurseryman from Puisay, accompanied by “a fat little man, as dark as an Indian, with a little moustache. Very well dressed, he was.” Could that be Markovitch, thinks Belmont? Lantoine agrees that Broquin paid too much for Dynamo: “[he] didn’t know the prices and he didn’t bargain for more than a few minutes. He wanted a mule and a cart in a hurry for some sort of job. I don’t know what it was. He paid me in cash and off he went. What he did next is none of my business.”

It’s agreed that Lily and Langlais should go to see Broquin.

Chapter Seven. The two investigators walk around the nursery as though they’re lovey-dovey in love. Eventually Broquin introduces himself to them and asks how he can help. They respond by asking about plants they can put on the balcony, but inside they are shocked that the man they are talking to is Broquin as he is not ugly, and nothing like the description that Lantoine gave. Broquin sadly tells them that he’s retiring soon – against his will, but there was no future in his business. But he doesn’t believe the two and asks for the real purpose of their visit. “A mule”, replies Langlais. Broquin introduces them to his mule – a little yellow tractor, that does the work far better. But when Langlais explains exactly why they are there, Broquin is offended. He denies any knowledge of the animal and escorts the pair off his property. But as they are ready to leave, Langlais spots hoof-marks on the edge of the path. The penny drops, and Langlais offers to help find out if he sold goods to someone with a mule on the day in question. “Your fellow seems to have been here with his mule and cart on the sixteenth of December last. He made four trips during the course of the afternoon to remove six tons of compost and twenty bags of fertiliser. He paid cash.” His name? Lantoine. So it’s a double bluff.

And that’s not all. The day before, another man was looking for a big load of compost. A well dressed, middle-aged gentleman. It doesn’t add up. Why “he should have considered it essential to buy a mule and cart especially for the job […] when a tipper-truck would have finished it all in one go.” They tell Broquin to start buying the P. S. N. to find out more. Broquin’s final suggestion is that “now you’ve got hold of the mule, why don’t you try to get hold of the cart?”

Chapter Eight. CartThe first decision of the day at the P. S. N. is to give a name to the mystery man who has duped by Broquin and Lantoine. Laurent suggests Slewjaw because both men said his jaw was lopsided. Then Lily comes up with the idea that the cart might have been left on a car-dump. Belmont agrees to check out the site at La Croix-de-Berny, and Jacques the place at Wissous.  When Belmont returns, he has no news – the site is a free for all, and anyone could help themselves to anything there. And there was no sign of the cart.

Jacques, however, has more luck. He’s entranced by watching the hydraulic press that crushes the metal of all the old vehicles that have been dumped there. But then he spies a little cart – “painted dark green, it had rubber tyres with wavy treads and it seemed in first-rate order.” There’s a sticky black mess at the bottom, which Jacques believes is the remains of the compost after rain. The foreman offers it to him for a hundred francs, but Jacques tells him he only has fifty. The offer is accepted, and the business concluded.

Chapter Nine. QuicksilverJacques hurtles at full speed to the stable to tell Bobby that he has found Lantoine’s cart. Bobby instantly asks him if he completely sure and Jacques feels slightly worried but is satisfied he did the right thing. They tell the Colonel, who suggests Bobby leads the mule to Wissous. Bobby is very alarmed at this – happy that he’s got the confession from Bobby that he isn’t 100% in tune with the animal, Brousse agrees to send one of his lads, Candau, with him. On the way, Candau, whose nickname is Tom Thumb, tells Bobby he thinks Quicksilver is a difficult animal, hard to predict or understand. Bobby thinks the mule is frightened taking this journey. Nevertheless, when they get to Wissous, Quicksilver seems to recognise the cart and Candau hitches it to the mule, whilst Bobby goes for a walkabout.

Bobby is shocked when he recognises someone in the office, through the window. The manager’s name is advertised as Carbonato, but it’s Markovitch! Bobby panics and tells Candau they have to get out quick. But at the exit, the foreman asks to see Bobby’s receipt again. They realise the men working there had stopped their work and were starting to surround them. “But Quicksilver had other ideas. He suddenly took the bit between his teeth, swung round in the opposite direction and tried to make his escape down a side-path beyond which nothing was to be seen. A workman sprang up in his path, waving an oxy-acetylene cutter that spat a long blue flame. Quicksilver gave a heart-rending bray and swung off, galloping still faster. The cart rocked crazily over the rutted ground. It was then Bobby realised that the mule was going through the same nightmare sequence of events as before, in the same surroundings and with the same tormentors.” When Bobby looks round and sees the workman push up his mask, he sees he has a lopsided face – it’s Slewjaw!

Meanwhile Candau is terrified because Quicksilver is out of control. Heading once again for the motorway, the mule manages to stay on his feet “and still he galloped on, twisting and turning among the speeding vehicles” but they get to the Wissous fly-over, Quicksilver slows to a walk and somehow they make their escape on the quiet road to Puisay.

Back at the stables, Candau confirms to the others that Carbonato’s men were like a bunch of rustlers and that they all had it in for the mule. Meanwhile Charlie and the gang were investigating the cart and discovered hidden away at the bottom five plastic bags containing what they think is artificial fertiliser. Later Sinet comes along and confirms that Carbonato-Markovitch and Slewjaw both have police records. And another surprise: “Among the men who scared you so badly was one of our plain-clothes squad. It was Quicksilver who wrecked everything […] We let the little fish swim around until we can catch fifty or a hundred at once. In other words there’s someone behind Markovitch and Slewjaw – the big fish. And until we can get our hands on him, we’ll never be able to solve the mystery.”

Chapter Ten. The headline on the next P. S. N. read Mule on the Motorway Again! and had a print run of 5,000 copies sold at double the usual price – fifty centimes. Flatfoot sent a copy to Carbonato Carwreckers, just for good measure. Brousse and Sinet buy their copies at exactly the same time and start reading. The Colonel asks Sinet more about their undercover officer. He deals with “industrial offences”. Puisay “has grown far more important than its neighbours from the point of view of research and technical equipment. Inevitably this modernisation has attracted a certain type of criminal to the town. Their activities are unpublicised, they work in the shadows and they seldom use violence, but they do as much damage to the economy of the country as a whole wave of recessions… Do I have to tell you who they are?” “Industrial spies?” murmured the Colonel […] “The cream of the joke,“ Sinet added, “is that our budding detectives haven’t guessed what the whole business is about, yet. The only thing that seems to matter to them is to expose the cruelty inflicted on that beast of burden they’ve taken under their wing.”

Charlie asks, through his newspaper column, for witnesses to the unloading of the compost from the cart to help trace Quicksilver’s steps; and Bobby has written another eloquent article by the mule. To the Colonel’s surprise, Sinet thinks that by following the evidence of the cart and the compost the boys are getting closer to the truth. And the first person to arrive at the P. S. N. offices as a witness is Madame Deuzy, who still gets a free copy of the paper after her help in solving the case of the Black Cat. She reports having seen the mule, with cart and man walking alongside, several times on the same day, a damp and foggy afternoon sometime in December. The boys try to work out Quicksilver’s route from a map based on what Madame Deuzy has told them. They conclude that the most likely route was along the Rue Pincevent. Other witnesses confirm this – but the trail vanishes somewhere down the Boulevard de Rungis. Charlie and Jacques get into an argument about what to do next, with Charlie caring more about his circulation and Jacques caring more about Quicksilver.

The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Patard, Sinet’s colleague. He has information for them. He lives in the Rue Gaboriau, off the Boulevard de Rungis, and saw Quicksilver trot by with his cart several times on the 16th December. Charlie offers him his last cigarette, and Patard remembers that it wasn’t more than ten minutes between seeing the mule going in one direction and coming back in the other – so the delivery point for the compost can’t be far from the Rue Gaboriau. It’s late, but Charlie needs the copy for the P. S. N. Flatfoot agrees to play the part of Quicksilver and time a journey from outside Patard’s house and see where he arrives five minutes later.

Chapter Eleven. ArimecaFlatfoot gets into character at the Rue Gaboriau as he pretends to be Quicksilver, emulating his “heavy and regular tread”. As bemused onlookers watch on, he heads towards the Boulevard, uncertain which direction he would take from there. He turns right – Charlie yells stop at the moment his stopwatch reached five minutes – and Flatfoot/Quicksilver had reached the premises of a company called Ariméca. This doesn’t seem a likely place for Quicksilver to have brought four deliveries of compost. A van approaches the building and is subjected to an intense automatic security check before being allowed in.

The boys (and Lily) have never seen such a contraption before, so Flatfoot plucks up courage to ask the security guards what it was for. They say it’s an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. And anyone or anything going in or out is subjected to the same scrutiny. Even a mule and a cart. Stunned by this comment, the guard continues: “A few months ago our Assistant Works Manager was raising a roof for some compost to go on the flower-beds round the office block. Then some nurseryman from Puisay offered him four cart-loads which were duly delivered one afternoon. This was the occasion when the portcullises at Ariméca were raised for a mule.”

The guard offers to give Flatfoot an exhibition of how Oscar, the machine, works. But once all seven of them have walked through to watch, the portcullis comes down and they are trapped. “It’s our job to hold any inquisitive people we find hanging around the gates”. “Bring them to me!” says a snarling voice via the intercom.

Chapter Twelve. However, when the gang met the two men who were waiting for them inside, the first thing Charlie notices is that they have copies of the P. S. N. on a table. The first man introduces himself to them as Commissioner Charrel; the other man is Monsieur Steven who’s in charge of security at Ariméca. They know all about the gang from conversations with Sinet. Charrel asks them what they hope to achieve with their investigations, and Jacques replies that they don’t know – and it depends on what is being manufactured at Ariméca. Steven explains: “Ariméca is a research centre financed by a dozen major organisations specialising in the production of heat-resistant metals. A few months ago a sample of tetrital was stolen from our laboratories. This is a revolutionary alloy designed for use in the manufacture of space-capsules and capable of standing up to temperatures in the region of 3000°C. Our directors were at their wits’ end. They were in danger of losing all profit from the discovery should it be prematurely revealed.”

Charrel goes on to say that the company contacted Interpol, who put Charrel on to the case. They’re satisfied that the secret hasn’t left the country, but what they are looking for is a bar, eighteen inches long, weighing about two pounds. It was stolen and replaced by a different bar, but they think the original sample may still well be hidden in the building. The date the theft was discovered? December 17th. Charrel agrees that the men at the car-dump in Wissous are under suspicion. He thinks the boss there must have been tempted when he discovered how much foreign firms would pay for the secret of a new process. But the company hasn’t acted so far because they are waiting for the big fish to show up – whoever it is who would be willing to pay a lot for the bar. Lily suggests the bar could be hidden in the earth of some hydrangeas – an idea that Steven rejects. Charlie asks if he can name Ariméca in his articles – but Steven says if he tries that, he’ll bring an injunction on the printing works.

Chapter Thirteen. Langlais and the Colonel come to meet Bobby at the stable. He tells Bobby of the developments in light of the visit to Ariméca. Bobby listens quietly and impassively. In the end he says that nothing “won’t stop me believing that Quicksilver really did get out of the factory with the sample of that wonderful metal.” So why are Carbonato and Slewjaw so intent on getting the mule back? Maybe there’s something still in the cart? A thorough inspection reveals nothing. What about the bags of fertiliser? The club gardener took them. Bobby and Langlais inspect them closely and one bag is heavier – but it only reveals four horseshoes. Old ones of Quicksilver, maybe? So what shoes is he wearing now? The penny drops. Quicksilver is wearing shoes made of tetrital! Slewjaw must have substituted the shoes, and when the mule was outside the premises of Ariméca, they tried to get them off him, but frightened the mule so he did a bolt.

Langlais has another surprise. He remembers the description Broquin gave of the well-dressed man who asked him if he had compost for sale. He recognised that description in someone he’d seen very recently – Monsieur Steven! There’s no proof that Steven is wrapped up in this; but they decide to tell Sinet, who’ll tell Charrel. And Brousse has a plan, to lay a trap “with Quicksilver playing the part of the tethered goat.”

Chapter Fourteen. Who owns this muleThe next P. S. N. sells out rapidly. Charlie has written a great spread which includes a reconstruction of Quicksilver’s journey, the evidence of Mme Deuzy and Gendarme Patard (here renamed Tapard) and also the fact that a major part of the story remains censored. And Bobby’s column for Quicksilver shows that the mule wants to move on and leave his sorry past behind him. He recounts the way he passes his time every day, and adds that Bobby is going to get him a new set of shoes. Carbonato is not going to receive a free copy of this edition! Tom Thumb wonders how much Quicksilver’s shoes might be worth – Bobby suggests ten or fifteen million, making the mule more valuable than any Derby winner.

They put the bridle on Quicksilver and begin a walk into Puisay to visit the blacksmith, Monsieur Taupin. If Carbonato and his men want to kidnap him, Charrel’s watchdogs will be there to prevent it. Quicksilver started to get anxious as he sensed the motorway was near, but they reach the blacksmith’s yard and M Taupin starts work. The blacksmith is not impressed with Quicksilver’s old shoes – “it’s not even iron! Why,  your mule could have broken his neck twenty times over on his way here. You try running barefoot on gravel and you’ll discover what it feels like.”

Whilst Candau and Taupin have a beer together in the forge, Bobby and Quicksilver wait outside. Then four men come into the yard. Carbonato and Slewjaw, and two others. “Who owns this mule?” asks one. “I’ve never seen you before,” said Bobby with a nasty smile, “but someone was talking about you only yesterday evening. You’re Monsieur Steven, and you’ve come to grab the precious fragments of tetrital stolen from Ariméca… For your private account?” Steven is furious, but at that point Taupin appears. Carbonato offers to buy the shoes that have been removed from Quicksilver but Taupin says they are already sold. “Who to?” And Commissioner Charrel appears, with the four horseshoes tied together. Steven and the other men try to make their escape and walk straight into the hands of Sinet.

Sinet has a plan for Quicksilver’s retirement, working at a Wild West Club in Chantilly “where anyone from Paris who wants to play at cowboys can let off steam.” The last P. S. N. to wrap up the story of the mule on the motorway has to be written quickly so a new issue can be printed the next day. Sinet tells Bobby that his success in solving this case means he’ll almost certainly get promotion, and Bobby is delighted for him.

And what next for Bobby and the gang, the P. S. N. and the local police? A story concerning a goldfish? “The new chemist in the Avenue de Paris has been giving one away to all his customers.” There must be a story in that!


A Truckload of RiceTo sum up; A very satisfying, amusing and readable book with entertaining characters and a surprisingly inventive story with a great surprise ending. And, again, the story sets another book up featuring Bobby and the gang, this time involving the goldfish. 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 results from Charlie’s suggestion that next time Bobby becomes involved in an intrigue surrounding a goldfish, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges, translated into English as A Truckload of Rice. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

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.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of Saint-Salgue (1962)

Mystery of Saint SalgueIn which we make one final visit to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang; adults now – some of them at least – off on a camping holiday in the South of France in Gaby’s Citroen van. But what is the mystery of the village of Saint-Salgue, and why are they being followed?

La Piste du SouvenirThe Mystery of Saint-Salgue was first published in 1962 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Piste du Souvenir, which translates literally as The Trail of Remembrance, with illustrations by Robert Broomfield. As “The Mystery of Saint-Salgue”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1963, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 13s 6d. A quick check online suggests there are a few copies of this book available to buy at the moment – scattered around the world, mainly!

Paul BernaThis, sadly, is the last book by Berna to feature Gaby and his gang, but when you read it through to the end, and you discover its highly unusual and lifechanging ending, it’s appropriate that this is where we leave our friends to get on with their future. For the most part, it’s a very plot-driven book, with many exciting turns and surprises, full of action, and with a very feelgood ending. Perhaps the ending is a little too far-fetched to appreciate fully; then again, who is to say that such an event couldn’t happen? I’ll have to leave you to read it and discover it for yourself.

Despite its busy plot, there is still space for Berna to explore the developing characters of the gang members. Gaby is already a man; he still has his anger management issues, confronting Charley for not resorting to violence against the villains when they are captured. ““Your non-violence is all wrong! […] by behaving like this you will let them think they are immune to punishment and that’s just encouragement to crooks like them. Now, I see things in a slightly different light”. And he lifted an imperious boot to the seat of Grondin’s shorts…” When their vehicle gets vandalised, his instant reaction is to fly into a fury and kick one of Marion’s dogs – even though the dog was obviously not responsible for the damage. Berna describes Gaby as speaking with a “patronising bite” when mocking Fernand’s father, “Daddy Douin”. And when it comes to the big rescue mission at the end, Gaby’s plan is to use their vehicle as a battering ram. It doesn’t matter that Zidore has spent ages lavishing care on its appearance; Gaby wants to use it with brutal force. He still commands respect within the gang, and you still want to be best friends with him, but I do worry about his future welfare!

Zidore, on the other hand, has turned into a true mechanic; proud of his hard work, always generous with his time and his skill – for example, the way he repairs the Rambler without even being asked. It’s while working with the oil that Berna teases us with the fact that his oil-blackened moustache makes him look ten years older. That impresses on the reader that he too is now a man – and a thoroughly decent one.

In some respects, Fernand takes more centre stage in this book as Berna reveals more of his sensitivity and introvert nature. Although we occasionally see how he’s still besotted with Marion, their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, and in fact Marion’s role in this book is merely occasionally to make financial decisions and take care of the dogs – although the final scene in the book shows Marion reassuring Fernand that it is ok to make his own decisions and occasionally tell a judicious white lie. It may be that Fernand’s development has been held back by his relationship with his father and also the sense of “not-belonging”, which is at the heart of the story.

The only other person to get more of Berna’s attention than usual is Criquet Lariqué. Fernand describes him as “the cleverest of us all” as he quietly goes about playing a supporting role within the gang. For the first time, Berna addresses Criquet Lariqué’s racial background. When Betty asks where he was born, Zidore steps in: “here of course! […] in our suburb. Criquet’s as French as the rest of us. The colour of his skin makes no difference.” Nevertheless, we feel the boy’s anguish at the end when he fears he will be the only member of the gang who will not fit into everyone’s future, agonising about being from Timbuctoo. As always, the gang is very protective and inclusive, and his fears are unfounded – but his sensitivities to the issue and consequent insecurity are very obvious.

As always, Berna is at his best when he conveys that sense of unity and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang. No matter their age or ability, everyone is equal, everyone contributes. When the gang members introduce themselves to their Canadian neighbours on the first night of their holiday, each of them explains their role within the group: Gaby, the captain and steersman, Zidore the mechanic, Fernand the navigator-quartermaster, Juan in charge of tent pitching, Tatave head cook, Bonbon his bus boy, Criquet, head waiter, and Berthe and Mélie laundry-maids (Gaby is not a strong feminist). Only Marion refuses to play this game, because of her distrust for anyone new; but Gaby explains she’s in charge of the dogs.

However, for the first time the book touches upon that feeling when a member of the group might be acting on their own agenda, secretively keeping things from the rest of the gang and possibly not working in the gang’s best interests. That suggestion of disunity and disloyalty from within the gang feels quite shocking. Gaby knows his team well enough to conclude who that person might be. “A rebellious lock of hair fell across Fernand’s half-closed eyes. He was wide awake now and could feel the injustice of nine pairs of accusing eyes turning on him. Even Marion, his beloved Marion, was cold and hostile.” But although he has been keeping a major secret from the gang, Fernand has not been working against their best interests – far from it, as it turns out at the end. Nevertheless, you feel Fernand has to work hard to regain the gang’s respect.

Also for the first time, the English title of the novel is more appropriate than the original French! The Mystery of Saint-Salgue completely sums up the entire book, as it’s not until the final pages that we discover what and where Saint-Salgue is and, even then, how its mystery will affect the gang members for the rest of their lives. La Piste du Souvenir – The Trail of Remembrance – is a very abstract title that perhaps emphasises more the journey to get to Saint-Salgue rather than the destination’s significance.

As Berna often likes to do, the book starts with a map, revealing that pretty much everywhere in this book is based on real places. La Goulaine caravan camp, where the story starts, is near Varenne-Saint-Germain, east of Moulins. Sologne is a region and Salbris is a real town between Orleans and Bourges. The village of Estivareilles exists, and although there isn’t a Chapon d’Or, there is a Lion d’Or, with a bar that looks out on to the main road, just as Berna describes. I’m sure you could recreate the journey taken by Calamity Jane the van even today. Talking of which, why are they now calling their vehicle “Calamity Jane”, when in Gaby and the New Money Fraud, they had decided to call it the “Uphill Struggle”? That’s an inconsistency that really bothers me!

There’s another aspect to this book that doesn’t feel quite right. Although the English version is by Berna’s usual translator John Buchanan-Brown, the accuracy of the English idiom doesn’t always seem up to his usual standards. For example, right at the beginning, Charley is staring at the night sky and the narration notes that his gaze falls upon the constellation Cassiope. However, in English we know that as Cassiopeia. In another example, at the beginning of the chapter “The Forest Perilous”, Berna writes: “the moonbeams slanted down to illumine the whole camp.” Illumine is the direct French word, not illuminate as it would be in English. There were a few instances where I felt the language wasn’t spot on, which is very unusual for these books. Maybe the proofreading was carried out too quickly, or Mr Buchanan-Brown didn’t have his mind on the job!

A few other thoughts came to mind whilst reading this book. Grondin’s constant attempts to stop the progress of the gang and the Canadians reminded me of Wile E Coyote’s perpetual attempts to stop the Road Runner. And I love how all Marion’s dogs have human intelligence! They’re really add-on members of the group, with Dick and Plouc in particular playing a significant role in this story. And I thought it was curious that they called the living space at the back of the van “The Bridal Suite”. That suggests an activity that otherwise is certainly not present in the interactions of the gang members, no matter how much Fernand is in love with Marion.

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 Midnight Prowler. As Manitoban holidaymaker Charley Ricou looks out at night from his caravan at La Goulaine, he is amused at the sight of “a sort of red-painted Noah’s Ark on wobbly wheels” that has parked up next to him. The vehicle had arrived earlier that evening, with its cargo of seven boys, three girls and “eleven hairy hounds”, whom the caretaker had said couldn’t stay in the main camp site but could be housed on the sand by the river. Charley, with his wife Betty, had already met the gang that evening, where the gang members all introduced themselves to their new neighbours, and had shared a spot of supper together.

Charley had explained that he and his wife, Betty, come from Saint-Salgue in Manitoba, but it must have been named after an original French town. They want to discover the French Saint-Salgue, but where is it? The gang members are minded to accompany the couple on their quest, although no firm decisions are made. But Charley is disturbed by the appearance late at night of one Grondin, whom he and his wife had met at Houlgate. Grondin was noseying around the gang’s vehicle but didn’t steal anything. Charley is suspicious. “If you ask me he’s worked some dirty deal on those kids”, says Charley to Betty. “He must be mad. How can they worry him?” she replies. “Maybe they’re in the deal, too!” responds Charley, enigmatically.


Chapter Two – The Police Station at Salbris. The gang take to the road, planning a journey to the Forest of Tronçais, south of Bourges. But Bonbon has noticed something odd – the dogs are all growling at the luggage, and indeed yellow dog Dick had bitten into the side of one of the cases to reveal a transistor radio. How did it get there? Marion suggests they keep it somewhere safe and discreet and Zidore offers to look after it.

Two policemen on motorbikes roar past and signal for Gaby to stop driving. Satisfied they’ve got the right vehicle, the cops tell Gaby they’ve been ordered to escort them to the police station. Is it something to do with the transistor? They arrive in Salbris and are told to give up their ID papers. They are told that one of their neighbours at the caravan camp has had a transistor set stolen and suspect the gang. If they find the transistor while searching Calamity Jane, they’re in trouble!

Fernand and Marion watch a man leaning against a new Citroen Shooting-Brake, watching the police search with fascination. They’re convinced he’s the man who planted the transistor – but they’ve never seen him before. The police find the set – but Fernand tries to convince the police that it’s theirs. The man at the Citroen (who is indeed the accuser) tells the police the precise brand and colour of his transistor – but everyone gets a shock when the superintendent calls out “it isn’t yours […] someone’s been pulling your leg.”

Fernand gets the bright idea that the police should search the Citroen now, to see if the man actually does have his own set. The policeman agrees and gives the Citroen a major search. And, lo and behold, he finds the transistor, exactly as the man had described. The policeman is furious, insists on seeing the man’s papers, and threatens a full security check. Marion, in the meantime, requests a full apology from the man – Grondin.

It turns out that Fernand and Charley had a quick conversation that morning, where Charley said he saw Grondin place the transistor in their luggage, but afterwards Charley took it out again and put it back in Grondin’s vehicle, and then placed another transistor in their van as a present. Fernand goes on to explain that Charley isn’t just an ordinary tourist. “I think he’s backed by a lot of money as the agent of a Canadian Aid Committee that plans to buy up undeveloped land. But a horde of speculators are in the game already and his arrival threatens to upset all their plans.” But why didn’t he tell them sooner? Because Charley asked him not to.

They stop for a fantastic lunch prepared by Tatave. Steak, chips, cider; some of the gang swim “in the cool green waters of the Sauldre”; “every now and then a kingfisher would flash blue over the stream. There was not a cloud in the blue sky and the countryside sweltered in the summer heat.” Idyllic. But then as they talk after lunch about the odd behaviour of Grondin and the Canadians, none of it makes sense. What was the last thing they agreed? To meet the Canadians at Saint-Salgue. “”Well that’s what is so odd,” Fernand said with a slight smile. “I’ve been through my guide books with a toothcomb, but there just isn’t a French village of that name.””


Chapter Three – Zidore Carries his Cross. When they get back to Calamity Jane, they see that she has been vandalised – “Four flat tyres, cut and slashed to the rims, their luggage scattered on the grass and the windscreen smashed in pieces.” Zidore weeps in despair, Fernand is white and speechless, and Gaby gives vent to his famous anger, kicking one of Marion’s dogs, Barnaby, in the rump. The gang will have to cut corners to afford all the repair work or shorten their holiday – and no one wants to do that. They decide to jack up the van, take the wheels off and roll them into Salbris. The old lady at the nearby farm has reported seeing a man in a green car – maybe he was responsible for the damage. Once the wheels are off, Gaby stays behind with the girls and the van, and Zidore, Fernand, Tatave and Juan take the wheels into town. There they meet the police superintendent and tell him their tale of woe. He directs them to Vierzon and gives the name of someone who will be able to help them there.

Criquet goes off to play in the countryside, but he is disturbed by the arrival of a green car. The man asks to look at the red van and Criquet takes him back to the rest of the gang, who explain what happened. Marion accuses the man of being involved. But the man says  that he “saw a Citroen shooting brake emerge from this track. I knew the driver as a petty crook and I also knew that wherever he goes he is up to something underhand […]  I came upon the wreck of your van. It looked all too like his handywork to me, so I was off at top speed in the hope of catching him on the Vierzon road […] Grondin is one of the names he uses. But as far as I’m concerned the driver of the Citroen is one of Sobeco’s strong arm men”. He explains that Sobeco is a construction company that buys land and property and resells it at a profit. “At present we can’t even begin a major construction project without fear of interference from these sharks.” The man, Coppet, offers to pay for their tyres and suggests they change course and go to a camping site on the Atlantic coast for free. But Marion smells a rat and they refuse his generosity.

Shortly afterwards, a police escort brings Zidore, the boys and five freshly re-tread tyres. They put them on, return the blocks they had borrowed from the old lady, who says she has killed a couple of fowls for their dinner tonight. They decide to drive on and keep a permanent watch on the vehicle night and day – but unknown to them, Coppet follows them discreetly in his green Jaguar.


Chapter Four – The Forest Perilous. Camped up overnight at the Forest of Tronçais, Fernand and Juan awaken. They walk silently into the forest and agree that it was the sound of a car door shutting that woke them up. Dick the dog takes the lead in investigating where the sound came from. Eventually they see Grondin and his car talking to another man in a white Peugeot. They overheard the men’s conversation. “If those ten kids hadn’t introduced themselves one after the other I should have kept on the track of the Rambler and never given the others a thought. But the name of one of them hit me like a ton of bricks. I dashed for the telephone to check his identity. Ten minutes later I’d got it. His father was one of the people who spoiled our plans and it couldn’t have been an accident that the son was in the camp. I guessed at once he was in league with the Canadians.” It’s obvious that the men think the gang are still stuck in Salbris with an immobilised vehicle. “Anyway one day’s delay will put them out of the running in the unlikely event of their still being in the race. The day after tomorrow, between ten in the morning and midday three candles will be lit at Saint-Salgue. It’s in the bag. There’s no need to worry, the third candle will be for Sobeco.”

It’s also obvious that they’re planning for an accident to befall the Canadians, having tinkered with the brakes to send their Rambler off the top of a hill, with Charley and Betty ending up in hospital if they’re lucky. During their conversation they make it clear where the Canadians are pitched up overnight. Then the two men make elaborate plans to meet the next day at the village of Estivareilles. Grondin gets back in his car, turns on the lights and Fernand and Juan are captured like startled rabbits in the beam. Fortunately Grondin doesn’t recognise the boys and they pretend to be poaching rabbits. To add to the mayhem, Dick the dog lunges at and bites the other man, Punch. They try to catch the boys, but they escape. When they get back to the cars, they find their tyres slashed. Punch: “our expenses will cover the damage. The gang in the van have returned the compliment, and now we know where we stand with those little devils.” Curiously someone has written a Greek letter Sigma on the windscreen with their finger.

Dick signposts the way as the boys head back to camp, with the message that they have to get moving as soon as possible. The most important thing is to warn Charley and Betty before they use the brakes of the Rambler. They decide to leave the camp standing to fool their watchers into thinking that they were still asleep. But when they get to the Rond-point du Chevreuil, there’s no one there. Criquet finds a half-smoked cigarette end of the foreign brand that Charley smoked, so they must only recently have left. But which direction should they take?


Chapter Five – Charley Puts his Cards on the Table.  Meanwhile, Charley and Betty had started off at least an hour earlier. Charley says he was surprised not to see the gang at Tronçais, because Fernand had said they would be there. He’s concerned that they might have got into trouble with Grondin. Just as Betty starts to freewheel down a large slope, they hear the clamour of a tooting horn behind – and it’s the gang. With amazing skill, Gaby pulls in front of the Rambler, and, as the Rambler has no brake power, it quickly hits the back of Calamity Jane. Gaby slows down and goes down the gears and eventually both vehicles come to a halt at a corner. “The horse without a head gave us some nasty moments but never anything like this. Did you see the ravine? We were lucky not to power-dive a couple of hundred feet to the bottom.”

Whilst breakfast is prepared, Zidore slips under the Rambler and repairs the damage caused by Grondin, replacing the missing bolt and filling the brakes with six pints of oil. They hold a council of war to decide what to do next. Juan mentions that the men from Sobeco talked about some ceremony near Murat. “”But we’ve never had the slightest intention of heading in that direction!” Gaby protested […] “You’re a bunch of brazen liars,” Charley laughed. “Or else one of you decided to work on his own and then alter course half-way, without the rest of you. You hadn’t yet tumbled to it, but the other people had and when they did you were in real danger. As these crooks are the same bunch who have been watching and following my wife and me the obvious conclusion is that your undercover man is involved in the same business as we are.” His charge burst like a bomb.”

Charley has got it right – and Fernand confesses that his father has asked him to give a man called Mézeran, who lives in Peyrelade, some “family papers”. When Gaby mocks him, out of suppressed fury, Fernand explains how he grew up alongside his father’s sadness at not having roots in Louvigny; and Fernand feels the same. They agree to meet at the same spot – Saint-Salgue. Gaby says it doesn’t exist, but Charley replies, enigmatically:” it does exist, you know […] if you’d only tell yourselves it was the cause of all the trouble, Saint-Salgue would seem much more real.” Marion overcomes her own natural distrust to agree to meeting there, and they all agree on the route. But it’s when Charley shows Fernand a map of where to go, he notes that the name Mézeran appears on the bottom of the sketch map. “Fortunately he drooping forelock hid his expression of amazement. “Seen everything?” Charley asked him with odd emphasis. “Everything,” Fernand replied, his voice level.” Marion sends the dogs Dick and Plouc off with the Ricous to help look after them.

It’s when Grondin and Punch (real name Schutz) are having sandwiches at the Chapon d’Or that M. Coppet pulls up in his green Jaguar. Grondin recognises him as the director of Sigma. Coppet makes a call to Paris and speaks to “the Great White Chief”. It’s clear from his conversation that Ricou and Sobeco are racing for the same destination, as Ricou “is the prime mover of this scheme to adopt Saint-Salgue and nothing but philanthropy is behind it […]  as the allies of the Canadians […] these crazy youngsters are helping us, even though they don’t know it.” Coppet promises that he will be the first to reach Saint-Salgue.


Chapter Six – The Man from Peyrelade.  Charley, Betty, Dick and Plouc enjoy an uneventful and scenic drive south. Arriving at their destination: “To one side they could see what looked like an immense stadium, darkened by the first evening shadows. Its upper limits were ringed by the cones of extinct volcanoes smoothed or turreted by the weather; then the meadows swept down in giddying slopes to a thickly wooded plateau. Through the tree tops, they could see the tip of a mountain lake at the bottom of this huge punch-bowl.” An old man is there to greet them – Mézeran. It’s clear there is a family connection. The old man invites them to his farmhouse for some food and an overnight. But Charley says they are waiting for their friends. Instead, Mézeran gets in the Rambler with Charley and Betty, whilst the dogs remain behind, but with Charley’s gloves for scent purposes.

When the gang arrive, they are perplexed that the Rambler isn’t there. Fernand suggests it would be a good place to spend a week, but Tatave grumbles that it would be too far from buying food provisions. Marion notices Charley’s gloves and is also surprised at how silent the dogs are. They encounter an old man, who says that no one has been around for ages – but Marion knows he is lying. He introduces himself as Mézeran and asks for Fernand’s papers. But Fernand refuses, because he realises this man is an impostor! Fernand: “the old mayor is over eighty and gets about in a wheelchair. That I do know… where’s yours?” Realising he’s lost this battle, the old man walks off. “It would have been hard to have forced a confession out of the old rogue, and the gang never allowed violence except in self-defence.”

Marion gets the dogs to follow the scent of the gloves to find the Canadians. Barnaby leads off, and they follow in the van. Barnaby takes them down a deserted lane full of potholes and hairpin bends. It takes them down to a magnificent lake, but they could almost have driven in, so close is it to the road. But had someone got there first? “Ten or twelve yards from the shore the water was barely clear enough to make out the blue and white of the Rambler, but an inch or two of the caravan roof was still above the surface and bubbles of escaping air broke the water around the two submerged vehicles.”


Chapter Seven – The Cleverest of Them All. Earlier, Dick wasn’t in the Rambler, but could follow its scent easily. He saw it headed for the lake although couldn’t see who was driving. He yapped his distress and recognised Grondin, having jumped out of the car, watching his handiwork as the Rambert started to submerge. The man tries to chuck a stone at Dick, but the dog is too quick and attacks him, so that he ends up with a gashed cheek. Plouc joins Dick and together they watch a farm building where Grondin, Schutz and Delmas (who had been the fake Mézeran) were talking.

Charley and Betty, meanwhile, were locked in a windowless attic above the barn. Charley was furious at having been duped by Delmas. They stare through a crack between the floorboards and see Dick and Plouc watching the building. Grondin sees the dogs at the same time and takes aim with his gun – but the dogs are more than a match for him. And now, someone else appears; not Delmas, whom Charley was expecting, but another man in a smart suit. He hides in the undergrowth whilst the three conspirators return and formulate their plans.

Juan had been in the lake and had satisfied himself that there was no one in the submerged vehicles. Gaby suggests that Juan tries to unhitch the caravan and then they could drag both vehicles out of the water with the aid of Calamity Jane. Fernand joins Juan as they tie rope around the back of the caravan. Incredibly, they return the caravan to dry land, Zidore secures its brakes and tells Marion and the girls to mop it out. The car is a much harder task, but eventually they succeed in dredging it up. They decide to stay the night by the lake but to have Calamity Jane ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, Criquet appears to be playing with a stick in the water – but he’s not playing. “I’m measuring the water. It’s running away awful fast.” And Fernand could see that the level of the water was going down. ““Measure away, little Criquet,” Fernand murmured as he turned on his heel. “You’re really the cleverest of us all.””

Marion leaves with Juan, Zidore and Fernand. When they get to the crossroads, Marion and Zidore stay, and Juan and Fernand go on with the dogs. Eventually they near the lake and see the big wooden barn. They overhear the voices of Grondin and Schutz, and sneaking a look through the cracks of the door, see the old man who pretended to be Mézeran. As the three men bed down for the night, something soft and silky lands on the back of Fernand’s shoulders – Betty’s scarf.


Chapter Eight – We Belong to Saint-Salgue. Coppet watches Criquet’s fascination with the descending water level and explains that the sluice gates of the dam have opened, and the water will flood down to the River Lot and then the Garonne, the Gironde and finally the Atlantic. But this will be the last time this happens, as the next day they will blow up the big wall that kept the water in place. Berthe is not impressed, but Coppet explains: “Men can make mistakes when they undertake a major project […] They do so more often through aiming too low than from aiming too high. A little over thirty years ago when a hydro-electric company built the dam at La Douze they only expected to supply the immediate locality with light and power […]  for the last six hours the water you’ve been watching run away has poured down the gorges to swell a lake six times larger than this one was – over twenty miles long! You can get very excited about all the wonderful things being done today but it’s just as wonderful to get rid of something that’s grown useless before it’s too late.”

Whilst Coppet is charming some of the younger gang, Gaby, Marion, Fernand and Zidore get in Calamity Jane with the dogs and head off to rescue Charley and Betty. Gaby’s solution is to charge down the building with the vehicle. “The old ark’ll go through that door like a knife through butter. Your sleepers won’t have time to turn over in bed”. “Thought of yourself?” Juan murmured in the background. Gaby pulled his little checked cap down even more firmly. “Pah! I’ll only risk a bruise or two.” […] Fernand quietly remarked, “what about Calamity Jane? “Oh, she’s bound to be smashed up,” Gaby answered carelelessly, “but not really concertina-ed”. Zidore’s face went white.” Nevertheless they agree to Gaby’s plan; the walls get smashed in, the dogs attack the villains, Gaby and Zidore tool up for a fight, and Juan and Fernand rush upstairs to free the Canadians. But Charley is soft-spoken and polite to the three men, much to the furious Gaby’s annoyance, who is spoiling for a fight.

They all meet for a celebratory coffee and snacks by the lake, although Tatave points out that Coppet is still there, promising the earth. He’s going to turn the punchbowl into a holiday centre for winter skiing. But as they watch the water recede, something magical happens. The hidden village of Saint-Salgue slowly reappears. First the church spire, then the roofs, then the rest of the buildings. Will the old inhabitants be able to come back to the village? ““That depends.” Monsieur Coppet laughed. “At sunrise this morning the Central Electricity Authority will auction the village lands their predecessors acquired thirty years ago. If they want to, those who suffered compulsory purchase in 1928 can invoke a clause in that sale which guarantees them the prior right to repurchase their properties. Will they be there?  That’s the big question.”” Charley assures them that the finance will be there to afford the buy back.

Gaby reflects on their journey. Although they had intended to go on a Mediterranean beach holiday, “something stronger than the sea drew us here”. Everyone agrees. But it’s Fernand who drops the bombshell. “You’ll want to know why this particular spot rather than any other attracted you, and what holds you to this forgotten place. I’m going to tell you! It’ll come as a shock, but you’ve got to believe me, as you believed what Monsieur Coppet’s just told you […] WE ALL BELONG TO SAINT-SALGUE! […] our parents were all old inhabitants of the drowned village […] twelve left peacefully on the first notification that they had to go […] the hard core was left, young men determined to hold their hard-won land, their hopes or rather the bonds between a man and his birthplace. There were eight of them and these were their names […]Henri Babin, Paul Fabert, Lucien Joye, Maurice Loche, Baptiste Gédéon, Patrice Lourvrier, Constant Douin (my own father) and Django Lespagnol, a gipsy who had settled in the village […] the eight swore they’d stick together. A few days later the train which took them into exile deposited them in a gloomy Parisian suburb.” But Criquet Lariqué feels left out because his parents were not one of the eight. Gaby assures him that Mézeran will make him an honorary citizen of Saint-Salgue.

The auction ceremony takes place – and there’s only one bidder! Charley hands over his cheque, and Saint-Salgue is restored to its former inhabitants. Criquet receives the Freedom of the City. Fernand has just one task left; to find the house that his father lived in and see if an old watch is still hanging in the place where he left it. It is. It needs very careful cleaning, but it could be restored to life. They’ll need to pretend to M. Douin that it instantly went like a dream. “Fernand hesitated. “I’ve never told him a lie in my life.” He sighed and stared at his feet. “Just this once you can, “ said Marion. “He won’t be taken in, but he’ll smile like he used to do and the road to Saint-Salgue will open in front of him once again.””


The Clue of the Black CatTo sum up; this is definitely the end of the road for Gaby and his gang. Over the course of four books, we’ve seen them grow from playing in poverty-stricken streets with the horse without a head (which gets a name check in this book), through to owning a vehicle and taking it on holidays. The mystery of Saint-Salgue ends with the suggestion that the future is rosy for these characters; Berna has engineered it so that they will always remain friends, and indeed live in the same environment, although it may not necessarily be Louvigny! It’s an enjoyable and action-packed read; its unusual end might feel far-fetched or just a huge reward for the way they’ve entertained us over the years. 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 something special. His next book was Le Témoignage du chat noir, translated into English as The Clue of the Black Cat. Not only is this my favourite Paul Berna book, but it’s also probably my favourite children’s story of all time, and I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – Gaby and the New Money Fraud (1961)

Gaby and the New Money FraudIn which we return to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang, where Gaby and Zidore are now grown up and working, and Gaby can’t see himself in the role of gang leader anymore. But when the gang put pressure on him to stay by chipping in to buy him a car, all looks rosy until counterfeit money follows them wherever they go!

Gaby and the New Money Fraud was first published in 1961 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Bout du Monde, which translates literally as The End of the World, with a jacket illustration by Barry Wilkinson, but, unusually, no further illustrations inside. As “Gaby and the New Money Fraud”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1971, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 90p. A quick check online suggests there aren’t any copies of this book available to buy at the moment, sadly. It had been two years since Berna’s last book for children, Le Champion (never translated into English), was published, but he hadn’t been sitting on his laurels; in fact, during that time he’d written at least another four novels under the pseudonym Paul Gerrard, including the award winning thriller, Deuil en rouge. But, two years on, Berna was back in the saddle for this entertaining story of Gaby and his gang acting as unwitting couriers for a counterfeit money scam!

A Hundred Million FrancsIt was at the end of A Hundred Million Francs that Gaby was in tears because, having reached the grand old age of 12, he thought he was too old to be a gang member. Six years later, and Gaby still has the same doubts, although he deals with it in a slightly more adult way. He doesn’t burst into tears, but he’s frustrated by his own lack of maturity, which would allow him to move on with good grace and friendship. As a result, he’s angry and grumpy instead. “”Here’s my bomb! From this moment on you can call yourselves the Eight. You can have my resignation here and now – and Zidore’s too, if you want it.” Deathly silence greeted the news. Marion was still half-grinning, but the others seemed both shocked and upset. Fair-haired Mélie began to snivel. “No, Gaby, you wouldn’t dare do that…” “Oh yes I would!” the leader of the Ten bellowed. I’m telling you, it’s all over and done with now […] Zidore and me are too old for kids’ games now!””

One of the great things about this book is that we observe Gaby growing from a boy to a man. We actually find out Gaby’s date of birth – 29/4/52 – which was presumably brought forward a decade for the English translation and publication, otherwise, he’d only be 9! He seems to have great anger management issues, not only with the others in the gang, but also with the police, which suggests he might get himself into serious problems in the future. But we care about Gaby. When Patrice and Pedro trap Gaby and Zidore in the shed, you really feel the injustice of the action! You’re surprised how much you care about them, and how you resent the fact that they’ve been caught in danger. Gaby has been a hero to us and to his friends for a few years now, so it’s surprisingly alarming and off-putting to discover this internal anger that you sense will haunt him in years to come. This book isn’t the last time we meet Gaby – let’s hope he’s calmed down by the time he makes his final appearance.

We also follow Marion growing from a girl to a woman. She retains a much stronger grasp of common sense and obeying the law, which will stand her in good stead in the future. She deliberately allows Patrice to think she’s stupid, but it’s in order to get her own way. But it’s disappointing to see Gaby and Zidore not treating her with the respect that she deserves. There’s a particularly difficult scene where Zidore manhandles her into the van when she’s making the point that they should not go away until the police have made their enquiries. Berna notes the difficulty she has keeping her public face as part of the gang and her injured private emotions. “Marion laughed with the others to avoid upsetting anyone, but her abduction rankled and she kept a discreet eye on the road.” It’s also regrettable to see Fernand playing so small a part in this book – he doesn’t appear to step in and protect her as you feel he should.

As always, Berna is at his best when conveying what it’s like to be a member of a gang. And, as the gang members get older, there’s an art to maintaining that gang mentality. In this book, Zidore seems to have made a closer friend with Juan, who’s a lot younger and poorer. Maybe this is because Gaby seems to get annoyed at the turn of a hat, finding it difficult to turn off his unease at being the oldest. Everyone still firmly adheres to their gang roles, which makes it easier to stick together. When Gaby allocates the jobs that everyone will do on their holiday trip, the younger girls get given first-aid and all the housework, and Marion isn’t given a role at all: “just watch the countryside go by”. She’s quite angry about this. He’s so sexist!

The Knights of King MidasOnce again, Berna depicts a gang concentrating their interest in scheming to make money to achieve a particular aim. As in The Knights of King Midas, where Charloun and his gang raise money for the local homeless, in this book Gaby and his gang put in so much effort, not only to raise the money to buy the van, but also to insure it, maintain it and fill it with petrol. And when the opportunity to earn something comes their way, they never refuse it!

Even though we’re a few years on, Louvigny remains a highly urban yet poor environment. Both Gaby and Zidore have taken a very traditional route into the world of work – Gaby following his father by working on the railways, and Zidore following his natural ability with engines by working at the local garage. It’s interesting, from today’s perspective, that, despite the poverty of their environment, they obviously faced no difficulty in getting jobs; sadly that would be unlikely today.

The English title of the book, which has a very different emphasis from the original French title, maybe doesn’t reflect the content of the book too well. Like the previous book, The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, the English title takes one aspect of the story and gives you an expectation that perhaps is not met in the story as a whole. The original French title, The End of the World, is first alluded to when Gaby and the gang are sitting in Marion’s mother’s garden at the beginning of the book, remembering their old adventures. ““Sometimes,” [Gaby] grumbled as he looked round, “you hardly know the place. Remember the old days? The Clos Pecqueux was the end of the world so far as we were concerned.” “Some people still think it is,” Marion said. We’re too old for it now. We’ll have to look somewhere else.”” The Clos Pecqueux was a ruined enclosure, full of bomb craters, which constituted the gang’s playground and which we first came across in A Hundred Million Francs. They thought of it as the end of the world, Le Bout du Monde. That was as far as their imagination and experience could take them in those early, poverty-stricken days. Six years on, the Clos Pecqueux is home to a brand-new estate of bungalows, and, similarly, the youngsters also have their sights set much farther. Itchy feet tell Gaby and Zidore (at least) that it’s time to move on. Marion returns to the idea of the end of the world as their adventure culminates in a night in prison cells – a very ironic reflection of how their dream holiday ended up. So it’s a clever title – something of a double-edged sword.

But the link established between new Franc and the new Penny, with the title Gaby and the New Money Fraud is very tenuous. My memory is that in 1971 people were primarily concerned about not understanding the new currency, and that it would be an opportunity for unscrupulous people to make a lot of money by putting a higher price on an item than it bore before the changeover. I don’t think anyone was that concerned about forgeries, or the coins breaking in two! It seems odd that the publishers took the opportunity to have this otherwise untranslated book available to an English-speaking market just on the strength of that. I don’t understand why it wasn’t translated before – as it follows Berna’s most successful characters on their journey into young adulthood. There is also a later book involving Gaby’s gang – The Mystery of Saint Salgue – which was published in English in 1963, which means that Gaby and the New Money Fraud was published out of sequence. So, indeed, the title does not reflect the story that well, and puts a different emphasis on its content, that of the criminal activity of Patrice and his pals, rather than the growing-up of the gang members.

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManLike The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations, and you can largely track the routes that the gang members take as they travel around Paris and head south towards their holiday destination. Zidore and Juan take the search for a car as far away as the Forest of Senart, a real area to the south east of Orly Airport. The Carrefour de l’Alouette, where Patrice’s garage is situated, doesn’t exist in Montgeron (which does), although there is one in Brebières, in northern France. Patrice says the smelting plants are based at Villejuif, Maisons-Alfort, Brunoy or at Saint-Maur, all of which are real places, south and south-east of central Paris. Apart from those, the only exception is that the Rue des Petits-Pauvres is now renamed the rue Zavatta, but I still can’t see one on a map of Paris!

It’s a matter of the era when this was written that there are a few times when the racial descriptions are outmoded. It’s not remotely racist – in fact, quite the opposite, Gaby’s gang is incredibly inclusive. But when you read it, there’s something not entirely comfortable about Berna often referring to Juan as “the gypsy”, and Criquet Lariqué as the “little coloured boy”.

Despite this, there are, as usual, some tremendously thought-provoking and beautifully created passages. I really liked Berna’s description of Marion sizing up whether she should sell more dogs. “When the argument raged the loudest, she turned her back on the gang and stared at her hounds with the cold calculation of the farmer’s wife coming into the fowl-yard with a carving-knife behind her back. Her four-footed guests seemed to understand and stood still, their heads cocked and their eyes watching her.” Still with the dogs, there’s a wonderful sequence where we follow Marion’s dogs Dick and Bébert as they follow the scent of the boys, the van and the villains. It’s all seen from their point of view, with their names for the characters, and their canine conversations. It’s very inventive and creative, and makes you realise that the dogs are just as important as the humans!

I was very amused by how the gang rearrange the configuration of the van, so that they can create a square seating area in the back, with sofas, chairs, windows, and so on, to create a convivial living space. This could never happen with today’s regulations, and it was clearly written long before the value of seat belts was recognised!

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 – A Marvellous Idea. During a meeting of the gang, they are surprised by a thunderous roar from a vehicle – and are shocked to discover Old Zigon, the rag and bone man from previous books, driving a van bearing the legend “The Junk Palace”. He must have come into some money, they think; and someone says “everybody’s got a car these days: why don’t we get one?” All the gang members go into a reverie of what their dream car would be like, and their ideas reflect their personalities. Gaby and Zidore want flashy sports cars. Tatave relishes the comfort of a Rolls-Royce. Minimalist and practical Fernand hopes for a 2CV. Juan wants a Berliet truck, Bonbon would be satisfied with a toy car, and Criquet Lariqué misunderstands the game and wants a fire engine. Mélie, Babin and Berthe all want an ambulance so they could help people after an accident. Only Marion doesn’t play along; as the gang’s treasurer she knows that a car would be unaffordable. They’ve only got three francs in the kitty, and one of those is a dud – a counterfeit coin that keeps on coming back to them in small change. Tatave agrees to try and palm it off when he buys bread the next day, but Gaby, enraged at their poverty, and the fact that a third of their wealth is a dud, insists he tries now.

Later on, the gang are sitting in Mme Fabert’s front garden – that’s Marion’s mother – remembering old times. The Clos Pecqueux was their old, ruined playground, but the wilderness has now been built on, with brand new bungalows. Gaby and Zidore get the sense that it’s time for them to move on too. Now that Gaby is working on the railways and Zidore is working at the Metropole garage, they don’t have the time to commit to their old friends. Gaby drops his “bomb”, to the effect that he and Zidore are now too old for all of this and want to resign from the gang. Whilst the others are surprised and upset, Marion could see this coming. But she’s still annoyed for the rest of them, calling the boys selfish, and accusing Gaby of saving money to buy a motorbike – money that he would normally have spent on gang activities. Everyone starts mocking the two senior boys, much to their fury and embarrassment. But Marion has a solution: “you’d be safer on four wheels than two, and your mates could join in the fun […] a car, of course. Let’s go and buy one. We’ll move mountains to raise enough money. And we could do it, too. We’ve plenty of ideas.”

The offer stops Gaby and Zidore in their tracks. At that moment Tatave returns empty-handed; the baker spotted the fake franc and sent him away with a flea in his ear and a sore cheek. They decide that Tatave can keep the coin as a present. And as they all decide what kind of car they would like, the meeting descends into knockabout farce. Zigon and his van career back into view; Gaby isn’t impressed, and is determined they won’t have a vehicle like his. Zidore recommends “an old-fashioned saloon car”, and Gaby agrees that Zidore should source the perfect vehicle at the best price. Their resignations from the gang duly withdrawn, all that remains is to tell Gaby’s father about their plan. “First pass your driving-test: then we’ll see.”


Chapter Two – The Poor Man’s Rolls. A week later, Zidore and Juan chance upon M. Patrice’s garage in Montgeron, full of broken-down old wrecks – but they ask their question anyway. “I work at the Metropole Garage in Louvigny”, said Zidore; “I heard a whisper that you’d got a second-hand saloon in good running order… Could we have a look at it?” Patrice shows them his Peugeot 602. In excellent condition, but 25 years old and looks like a tank. It wasn’t what Zidore and Juan had in mind, however… “five hundred francs! And we haven’t a penny of it so far…” Instead, Patrice shows them round the old crocks outside; cheaper, but all of them unsuitable. He has warmed to the boys and makes them a great offer for the 602. Three hundred francs down, and six months to pay the balance. Zidore knows he has to spin a good story to get the agreement of Gaby and Marion.

The gang’s coffers are actually quite healthy. Berthe, Mélie and Fernand are all very generous and chip in 185 francs between the three of them. Tatave gives fifty francs – eventually – and Juan donates a five franc coin every day. Marion’s contribution remains unknown – but she sold two of her dogs to raise the funds. Criquet Lariqué proudly donates ten francs, but he’s wretchedly poor, so this represents a very generous contribution. Still, that all comes to 525 francs – not quite enough to buy the car outright, because they also have to pay for Gaby’s driving lessons.

Enter Zidore and Juan, their cups spilling over with enthusiasm for the car they’d seen. They’re all ready to part with the three hundred francs in an instant, until Fernand reminds them of something they’ve overlooked. “We want our heads tested […] nobody’s thought of the insurance […] the policy’s going to cost almost as much as the car.” His suggestion is to raise more cash and buy a cheaper car. Not a popular idea. Marion suggests a compromise – pay for Gaby’s test, hopefully he passes, and then wait one month longer to buy the car. Gaby’s reaction is one of petulant selfishness. “I’ll get my licence next Saturday, but I won’t get my car. It really makes me weep! In a month’s time, I’ll have lost the knack!”

Now it’s Tatave’s turn to explode. “What about Bonbon and me? For the last week we’ve been scrounging every penny we can lay hands on […] all so that Big-Head can have his driving lessons and complain if he can’t have a car by return of post […] Want to know what I’m going to do? I’m packing it all in and I want my fifty francs back, so just hand over the cash!” As a result, all the money gets returned to their original donors. Nearly all; “the two eldest moved angrily and shamefacedly away. They had not the nerve to ask for their money back.” And one more… “”Do you want your money back, too?” Marion murmured after a minute or two, and looked at her best friend. Fernand shook his head […] “You know them better than I do. They’ll be back in a day or two – every single one of them.””


Chapter Three – A Knight of the Wheel. Zidore sends Juan off to Patrice’s garage to tell him that the deal is off. Patrice is in secret conversation with three other men – and they look annoyed that Juan has disturbed them. The tall man looks strangely familiar to Juan, but he thinks no more about it. Patrice thanks him for the message and promises to keep a lookout for a cheaper car for them. Much to his surprise, Zidore recognises the 602 at his garage that afternoon as its proud new owner pulls up at the Metropole’s petrol pumps. He’s sick with disappointment.

There are no gang meetings for a couple of days, as the members sulk and nurse their mental wounds at home in private. But then things change, and slowly, one by one, they all return to Marion’s mum’s garden, each clutching their donations – plus a bit more. Zidore is the last to put in an appearance. Normally, Gaby would be with him, but there’s no sign of him. That’s because his driving test is tomorrow, and he’s steadying his nerves.

Not exactly bristling with confidence, when Gaby arrives for his test, his driving instructor informs him that the examiners for the day “aren’t examiners, they’re executioners”. Gaby will get M. Jacquot, “a little man with greying ginger hair under his black hat, an unhealthy complexion and a bristling moustache.” He has a vocal tic that confuses his victims, “he makes a himmf when he breathes in and a hunnf when he breathes out.” On his test, Jacquot tricks Gaby into parking in a no-parking zone so that he can fail him. However, Gaby refuses to accept he’s beaten because Jacquot had also told him to pretend he was taking his wife and kids to the hospital urgently – in which case he’d park wherever he liked. And like all bullies, Jacquot ends up giving in, and Gaby is the lucky recipient of one new drivers licence. The gang are all there to greet him like a hero. Marion announces they have six hundred francs – now to find a car!


Chapter Four – The Uphill Struggle. Zidore and Juan continue the hunt for a car, but the problem is finding one that will seat ten. Gaby is pleased as punch, and offers to drive delivery vans just to keep his hand in. Fernand has sourced an insurance policy that should not exceed three hundred francs – leaving not much more than three hundred to buy the car. Marion considers whether she should sell more of her dogs. She restores them to health only to reveal that no one wants to buy a healthy, but ugly, mutt. She considers them all in order, ending up with her favourite, Dick, the kalbican, who would be worth a lot of money due to his rarity; but Marion decides to keep them all.

Shortly before Zidore has finished his day’s work, Patrice rings the garage and says he has the perfect vehicle for him – going for a song. Excited, Zidore contacts Gaby, and together they cycle to Patrice’s garage. Patrice is convinced they are going to “fall for the old bus.” “It’s that lovely Citroen C6 with the van-body. Fit for a king, you take my word for it!” – but it turns out to be Old Zigon’s van, with “The Junk Palace” emblazoned on its side. Zidore and Gaby are horrified, but Patrice continues with his sales patter undeterred. Ugly old hippopotamus of a van it may be, but its engine purrs contentedly and the lads begin to see its benefits. Patrice wants three hundred for it, but during its test drive, the price drops by a hundred.

As they drive back, they notice a yellow truck backing up to a shed, and a mechanic coming out of his workshop to meet it. Patrice says the man is Pedro, his foreman, a genius with the paint spray. Convinced by the test drive, they do the deal. What’s more, Patrice tells them they can garage it for free at his place for the first six months. Delighted, they drive away. And Patrice and Pedro look delighted too.

The rest of the gang are waiting patiently to greet them. When Zigon’s van pulls into sight, Bonbon recognises the driver, but they cannot believe the vehicle. Of course they all laugh scornfully, and Gaby gets annoyed again, but he quickly sees the joke and joins in with the laughter. They all pour into the van, and Gaby sets off on an adventure through the nearby countryside, overtaking trucks and trains as they go. They needed to give the van a name; and it was when Marion said that struggling with their savings had become an uphill struggle, that the vehicle inherited its name – The Uphill Struggle.


Chapter Five – A Ten-Seater Minibus.  Over the next two weeks, Gaby, Zidore, Fernand and Juan set about converting the Uphill Struggle into a ten-seater minibus – including cutting some windows in the side panels – no glass, but to be fitted with hinged shutters. The girls want it to be painted pale blue, but they can’t afford the paint – and the couple of tins that Patrice gives them is red, so red it remains. Inside they put up wallpaper with forget me nots, and create barn doors at the back for safety and a view.

Marion sneaks in to catch up on progress. As they discuss how they’re going to fund the petrol for their next escapade, Patrice arrives and patronises Marion – why would a girl be interested in a vehicle? Unimpressed, she is cold in her response. “He thought the girl somewhat stupid, which was just what she wanted him to think”. After she has left, Patrice asks who she is. “She was a good friend when I was at school” replies Gaby, keen to downplay her importance.

Patrice offers to buy the van back from them for 400 francs, but the gang are too delighted with it to part with it so soon. But they do need some money to keep it on the road. Patrice makes them an offer to use the van to transport some scrap metal for them to a smelting plant, and for each delivery they make, they will earn 20 francs. Bonbon and Tatave note that only Gaby’s name appears on the documentation, whereas in fact the van belongs to all of them. Marion promises to draw up a contract of joint-ownership that evening.

The next night, Gaby and Zidore, with Bonbon and Tatave in tow, do the first delivery of scrap metal, to a man called Popoff in Maisons-Alfort. When they get back, there are another ten boxes for a M. Grosnier in Brunoy. Forty francs for one evening’s work. Sunday’s trip to Fontainebleau proved expensive, but Patrice keeps the jobs coming – and increases the payment. It’s not long before the gang have amassed nine hundred francs.

As luck would have it, Popoff also has some work for them – and in return he gives each gang member who helped a shiny new five-franc piece. Tatave and Bonbon are particularly excited to receive these newly minted coins. But when Tatave goes to pay for some ice-lollies for everyone, the coin breaks in two. Fernand and Tatave are dismayed and confused, and agree that Marion is the best person to sort out what’s going on.

Chapter Six – Something Suspicious.  Marion meets Zigon and asks him why he sold his van. What had been a pleasant early morning conversation turns aggressive. Zigon replies that it was heavy on the petrol, and that it ate up all his profit. But Marion wants to dig deeper. She tells him that Gaby is driving out on evening trips and Zigon instantly guesses “so that means your mates have gone into the scrap-metal business!” He won’t say any more, but has advice for them. “Tell them to make whatever excuse they like, but get out of the business quick. If Monsieur Patrice runs after them, they’ll have to run a lot faster or else they’d better look out!!” Berna nicely points out: “The old man was under the oath of silence which binds the criminal and the poor in the swarming slums outside Paris.”

It’s almost time for the gang to go on holiday but none of them yet knows where they’re going. Tatave prompts Marion into sorting out the deed of joint-ownership, and reserves a window seat for himself. Allocating the roles for the holiday, Gaby appoints himself driver, Zidore engineer, Fernand navigator, and so on. Marion tells Gaby that she believes Patrice’s work is shady, and that the boys are accomplices to the work. Gaby protests, but Juan and Fernand are not so sure. They think Patrice and Pedro’s behaviour is sometimes rather suspicious. Marion is super-cautious and insists that Gaby and Zidore stop working for Patrice. They can keep the Uphill Struggle behind gates at Marion’s mum’s garden.

Then Marion reveals the awful truth that the coins that the gang have been given in payment are counterfeit, and that they break if you drop them. Zidore, in particular, is furious, and wants to confront Popoff over the scandal. Marion has a better idea; they all head off in the direction of M. Patrice’s garage. They fill up with petrol – and then pay Pedro with the coins they know to be dud.

Last minute preparations for the holiday are made, checking the engine, adding some carpet, poring over maps. Excitement and anticipation are at fever-pitch. But where will they go? Fernand has a plan, but it’s a surprise.


Chapter Seven – The Night in the Shed. While Gaby and Zidore check the oil and tyre pressures at a service station, just before the holiday gets underway, Patrice arrives at the same service station and spots the boys. He gently challenges them about why they left him “in a jam” but they dodge his questions. However, he reverses his car in front of their van and insists that he does an urgent job for him now. They find it hard to say no. But it’s while they’re having a quick beer with Patrice that Pedro jumps into the Uphill Struggle saying he’s going to put it in the shade. But what is he really up to?

Patrice announces that he’s selling up and retiring to the Yonne. This will be the last time they meet. The boys are now getting very suspicious. And with good reason. Patrice and Pedro have trapped them. The heavy doors of the shed shut down and they are literally caught in the dark. Patrice explains: “you’re stupid idiots. You be good and stay where you are. I’m keeping you locked up for the night and then well decide what to do with you […] you’re rather in my way, that’s all, and that’s where you shouldn’t be […] don’t try to set fire to it […] the first suspicious sign of smoke and I’ll drown the pair of you like rats in a trap.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang are getting worried. Juan goes to find out what’s happened and returns with a story about the boys giving the van one last long check. However, once the younger gang members have gone, he tells Marion and Fernand that he believes the boys are at Patrice’s compound – because Fritz, his dog, had some material in his mouth – the same colour and pattern as Gaby’s cap. But what to do? After dinner Marion, Fernand and Juan go out again to investigate.

Gaby and Zidore, stuck in the shed, hear a frequent coming and going of voices. They get the idea of escaping through the roof, and by pushing a lever between the corrugated iron panels they make a hole that they can jump through. Outside, the gates are shut, but as the boys are carefully working out what to do next Fritz starts to bark, alerting Pedro and Patrice. But they can’t see the boys and assume they’re “snoring in their van.”

Nevertheless Pedro makes a patrol of the yard, and closes in on Gaby and Zidore. Finding a great hiding place, the boys observe Patrice talking to Popoff, Grosnier and Kalowski, three of the men to whom they had made scrap metal deliveries. It appears the police were going to set up an ambush and the boys would have spilled the beans, thereby ruining the men’s nefarious plans. Kalowski suggests Pedro should slit their throats which alarms Gaby and Zidore! They discuss how the counterfeit currency that they have been distributing is of very poor quality – it breaks easily, which – obviously – renders it useless.


Chapter Eight – Dog’s Delight. And now we see what’s going on from the point of view of two of Marion’s dogs, Dick and Bébert. They’re confused by their late-night walk, but Dick is sure the van is nearby – his nose doesn’t lie. They squeeze through a hedge, and meet Fritz, who’s not prepared to give way. Dick lands on Fritz from behind and they have a big three-way fight. Old Fritz is no match for the joint efforts of the others, and eventually confirms that Big Curly and Tall Skinny (their names for Gaby and Zidore) are in the area. The dogs go back for the others, and it’s big Plouc who smashes through the hedge, enabling his canine colleagues to get through – as indeed do Marion, Fernand and Juan.

They realise that Gaby and Zidore have escaped, and follow the dogs to a workshop, where, peering through the grimy windows, they are joined by the two escapees, and together watch Patrice and his accomplices working a cottage industry of creating counterfeit coins. It’s Pedro who is the master engineer when it comes to making the coins, but he’s not happy with the prospect of continuing the business in Marseilles as Patrice favours.

Rather than making an escape, Gaby and Zidore opt to stay and watch what took place. However, after a while, a dull thud hits the front door, and, alarmed, the whole procedure is halted. When Pedro eventually opens the door, in fly all Marion’s dogs on the warpath, attacking, biting, scratching the men, and, when Popoff falls, he knocks over one of the tubs containing the coins that were being dyed silver. All the silver liquid goes everywhere. The boys choose this time to make their escape. Deciding to dump Kalowski’s “scrap metal”, they go back to their original plan of starting their holiday tomorrow. Gaby feels they ought to act on what they have seen, but Marion convinces him that it’s none of their business.

And what of Fritz, “curled up, pretending to be asleep on the steps outside the office”? Rather than be beaten by Patrice for not stopping the canine attack, he bares his teeth and runs off to follow the others. “He would rather take pot luck with Marion, her crazy friends and the dogs who were his brothers.”


Chapter Nine – The World’s End.  Commissioner Sinet is on the case! He is informed that the clues to solving the counterfeit money case all lead to Louvigny – and he is told to look out for a van that looks like a hippopotamus! But when he goes to the Café Parisien for his usual coffee, he discovers the coin he was going to pay for it with had broken in two on the table. Even the police are not immune from the scam!

He learns that some of the coins were given in change at a service station, so demands to speak to the attendant, who turns out to be M. Grosnier. He said he obtained them from “a gang of skinheads in a red van” – and Sinet realises it’s the same van. Mme Macherel, the baker, tells Sinet it’s Gaby who’s in charge of the criminals, and Tatave is palming off the cash. Once he’s pacified the locals who have all suffered from accepting the dud money, Sinet realises he has to talk to Gaby and the gang.

Just as the gang are about to set off on their holiday, Fernand discovers that the police are after them. Gaby insists that they all drive off, but Marion insists they stay and help the police. In the end, Zidore drags her into the van, and, because she hadn’t closed the garden gate, all her dogs follow her in. Marion has a very bad feeling about this.

It’s a slow drive once they’re on the road. There’s traffic everywhere. Gaby is getting more and more angry, so turns off the main road at Melun, even though that’s not the route they planned. Suspecting they might be followed, they pull off in a forest clearing and the green car that had been tailing them sails past. But other vehicles are following too. Juan noticed that all the cars following them had the same slender aerial at the back – but he decides not to mention it. Nevertheless, Gaby, still in a rage, confronts one of the drivers that are following him, and sends him off with a flea in his ear.

They stop to have a meal outside Malesherbes. All is very jolly, until they hear a news announcement on a radio – to the effect that police are following their van and expect to make arrests very soon. Gaby thinks they should run for it, Zidore thinks they should hide. It starts to rain heavily; Gaby accidentally loses his way and drives in a complete circle; and finally the Uphill Struggle starts to drive erratically. All the fun has gone. The van runs out of petrol, and they pitch up for the night.

Then two police officers – who haven’t been alerted to the search for the van – come to their assistance. One points out that the van will have an emergency tank. Despite Zidore’s plea not to open it, they do, and a zinc container the size of a shoe box falls to the ground. And when they open it, “two thousand coins flowed in a glittering silver stream across the pine needles.”

They’re taken to the police station at Ingrannes. The gang bicker amongst themselves about the hidden stash – Gaby blaming Zidore, Juan laughing his head off. The police are rather kindly and can’t see the gang as hardened criminals. But they have to be locked up overnight. Marion was proved right. “”We set out this morning for the world’s end,” she murmured. “Well, we’ve found it tonight, sixty miles from Louvigny and behind prison bars.””


Chapter Ten – A Fine Start.  The gang – and the Uphill Struggle – are slowly driven back to Commissioner Sinet’s office, where he’s waiting for them, full of anger. It’s a shameful journey, with a hostile crowd shouting and pelting rotten tomatoes. Sinet’s office is also full of angry policemen, parents and traders. But Gaby isn’t contrite. And when some of the gang members treat it all as joke, some of the police don’t know how to react. And that’s because the gang members had already written to Sinet revealing their innocence. Unfortunately, Sinet hadn’t read it, as it arrived the day he was promoted from Inspector to Commissioner. When the truth is revealed, the gang are dismissed, and the police have found Patrice’s delivery book which was in the front compartment. All his clients’ details were there.

One last action before they finally get to go on their holiday – Tatave confronts Mme Macherel and buys cakes and bread – with a dud coin. “The fat boy’s victory lasted only a second. As he turned to go he saw his nine friends in a row, staring silently at Madame Macherel through the shop window, on their faces an icy, almost aloof expression which was more frightening than anger.” Finally, they’re ready to go. Marion wonders if Gaby still wants to drive. “But the knight of the wheel just shook his curly head as he gently let in the clutch and the Uphill Struggle pulled smoothly away.”


Mystery of Saint SalgueTo sum up; this is a very entertaining and frequently funny story, which develops the well known characters further into their young adulthood. It brings out a number of emotional reactions from the reader – the sense of injustice when the boys are duped and held against their will; the fear that Gaby’s temper gets the better of him and he can’t always exercise good judgment as a result. The book has a rather sudden and easy resolution which feels a little disappointing. But it’s still got plenty to recommend it. 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. Paul Berna’s next book was La Piste du Souvenir, translated into English as The Mystery of Saint Salgue. This is the final book that features Gaby and his gang, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – Flood Warning (1960)

Flood WarningIn which the intellectual but ineffectual schoolteacher Monsieur Sala switches from zero to hero as he takes on a terrible flood and leads his boys on to safety!

Flood Warning was first published in 1960 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Grande Alerte, which translates literally as The Great Alert, with a cover design by Peter Barrett, and further illustrations inside by Charles Keeping. Born in 1935, Peter Barrett would go on to illustrate many children’s books over a long career – this job, designing the cover for Flood Warning, must have been one of his first! Charles Keeping was mainly associated with illustrating the children’s books of Rosemary Sutcliff, but he also illustrated Folio Society books and Oxford University Press books, and enjoyed a long and successful career. He died in 1988 and there is a blue plaque outside his house.

As “Flood Warning”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1962, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is an undated Puffin edition, bearing the price 3/6. A quick check online suggests there are quite a few second-hand copies for sale at varying prices, so if you haven’t got a copy there shouldn’t be much difficulty getting hold of one. Incidentally, Berna thought the title “La Grande Alerte” was, frankly, silly. He had proposed the much more obvious and accurate “Le collège englouti” (The Engulfed College). Flood Warning isn’t a bad name for it though. Along with One Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat, Berna named this book as one of his three favourite children’s novels.

We’ve seen Berna write about gangs like Gaby’s and Charloun’s (in The Knights of King Midas), loners like Frederick in Magpie Corner, and middle-class children like Daniel and Manou in The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man. In Flood Warning he goes back to middle-class – and indeed upper-class – children, this time those who attend the exclusive Château-Milon boarding school. Of course, dormitory pranks can be seen as an equivalent to the kind of fun and games a gang gets up to, and you can see how this book reflects very similar gang structure to Berna’s earlier books – although there isn’t one obvious leader. The boys – and they are all boys, which might well be a disincentive for girls reading the book – are all referred to by their surnames, which is a first for Berna, who normally uses his children’s first names or indeed nicknames. The school was based on a Mariste college (run by a religious order dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in Fribourg, Switzerland, which the young Berna (or rather the young Sabran, as he hadn’t yet acquired this nom-de-plume) attended after his father was killed in the First World War in 1914. Much like Château-Milon, the college had one building for the older pupils, one for the middle and one for the youngest.

LoireThis is a complete page-turner of a book; once the fear of the oncoming storm turns into a flood, and the flood becomes real, and threatening, Berna never lets up the action-packed narration, gaining suspense and excitement from the intense detail of every stage of fighting the rising tide, and from all the main characters’ viewpoints. The book shows how, when danger is imminent, petty arguments and jealousies are cast aside in the more important issue of survival. Boys and adults work hand in hand as a team to combat the flood waters, each relying on the other to be brave, make innovative decisions and to go beyond whatever they’ve experienced before. The disaster is a great leveller, and as the book progresses, the status difference between masters and pupils becomes less relevant and less noticeable. It’s only when there is a return to some kind of status quo at the end, that the old structure begins to come back.

Flood Warning gives us Berna’s most interesting adult yet. He’s not a parent, he’s not a policeman and he’s not a villain. He is a teacher, whom we first meet truly struggling with his job. Monsieur Sala is an intellectual, and does not possess the ruthless skills to keep order in class, a weakness of which the naughtier and more reckless boys take great advantage. Brossay, the headmaster, is having to fire him for being truly useless at the job; and Sala looks bitterly on the ringleader of the bad boys, Chomel, as a truly evil influence – not only is he making his life a misery, he’s making him lose his job and his accommodation. As schoolkids, the emotional harassment that playing-up and misbehaving can have on a teacher who lacks that hard edge simply never occurs to us. It’s just a laugh, an excuse to play around. However, Berna openly reveals the extent to which Sala is upset and disturbed by the way he is treated. Nevertheless, cometh the hour, cometh the man; Sala blossoms into a hero, rising to the challenges of survival against the floods.

His ascendancy is matched by that of the senior boy Vignoles, a Frederick-type character (see above) who has been a fish out of water for many years but finally finds a role for himself. Five years before the story starts, Vignoles had been deposited at the school by his father, who was too busy with business to look after his son. The boy was taken in by the Brossay family and looked after. But he never felt like he was at home, and he resented the abandonment, constantly dreaming up ways to escape. Like Frederick, he lacks a guiding father figure, and has to make his own way as best he can.

It’s not until he starts volunteering to help protect the school against the rains that he finally starts to feel an affection for his surroundings. “”The seniors are itching to help,” Vignoles answered. Monsieur Brossay was struck by the feeling behind the boy’s words. “I thought you didn’t like Château-Milon,” he said gently. “I’ve changed my mind since last night,” Vignoles retorted in his most icy tones. Monsieur Brossay did not press him. Despite the fact that he had been treated as one of the headmaster’s family during the long time he had been there, Vignoles had remained almost a stranger to him, enclosed in a wall of introspection which resisted all approaches.”

When the floods are worsening, and their situation becomes more desperate, Vignoles opens up to Sala, who is now, also, beginning to find his feet. “It’s taken me six years to realise what the school means to each one of us; safety, order, a breathing-space before we go out into the world, a place where we can be happy, study and learn how to live with other people. When I came, I had the bad luck to play up to the wrong set and win the disapproval of the decent sorts. But that’s all over and done with and I need my friends around me as much as the air I breathe.”

It’s fascinating to read how differently the senior boys are treated (and indeed look after themselves) at a French school as opposed to a British equivalent at the time. For example, the senior boys drink cider with dinner – can you imagine that in Enid Blyton?! Charpenne smokes in bed. Nor do you get the impression that these are moments of “naughty” behaviour; they are merely symptomatic of how much more adult French boys were treated than British. As a curious aside, Charpenne has to reuse old drawings to create new ones – because “paper was scarce” – was this a continued post-war shortage?

Like The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations. The actions of the book are all centred on the area around Angers on the Loire, and the river Authion, a tributary, on the broad plains of Anjou. The Day Boys go home to La Bohalle. The nearest explosives factory is said to be “fifty or sixty miles away, near Châtellerault.” Local areas under water include Belle-Noue and La Ménitré. The airfield, to which some of the boys are eventually evacuated, is at Avrillé. You can plot virtually all of the locations mentioned in the book easily against a map.

As always with Berna, the book is littered with beautiful language and evocative passages. For example: after that first, ominous, puff of wind: “Vignoles looked up. The last dead leaves were raining down from the tall plane trees, revolving slowly like a swarm of butterflies as they were caught in the light which streamed in bars of gold from the windows.” When the flood reaches its most dangerous height, “a muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” When the wind causes the school bell to ring all by itself, it’s “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Not only is the story full of exciting narrative, but there are constant opportunities to let Berna’s words – as deftly translated by Buchanan-Brown – wash over you.

Here’s my in-depth chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any more spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading! By the way – this is Paul Berna’s first children’s novel where the chapters don’t have individual titles.

Chapter One. It seems like a normal day at Château-Milon school. Headmaster M. Brossay is delivering his lesson, and the sixth form students are ignoring him. Muret is organising the school football team for their match against Cunault. Vignoles, the dreamer, stares out of the window, lost in the countryside and his thoughts of how to escape. Boisson de Chazelles, the Vicomte, is planning how he could get expelled, as he had done from all his previous schools. Guillon and Montaigu appear to be working but are in fact passing notes with the shock news “Rabbits’ Eggs has got the sack!” That’s their nickname for the kindly but ineffectual M. Sala. Apparently the rumour goes that the lout Chomel, together with the class clown Sardine, shut Mme Juillet (the cook)’s cats in his desk, and when he opened the desk they flew out much to his shock. Twenty-five children laughed their head off and Sala was driven to tears.

Meanwhile, Charpenne is drawing a picture of Brossay with a pimple on his nose. Charpenne is accustomed to writing love poems to Brossay’s daughter Edith, or rather adapting other writer’s poetry. However, Edith has been passing the poems on to Mme Juiliet – also an Edith! Next door, M. Lacour is teaching Maths to the Upper Fifth, one of whom, Jeantet, has the job of ringing the bell, Cunégonde, to signal the end of the lesson.

Muret and his friend Lalande go off for football practice. Guillon and Montaigu try to work out if there is anything they can do about Sala. Vignoles talks to M. Juillet, who warns that rain is coming from Biarritz. Meanwhile, a mix up means that Edith Brossay gets to see Charpenne’s portrait of her father than his love poetry. Although he sees the joke, Brossay writes on the portrait “my congratulations to the artist […] take 8 hours detention.”

Later Brossay confirms to Sala that his inability to hold discipline can no longer continue. He is to leave the school in a couple of days’ time. It will be a blessing for the awkward Sala. Brossay tells him “”none of the boys is really bad at heart and even the worst, I’m sure, are already sorry for the harm they have done you.” Monsieur Sala nodded politely. He thought otherwise, To him, Chomel was evil personified. Nothing he could do had been able to soften the boy’s natural unpleasantness or remove his ridiculous grudge against the timid little schoolmaster imprisoned in his own shyness.”

But it’s as the children are teasing him one last time that evening, that the noise from the howling wind picks up and blows open and breaks one of the windows. “Incisively Monsieur Sala rose from his desk. He could not explain it, but the wildness of the night had sparked in him, for the first time in his life, a terrible courage. He banged the window shut and turned to the astonished boys. “Back to work all of you! Anyone how moves or makes a sound will be in trouble!” Chomel challenges him by not moving. Sala has the last word of the chapter: “Monsieur Chomel […] you are very big, and very nasty, and your nastiness seems to have attracted the worst elements in the form. But there is many a slip between cup and lip, and so do not be too sure that I shall leave this school before you do.”

Chapter Two. When Jeantet sounds Cunégonde at 7 pm, and all the external lights go on, they realise just how the wind has torn all the leaves from the branches. Over dinner, the extraordinary wind is the talk on everyone’s lips, both boys and masters. It doesn’t prevent the hungry Picard from enjoying his “cannon-balls” (one of Mme Juillet’s heartiest dishes) – finishing off everyone’s left-overs, he eats 16 of them!

Chomel and Sardine plan to let off a few more “thunder-flashes” that evening to scare M. Sala. But in the meantime, Messieurs Boris and Sala decide to work together to round up the juniors before bedtime. Boris is sad that Sala will be leaving. Sala tells him of his plans, to return to his parents’ house in Savoy for two weeks’ rest and recuperation, after which he’ll attempt some coaching, maybe at the University of Grenoble.

With the boys safely all in bed, Sala turns his attention to his books and his card indexes. He doesn’t hear the whispering Chomel and Sardine, placing the thunderflashes outside his door, with a fuse leading to Chomel’s bed. However, unknown to them, Kiki Dubourg and little Jozas have their own plans to protect Sala, without spoiling the fun of the explosion – they reposition the flashes under Chomel’s bed! He still has the fuse, but has no idea that it will be his posterior that will be attacked. Meanwhile, in La Vallière, the senior house, Vignoles, Charpenne and Boisson de Chazelles all go up to the bedroom they share. Vignoles cannot sleep, worried about the weather. At the same time that he gets up to look out of the window, M. Sala puts out his light, which is Chomel’s cue to start timing the fuse. Sala, meanwhile, has a nightmare involving angry animals, one of which looks like Chomel. But in reality, one of the juniors’ dormitory windows had blown in. “Outside the gale burst its bonds. Its first shock fell upon Château-Milon with a noise like thunder. Driven before it, a hail of flying débris battered the walls and roofs with a ceaseless rattle.”

Sala goes to check, but at the same time another gust blows against Kiki’s bed, covering it with pieces of broken glass. The boy isn’t hurt, just terrified. He, Jozas, and another boy are moved to empty beds at the other end of the dormitory. However, on the first floor, a branch crashes through a window, “the wind howled through the hole, blowing in a rain of dead leaves, bits of straw and other garden refuse and filling the room with a choking cloud of dust.” Sala tells Martin and Desbois to watch guard. Outside, the wind had started Cunégonde the bell to sound all by itself, “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Boris and Lacour make their way outside but the wind is perilously dangerous, picking up bits of fencing and hurling it everywhere. They’re joined by Brossay, Juillet and the Trévidic brothers. The men all tried to board up the windows with planks and nails, whilst the wind continues to hiss and bring down trees. With the damage mitigated, the order is to go back to bed and they’ll assess the ruins in the morning.

Chomel, meanwhile, is terrified about his thunderflashes. He prays that somehow the fuse had burned out. But at that very moment…. Bang! “A shattering explosion lifted his mattress and deposited him on the floor, gasping like a fish out of water. The gale which raged outside was drowned in a roar of laughter. Chomel was a pitiable sight as in his crumpled pyjamas he got unsteadily to his feet and gaped, green with fright, at Monsieur Brossay, Monsieur Sala, Monsieur Boris and Monsieur Lacour, who were ranged like judges behind the partition.” And for that, Chomel gets six whacks of the slipper, much to Sala’s vengeful delight.

At 1 am comes the first power cut. The wind has started to die down, only to be replaced by rain, “unbroken heavy, steady, filling the countryside with the dull roar of a waterfall.” The next morning they could all see what had happened out there. The boys get soaked, just getting to breakfast. At least Charpenne doesn’t have to spend his detention alone. Never have so many attended one of Father Fabien’s Sunday masses. But it carries on raining, until just before supper, when the gale starts up again. Sala, meanwhile, spends Sunday packing his cases for his Monday departure.

On Monday morning there is another power cut, but life has to carry on. Sala wonders if Brossay might relent and withdraw his dismissal, but Juillet’s car is there waiting to take him to the station. He leaves with minimum farewells and off they drive. But shortly they return, as the road is completely under water! As everyone else gets on with their day, Sala stands “at the foot of the steps, like a piece of jetsam, firmly holding a suitcase in each hand. His thin face and enormous glasses were lost below his rain-soaked hat. “What shall I do?” he asked bewilderedly.” “Stay, of course! That’s all you can do,“ Monsieur Brossay went on impatiently. “We’ll see later…””

Chapter Three. Sala returns to his desk but with new-found confidence, “and the conviction that crises can sometimes be to the advantage of the weak and the despised.” The masters listening to the radio weather forecasts are annoyed that the announcer concentrates on Nantes and ignores the low-lying countryside. The announcement does confirm, however, difficulties in communication in the environs of the school. The day boys are not able to get in, nor can Edith return to her boarding school in Nantes. “At seventeen, it was fun to be thrown into something that smacked of adventure with plenty of males to share it.”

Vignoles reports that the Authion has flooded over the football pitch. He offers to help as much as he can – also promising the help of the other seniors – and Brossay is impressed at how the boy seems to be finally feeling at home. First job is to dig up the basketball pitch in order to fill sandbags to dam the breach of the garden gate. A watch is organised to keep an eye on the water level. Over lunch, everyone talks animatedly – and Sala confirms that the juniors – confined to the house – are behaving themselves, all reading The Three Musketeers together; even Chomel! Sala confesses he’d sooner be helping with the practical work; M. Boris assures him he soon will. At that point comes the third power cut – and the last; there would be no restitution of electricity to Château-Milon.

Vignoles tells M. Brossay that the dam will need to be raised by three feet to stop the water flooding up to the back door by the morning. Juniors and seniors work together to get the job done. But everyone is quietly worried for their safety. M. Juillet fears that they’re in for a repeat of the great floods of 1820, where the top of the Mérovée Tower was the only man-made structure visible. “If Monsieur Brossay let you boys inside the ruin I could show you a funny sort of calendar cut into one of the roof beams. Mérovée, his wife and his man were cut off by the floods and spent a week perched up among the beams and cog-wheels with only a pair of owls and a dozen rats for company.” Meanwhile, Charpenne dreams that life at Château-Milon had turned into a scene from Morte d’Arthur – he was Lancelot and he writes a poem to Edith, who, as Guinevere, was busily helping out with even the most unpleasant tasks.

Vignoles advises that the Authion has only risen an inch or two in the last three hours; but Brossay informs everyone what he has heard on the news, that thousands of homes in the area are in danger, and the Civil Defence volunteers are overwhelmed by calls for help. Further plans are drawn up to keep guard over all the buildings. This includes partnering up two people of balanced strength, usually one master with one student. Once the pairs have been selected, Vignoles is left without a partner. Would M. Sala step up to the challenge? Of course he will. Vignoles and Sala have the 2am – 4am watch, and Vignoles advises Sala that he is certain something is going to happen tonight. “I know I’ve never seen a flood before, but when you’ve watched every detail of a disaster there are some signs which are unmistakable. One thing alone could have saved this corner of the valley, if the weather had cleared at lunchtime and the rain had stopped. It’s too late now. Nothing can hold back the floods.”

Chapter Four. That evening the senior boys speculate as to how the water levels might change overnight – interspersed with laughs about Father Fabien’s stories, and Hubert Boisson de Chazelles’ prissy behaviour. Just before midnight the sky is lit up with red flashes. “The troops are blowing a quarter-mile gap in the embankment. The floods from the Authion are threatening Angers.”

It’s time for Vignoles and M. Sala to go on watch. The diminutive Sala is almost completely hidden by his oilskin raincoat. Brossay, Juillet and Father Fabien discuss the conditions – Brossay notes that his telephone line to the town hall at Longué went dead at the end of their conversation. Sala and Vignoles go off with their instructions. They meet M. Boris at the top of a ladder who informs them that Muret is patrolling the walls, as cracks have been appearing. Boris warns Vignoles that he must stay away from the flood waters, no matter what.

As Vignoles and Sala talk, both of them open up about their feelings – especially Vignoles, who explains that the flood has been a shot in the arm to make him come to his senses. When they realise that the battle against the water is lost, Sala goes to tell Brossay whilst Vignoles keeps further watch. Brossay tells Sala that everyone should go back into their houses – no one is to remain outside. But just as Sala approaches Vignoles to tell him to leave, “there was a dull crash and then the drumming of the rain was drowned by a roaring which increased in volume and came from behind the trees.” Going off to investigate, the water cascades over the garden wall, and Sala throws himself against the sandbags, trying to hold back the flood. Vignoles manages to grab Sala from the sandbags as they both flee for their lives, whilst a wave, ten feet high, pursues them. But they manage to escape to their houses, and in a moment of surprising calm, Boisson de Chazelles takes Sala a cocoa – and they end up playing chess all night long.

A brief respite the following morning allows for a council of war. Fabien and Juillet are in favour of an evacuation; Boris rejects this because of its impracticality. Brossay considers both arguments, but Fabien insists: “there should be one motive behind your decision: we have been entrusted with forty children and we are responsible for their safety. No one will blame you if you have been overscrupulous of that. We must go, and go as soon as we can!” Brossay asks Sala’s advice. Sala agrees with Fabien – his experience of the previous night has convinced him of the danger they are in.

So everyone is bustled into Brossay’s vehicles and driven towards the Arcy Woods – taking several perilous journeys. But the last car doesn’t return. “A muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” With no knowledge of what has happened, Sala gets everyone left behind to go upstairs – Vignoles, Picard, Charpenne, Boisson de Chazelles, Job Trévidic, Sala himself and… the pathetic Chomel, who cried that no one wanted him to go with them. Meanwhile, the water laps against the foot of the staircase.

Chapter Five. The seven look after themselves the best they can. Yes, they are cold, but they have food, and no concern that the building could collapse. Vignoles and Sala exercise their influence to calm down arguments. Vignoles’ chief fear is that the disaster of 1820 is about to recur. Sala quietly proposes to Vignoles and Charpenne that they should build rafts and sail towards the high land behind Longué. They use bed frames, chair seats, planks and such like to build the first raft. For the second, they adapt the hot water tanks in the bathroom. Vignoles and Sala propose waiting until morning to make their escape, but the others call it cowardice.

However, they also discover two strong ladders, and it occurs to them to use them to cross the virtual bay outside and reach the mill, where they’ll be much safer. Disagreements over what to do turn into a fight, with Charpenne attacking Chomel and Boisson de Chazelles disowning Vignoles as a friend. Nevertheless, the ladder bridge is constructed, and one by one they cross over into the mill – until it’s Chomel’s turn. The bully is nowhere to be seen until he is found hiding under a bed. Vignoles and Chomel get across just in time before the flood engulfs the dormitory. In the mill, they discover the calendar that M. Juillet had mentioned.

They are all able, finally, to sleep. Vignoles awakes from his dream hearing a knocking sensation. It’s the rising water level. They have to ascend another ten feet. Once again they rest, but Chomel can’t stop crying. VIgnoles tells him to forget his past, “you’re a different person now.” With relief, they notice the rain stops; the levels start to fall. “Boisson de Chazelles saw the red canoe first. It floated along on a slight current, upside down, and straight for Mérovée’s Tower.

Chapter Six. Using plaited sheets, Boisson de Chazelles climbs down to the water level, stops the canoe in its tracks, upends it, tests its sturdiness, and proves he’s a natural when it comes to manoeuvring canoes! After a discussion as to who should be the first to be evacuated, Chomel also gets on board and the two of them set off for the Arcy Woods, where they can make contact with M. Brossay. The others, unexpectedly think they’re going to be rescued when a launch appears noisily out of the fog; but it’s packed with other survivors and drives off past them, apparently not noticing their frantic shouts for attention.

Meanwhile Boisson de Chazelles and Chomel are heading towards the wood, when they discover a helpful signpost peeping out above the water level, proving they’re on the right course. Eventually they see a number of cars parked, including those from the school – but not a soul in sight. Eventually they spot Brossay and creep up on him, startling him with delight. Relieved that everyone is accounted for, Brossay explains their treacherous journey.

Brossay is horrified that Boisson de Chazelles intends to turn back and get the others – threatening him with expulsion if he refuses to stay. But he sets off anyway, and gets back to the Tower without too much difficulty. This time Sala insists that the canoe hero stays in the tower, but instead he takes Trévidic and Charpenne on board and heads back to the woods. However, something is wrong. Somehow they get caught in the mainstream of the Loire, and they miss the woods completely. As the canoe heads for a cross current with tree trunks and brushwood, they paddle furiously to escape the danger. They survive this disaster, but Boisson de Chazelles is exhausted. The others take control as he drifts off into oblivion. And next thing they know – they’ve arrived in the outskirts of Angers!

Rescued by the police, Boisson de Chazelles tells them as best he can of the numbers and location of the people bivouacked in the Arcy Woods, plus those remaining at the Mérovée Tower. The weather is expected to clear in half an hour!

Chapter Seven. Meanwhile, Sala is concerned that the canoe didn’t return, but satisfies himself with the thought that they must have stayed with Brossay. Vignoles is not so certain. When “the Vicomte” first arrived at the school he kept on finding ways to escape. He’s not the kind of person who would stay in the woods. They comfort themselves with opening a tin of sardines, and sleep eventually takes over.

They awaken to the beautiful sight of the fog clearing and their new water-filled environment surrounding them. Many more vessels are now driving past; they hope that their rescue will come soon. Helicopters appear, picking up and dropping down the rescued, creating beautiful patterns in the sky. But none of them comes to the Tower. Sala has the great idea to use the discarded sardine tins as mirrors, flashing the reflected sunlight into the sky, so that the pilots can see them.

And it works! Eventually a helicopter hovers over the tower, lets a nylon ladder down, and Picard is the first to depart. Sala insists that when the helicopter returns, Vignoles will be next to be evacuated. Sala has a moment of pure self-discovery. “Monsieur Sala was quite bewildered. Kant now seemed an old driveller and his Critique of Pure Reason a mass of nonsense. “Good gracious, that’s right, my thesis is a monumental blunder!” the little man thought frankly to himself. “There’s plenty of other things for a keen observant brain: all you need do is keep your eyes open to the world around.” At this very moment, he thought, men overwhelmed by a great disaster had not been left to perish. In one night their suffering had awakened the sympathy of an entire nation, a sympathy expressed alike in the smallest as in the most heroic service. This fight to the death against the misfortunes of others was indeed the only war worth waging nowadays.”

Vignoles is rescued and taken to the airfield at Avrillé. There he is given a number, to find a bus that will take him to join the rest of his schoolmates, in Château-Gontier. Picard is waiting for him. The helicopter returns for Sala, but the bus cannot wait for him – there will be more buses later that Sala can catch. Brossay is there to meet the buses, and his thoughts are a mixture of relief and how he can best describe the bravery of his boys and staff as a future marketing ploy!

Picard and Vignoles reflect on how the experience of the past few days has changed people. Brossay couldn’t wait to get rid of Sala, but now is waiting to welcome him back as a hero. Vignoles himself admits “a couple of days ago I couldn’t have cared less about Chomel, and yet when we had to get out of La Vallière in a hurry, I was more worried about saving the idiot’s life than I was about my own.”

At the makeshift school, everything quickly goes back to normal. Only one thing – person – is missing. Sala wasn’t there when the helicopter returned for him. There’s no trace of him having been rescued by anyone else. What can have happened?

Chapter Eight. A few hours later, the Loire starts behaving again; after three days, the Authion returns to its normal course. Brossay arranges for all his pupils to be sent home. His wife and daughter go off to Nantes, leaving just the Juillets, the Trévidics, and Vignoles, who is determined to see in the return to Château-Milon. It would be six days before that was possible. And there is still no news of Sala.

When Brossay finally reaches the old school, all he could see was wreckage. Until he sees a figure leaning out of a skylight. It’s Sala! He’d been locked in the Tower all this time, and he didn’t want to try to break the door down, because “the school’s suffered enough damage as it is.” Sala confesses he wasn’t picked up by the helicopter because – he had lost his glasses! He’d had an accident with the cogwheel, and when he came to, his glasses were missing – and without them on, he couldn’t find them! He knew he would be a danger to himself and others if he attempted the evacuation without them, so he pretended to be dead. But all’s well that ends well!

Exploring the wreckage, Brossay determines that the school will reopen for the summer term. One by one, the masters return over the next fortnight; whilst Sala takes up the manuscripts for his thesis, Modern Survivals of Kantian thought, and throws them on the bonfire burning all the other wreckage. He also sacrifices his copy of Critique of Pure Reason.

Come February, it’s Vignoles who’s accompanying Edith around the estate, showing her the work in progress. She confides that only thirty pupils have committed to returning, but Vignoles is convinced more will follow. As they walk, they realise how they have both changed – particularly Vignoles. ““You’ve been here six years,” the girl went on, “and I can remember times when we didn’t say a word to one another for months on end. And yet you were one of the family; Father told you that often enough.” “I know,” Vignoles answered, “but I had to go through all this to realise what he meant.” They walked off hand in hand to see how the kitchen garden was doing. “I’ll end up cutting my best friend out,” thought Vignoles when they came back from their stroll. He appreciated the irony of the situation.”

The first day of the summer term finally dawns. Masters are dressed in their Sunday Best; vehicles await at the local stations to pick boys up to take them to the school. Vignoles feels more at home than ever before. Sala greets the juniors and takes them to the dormitory – and confronts the returning Chomel. “Are you proposing to go on ragging me this term? […] If it’s something you can’t help, if it’s vital to your physical wellbeing, you’ve only to tell me now and we’ll come to some arrangement.” “Oh no, sir! Never, sir!”

Eventually Vignoles’ closest friends arrive; first Picard and Charpenne, and then finally, out of the blue, Hubert Boisson de Chazelles, still full of arrogant cheek. Everyone who was expected to return, has returned, plus a few more. Brossay reflects: “the peril which they had surmounted together had changed them all. It had revealed unexpected strength of character, it had dissolved foolish enmities, it had strengthened the ties of friendship, it had cured the selfish and stirred the sluggards.”

The book ends by considering the future for all the major characters. “In a matter of hours Vignoles had learned to love a school where he had so long rejected the family life that had been offered to him. The butterfly Charpenne had realised that real feeling is expressed not in plagiarised sonnets but in the anxiety felt for someone dear to you. The appalling Chomel had in one night of peril cast off his old stupid and mischief-making self. That rolling stone Hubert Boisson de Chazelles had at last realised that team spirit counted for more than rank or wealth and that one unselfish action did more to inspire true comradeship than weeks of showing off. In short, every one of the boys, from tiny Kiki Dubourg to gigantic Picard, had come in his own way through the ordeal. Not one had failed. Through them and for them their school had survived the floods and recovered its physical and spiritual being.

And this was just as true of the amazing Monsieur Sala. That night, as he crossed from La Vallière to Mérovée’s Tower on two shaky ladders, he had shed his shyness and made sure that, despite his disastrous beginning, he would find in Château-Milon the haven of sympathetic security best suited to his unpretentious, scholarly way of life.”

Gaby and the New Money FraudTo sum up; this is a thrilling adventure mixed in with some enlightening personal development journeys. The fearful rise up and take command, and the bullies cower (as they always do when threatened.) This should be a much better known book than it is – because it’s definitely one of Berna’s best. 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. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Bout du monde, which wasn’t translated until ten years later in 1971, as Gaby and the New Money Fraud, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man (1958)

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManIn which we meet 14-year-old Daniel Quint, who, with his little brother Manou, and Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon, has to follow his grandfather’s detailed instructions on how to get from his school in Besançon via Paris to the family villa, the Villa Etchola, in Chiberta, near Biarritz. However, when grandfather’s plans start to go astray, will Daniel and Manou make it safely to meet up with the rest of the family?


The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which translates literally as The Pilgrims of Chiberta, with illustrations by Barry Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an experienced artist who worked on the children’s TV programmes Rainbow and Jackanory, as well as illustrating the book Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery in 1966. He lived from 1923 to 2007, and there is a blue plaque commemorating him outside his house in Compton Avenue, Brighton. As “The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1965, and by Puffin Books in 1968. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the second Puffin edition, reprinted in 1977, bearing the price 50p. This edition has a cover illustration by Michael Charlton, another prolific illustrator of children’s books, who lived from 1923 to 2008.


A very different tone is set at the beginning of this book, from those Berna books we’ve already read. The ruffian gangs of Gaby and Charloun, and the working-class Frederick of Magpie Corner have been replaced by the much more refined Daniel and Manou, exquisitely presented and immaculately dressed and behaved, in a fine hotel dining room, able to hold their own with their innate class. Are we going to take to these privileged young chaps in the same way that we take the earlier gang members to our hearts? It’s a risk, but Berna is a master at the art of understanding how boys’ minds work; and that’s the same whether they’re ragamuffins or private schoolboys. We very quickly take them into our affections, admire their bravery and insight, their kindness and generosity, and despise those who take advantage of them. The family is rich enough to have access to a villa, and the boys are distinctly posh, but attractively so, rather than irritatingly so. We never want them to suffer or be discriminated against for their wealth. And if anyone tries to do them down, we hope they get their just desserts!


In the cafePerhaps the most interesting aspect to the book is Daniel’s strong fraternal feelings towards little Manou. He’s prepared to be both mother and father to the boy, feed him, care for him, make sure he’s safe and comfortable before thinking about his own interests. He lets him sleep whilst he, Daniel, stays alert and awake; he protects him from bad news whilst allowing himself to worry about what to do next. “In Daniel’s mind had been the ghastly fear of having Manou torn away from him. He could imagine him all on his own, cut off from the warmth and love of his family which until now had always been his and which from now on Daniel alone must provide.”


When they later meet up with Steve and Benny, two boys who have a pretty similar relationship to Daniel and Manou, who are even wealthier, but are in a pickle distinctly of their own making, this goes to emphasise the book’s message of kindness and family protection, but not in a serious, po-faced manner. The four boys have a great deal of fun together and see in each other fellow human beings facing the same difficulties and decisions. They become one family unit themselves, never seeking to outdo or outwit the other. They make a charming and reassuring friendship group, positive role models for the young reader.


Absent for much of the book, though with his presence often felt, is the boys’ grandfather, known for his “movement orders” – precise instructions that have to be followed to the letter. It’s a bit of a family joke, but in fact, Grandfather is a complete control freak! But he means well, and is very kindly, and it says a lot that, despite every single plan going wrong in this book, the family still feel the need to cover up the mistakes and conceal the truth from the old man. As Berna reflects, when Manou doesn’t tell the truth about the flowers, “it wasn’t so very big a sin to have told this small lie. It was better than upsetting a good old man who cared so very much for his family. How could you blame him for wanting to arrange a family reunion as a celebration of his long life and his happy marriage…” Grandfather’s insistence on precision rubs off on Daniel. One of the first things we learn about Daniel is how he sticks ruthlessly to time; for instance: “at ten twenty-five he gave his hair one last flick” before heading out at the appointed hour of 10:30.


FranceThe frontispiece for the book includes a map of France and details the journey that the boys make from Paris to Chiberta. Unlike all other Berna books so far, this one is characterised by the accuracy and reality of all the places covered in their story. Often Berna suggests a real place by giving it a fictitious name that’s similar. But in this book, all the places are genuine. Not only the places; directions, forests, train tracks that split, even cafés and streets are all true. This helps give the book a sense of being something of a travelogue. If you wanted to, you too could follow the boys’ intrepid journey. Avenue Marceau, Rue Quincampois, Les Halles, Rue St Martin, Rue de Bretagne in Paris are all real; on the journey to Chiberta, so are Pranzac, where the lorry crashes, Angouleme, Barbezieux, Labouheyre, Morcenx, Dax, and of course, Bayonne, Biarritz and Chiberta itself. There’s an almost “On The Road” feel to the night-time lorry journey with Peyrol, and the various odd characters that the boys encounter on their route south almost feel like it’s a kind of autobiographical journey. You can bet your bottom dollar that Berna covered that route himself.


The title of the book rather misrepresents the actual content of the book. The Cross-Eyed Man of the title isn’t really the source of a mystery – we know it’s the Interpol superintendent, Barboton, and it doesn’t take much guesswork to realise he’s on the track of the boys because there’s going to be a reward. Manou squints whenever he sees him, which today you might think is a little cruel to be taking the mickey out of someone for an affliction that isn’t their fault. But then, that’s often the case in a Berna book, and to be fair, children can be cruel! When he’s eventually confronted by Uncle Jérôme, he’s treated pretty harshly; but then, he doesn’t help himself either. But the actions of Barboton are of limited interest in comparison with the adventure that the boys – and as a result, we – enjoy. Berna’s original title, the Pilgrims of Chiberta, sums up the story much more accurately, and emphasises the long cross-country journey our heroes undertake, like a children’s picaresque novel as Daniel and Manou survive from scrape to scrape in different parts of the country.


Mind the GooseThere are a few moments of comedy in the book – largely slapstick and physical humour – primarily, the journey in the car with the young driver who’s just passed his test and can’t wait to take his car out on the road as fast as possible; and the fête at Labouheyre, where people skim up a greasy pole only to be pecked at by an angry goose. But both those moments of comedy highlight a slightly uncomfortable difference between what’s acceptable today and what worked well in 1958. The wacky driver casts care to the wind and hurtles through birds and animals without a thought for their wellbeing – and the kids find it hysterically funny. The goose is tied with its feet together suspended at the top of the pole in an experience that it must have found terrifying and painful – no wonder the poor thing kept on nipping at people’s ankles. Even the scene at the end of the book, where the residents of the Villa Etchola turn on the stray cats and basically terrorise them into leaving the garden, feels pretty distasteful today.


There are a few other signs of the times, which are interesting to note. Whenever Daniel tried to place a telephone call it always involved the operator, and limited time to speak, and weak connections, which seems so extraordinary in our days of easy communication. The manager at the Hotel is shocked at the slow transmission of a telegram – he’d be shocked to know they no longer exist! The story is also set against a surprise strike by the train drivers; France has a long history of strikes and in 1958 things would have been just as volatile in the employment sector as they are today.


If the book lacks anything, in comparison with Berna’s previous books, it’s a sense of gang mentality and loyalty. The two sets of boys hardly constitute a gang, although they do work together in a similar way to Gaby and Charloun’s teams. But there are interesting observations and behaviour patterns that come to the fore, particularly towards the end of the book; for instance, Steve’s anxiety at seeing his father again, and Daniel’s disagreement with what Steve and Benny did, by running off and scaring their parents.


I was very interested by Daniel’s experience of being conned into buying false tickets for the train. Precisely the same thing happened to me when I went to Paris for a brief holiday in 1985. Look bewildered at a train station and some helpful chap will always come along and “help you” with the ticket buying – pocketing the full amount and giving you a worthless ticket in return. It’s obviously a Parisien thing. Apart from that, the book doesn’t have too many serious moments or themes that it tries to examine. It’s really just a fun adventure to get from Paris to Chiberta with hardly any money and no parental advice!


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!


Daniel and Manou in the hotelChapter One – Grandfather Issues Movement Orders. We discover the smartly presented Daniel and well-behaved Manou dining at the Hotel Régina. Their presence gently amuses the other restaurateurs and their waiter gently teases them with his top-quality service. He’s even happy to provide Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon with some fresh lettuce leaves. We find out that the boys are waiting to be joined by other members of their family over the next few days.

Daniel re-reads his grandfather’s detailed instructions which they have clearly followed to the letter. After dinner, Daniel and Manou retire to bed, and Manou insists on Daniel giving him a bedtime story – something Grandfather Quint had predicted would be necessary. Unfortunately, it emerges that the grandparents are themselves delayed owing to having to stay behind for a medical appointment. Still, it won’t be a problem that the children will have to check in by themselves, just for one night. Surely? Anyway, Daniel has his instructions on how to meet up with his parents the next day, at the Gare St Lazare.


Daniel and Manou at the stationChapter Two – Telephone Alarm. As planned, the boys get up at the appointed hour, and, nicely presented as ever, make their way to the Gare St. Lazare to meet the boat train from Le Havre. It was whilst talking to the florist from whom they bought a bunch of Parma violets to give to their mother that they discover that a sudden rail strike had been called. No trains were going out; a few were coming in.

In the absence of solid information, Daniel decided that their best course was to stay put and see if the train arrived. But come lunchtime they were hungry and took a taxi back to the Régina for a meal. They met the manager and he had good news for them. “The Passengers from the Armoric left Le Havre at eleven o’clock by road […] the first coaches should reach Paris at about three or four this afternoon.” Reassured, they ate, bought extra flowers (Manou had lost the violets) and awaited the arrival of their parents. But by five, they still hadn’t turned up. M. Hébert, the manager, was confused but was sure that there must be a sensible reason and he promised that Daniel and Manou would be well looked after whilst they were at the hotel.

To distract themselves, they went for a walk along the Seine. They returned to the hotel at dinner – still no parents. And whilst at dinner, Daniel overheard one of the waiters refer to them as “the orphans” which really upset him. Daniel decides he must ring his grandfather even though it will be late. But when he finally gets through to their hotel, he hears the news that they have checked out and taken the Strasbourg-Ventimiglia Express, as Uncle Jules and his family had been involved in a car accident. Nevertheless Grandfather had emphasised his decision that Daniel and Manou (and their parents) should stay in Paris and wait for further instructions. However, without their parents, Daniel can only panic.


Daniel and Manou getting pappedChapter Three – The Two Telegrams. The next morning, sure enough a telegram arrives for Daniel’s father from his grandfather – but he reads it anyway – confirming that Jules and Elvisa were slightly hurt in a crash, but their children are fine. His instructions are for the family to continue to Chiberta, and that Grandfather will join them in four or five days’ time. Daniel determines to step up to the mark and ensure that he and Manou get to Chiberta safely – although Hébert begs him not to spend too much time on the streets.

Whilst talking to a policeman at the station – and lying about being on their own in Paris – a young man spots the two boys, and after a quick hello and a flash of a camera light darts up the stairs and away. Daniel thinks nothing of it. Thinking on his feet, he goes to the Shipping Line offices and asks the clerk to confirm that his parents did actually take the Armoric to Le Havre. Daniel is mortified to discover that they disembarked in Southampton the day before instead. The shipping clerk suggests that Daniel leaves his address so that they can contact him if they hear anything more about his parents. “Quite unsuspecting, Daniel willingly told him.”

At the hotel another telegram awaits Daniel – although it was meant for his grandfather. It was from his father, saying that they won’t be able to come to Paris as planned and will meet them in Chiberta, they will fly direct to Biarritz. The news upsets Manou, making Daniel’s job even more difficult. Nevertheless, he convinces Hébert that it will be safe for him to let them go to Biarritz by a replacement coach service.

Meanwhile, the shipping clerk has seen a photo of the boys in the Europe-Soir newspaper. The comment reveals that one of the boys might be “Benny”. The clerk rings Interpol, where Inspector Barboton is very interested in the news. It’s clear that Daniel and Manou have been mistaken for another pair of kids, named Jackson-Villars, that might be in trouble with the law…


Daniel and Manou waiting for a liftChapter Four – The Cross-Eyed Man. Barboton arrives at the hotel and it is revealed that he has an “appalling squint”. He asks the hall porter if the Quint children are in the hotel and, after receiving a financial bribe, the porter tells them that they’ve gone to catch a coach. Barboton hot-foots it and espies the boys looking around, trying to find where to buy the tickets. A friendly chap approaches the boys and sells them the tickets, and then places them in a VIP queue. But when they get to the front, they discover that they’ve been conned. The 60 francs paid for tickets that are worthless.

They explain what’s happened to a policeman, who takes them to the local superintendent. The brusque, impatient man dismisses them curtly and they have to hang around in a temporary Reception Centre. Manou’s always on the look out for Barboton, and whenever he sees him, he squints back at him, much to the latter’s embarrassment.

A couple of fellow travellers tell Daniel about the lorry drivers up at Place Beaubourg near Les Halles who are giving people lifts across the country in their lorries – probably won’t take any payment either. When the cops are distracted by some other people, Daniel and Manou make a break for it – much to the superintendent’s fury. He too believes them to be the Jackson-Villars children.


In Place BeaubourgChapter Five – Place Beaubourg.  It’s only when Daniel and Manou eventually ask a newspaper vendor where Place Beaubourg is that they discover it’s a made up name for where the lorry drivers all park up their vehicles. No wonder they couldn’t find it! When they get there the couple they met earlier directed them to the Café Charlot, where the lorry drivers get given their jobs. Daniel speaks to Madame Julie, whilst Manou entertains the lorry drivers with a performance from Patapon.

A few police turn up and unexpectedly ask a few questions of the drivers, and peer under a few tarpaulins. It’s obvious that they are looking for the boys, believing them to be the Jackson-Villars family. Madame Julie shows them the article in the Europe-Soir. Steve and Benny Jackson-Villars had run away from their wealthy home in Chantilly. Everyone is on the lookout for them. Daniel and Manou have been caught up in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Julie suggests they tell the police that, but Daniel thinks that’s a guarantee that he and Manou will be split up.

The locals treat the brothers well and they have a good meal, and all Daniel’s attempts to pay are rebuffed. Eventually they meet an elderly driver, Peyrol, who is prepared to take them as far as Bordeaux in his lorry, Theophilus. He challenges them to deny they are the Jackson-Villars boys, but it turns out that Peyrol knows Grandfather Quint from business deals way back when. Shortly they set off into the night, and just as they’re leaving, the lorry lights flash on a prowler – and it’s the cross-eyed man.


The CrashChapter Six – The Crash.  Peyrol drives to the Thomasson Works at Bagneaux to collect the load. Then, with Manou asleep and Daniel fighting tiredness, they hit the road south towards Tours. Peyrol notices the sharp beam from the vehicle who’s been behind him ever since they left Bagneaux. He stops, and the yellow beams of a taxi drive past. Then they set up for an all-nighter via Orleans and Chatellerault. At a police stop, the officers find the boys but Peyrol says they’re his nephews. Back on the road, Peyrol is being followed again. This time he makes a sudden devious move off the road and the taxi behind him drives on. But it’s clearly becoming a problem.

Come morning, and there’s another, fuller roadblock. Another driver advises Peyrol to get rid of his passengers and suggests an alternative route via Angouleme. Daniel feels guilty and offers to get out of the truck, but Peyrol is having none of it, enjoying the adventure himself. Driving through the night and into the morning and all is going well until… there’s something wrong with the lorry. The brakes are failing. They’re going faster and losing control. Then….crash!

The lorry is on its side and its passengers and driver crawl out. Relatively unharmed, but the same can’t be said for Theophilus. Chassis split in two, axles broken, bonnet squashed, tyres blown. The local police will be there soon, so Peyrol suggests – orders, in fact – that the boys walk on to Angouleme and try to catch a coach there.


Daniel's had enoughChapter Seven – The Bone-Shaker. Walking into Pranzac, the boys chance upon some ladies waiting at a bus stop. The bus from Montbron was coming in, they squeezed on board and left for Angouleme. Daniel goes off to find information about future coaches and when he comes back he is horrified to find that the Cross-eyed man is standing next to Manou. Daniel charges at him with a rugby tackle. Shocked, the man protests but Daniel is furious. “You keep away from us! […] If I find you hanging around again, I promise you’ll be sorry for it!”

The boys find a pleasant, quiet spot and finish off the rest of Peyrol’s sandwiches. An older teenager appears, exhausted, from a long bike ride. Daniel offers him some lemonade, and after a brief chat, the teenager says they can have his bike – as his behind’s too red raw! So now the boys have an old bone-shaker of a bike. They prepare it as best as they can for the long cycle ahead.

Twenty miles later, beyond Barbezieux, and they’re really struggling, but they make a game of it and push themselves as much as they can. By the time they reach Bordeaux in the evening, the bike is in several pieces – but it got them there! After some free and very rustic soup, they spent the night sleeping in some straw.


Meeting Steve and BennyChapter Eight – Bastille Day. Fireworks wake the boys up, and Daniel realises it’s Bastille Day. A quick wash in the river, then it’s on to a café for morning chocolate and a phone call through to the Villa Etchola in the hope of catching either an uncle or the housekeeper. But there’s no reply.  The Cross-Eyed Man is still there though, watching them, much to the boys’ irritation.

And then, in an instant, the two storylines cross over as Daniel overhears two other boys talking. They start to chat together and then he realises… “You wouldn’t be the Jackson-Villars boys, would you?” Shortly they’re all howling with laughter as Daniel explains how everyone thinks they are Steve and Benny, and Steve explains why he and his brother are on the run – as a protest against how the family is going to be divided up once their parents separate – Steve and his father will be in New York, while Benny and his mother will be in some other far flung location.

Daniel suggests Steve and Benny accompany Manou and him to Chiberta. After all, the police are looking for two boys, not four. Daniel sends a telegram to Steve and Benny’s parents on their behalf, apologising for running away and emphasising how much they love them. Then they blow Steve’s remaining 20 francs on lunch – still under the watchful eyes of the Cross-Eyed Man.

After lunch they continue to walk towards Bayonne, and eventually they strike it lucky with a man who will give all four boys a lift in his car. He’s a young man, and it looks like this is his first car – and his first passengers, so he’s very excited at the prospect of the journey. However, he’s just passed his test – having failed ten times before. Is this going to be the car journey from Hell?


Dangerous DrivingChapter Nine – The Empty Train.  It is for Daniel! The others shriek with excitement as the young driver breaks the speed limit and barely notices the road at all. Daniel does appreciate the way the miles to Bayonne are getting shorter though! And the local wildlife had better beware as the driver doesn’t care about them either. Naturally, the car ends up hitting a bank and dislodging a headlight. Back on the road, terrifying cows, and then one of the tyres blows. Back on the road, the driver wrecks a music and dance festival and is finally – FINALLY! – stopped by two police officers, who issue him with a summons.

Unsurprisingly, the car needs to cool down. Undeterred, the driver does his best to get it started again – and then realises he needs the boys to push him into a jump start. It’s so successful that the car roars off – leaving the boys (with their luggage, fortunately) behind. The car might have got them to Chiberta – but they also might have died in the process.

They walk as far as Labouheyre, a market town which is en fête for Bastille Day and the boys join in all the sideshows and races. One of the stalls features a greasy pole but if you climb to the top you can claim one of the food prizes. Daniel has his eye on the ham, but the second person to attempt the climb gets there and chooses that prize. Steve decides to have a go. One of the prizes at the top is a live goose who likes to peck at anyone who gets close – and that’s precisely what happens to Steve, and down he comes, without a prize. Daniel, however, wins the day with his attempt, bringing down the pole as well as the dazed goose. But what to do with the bird? A restaurateur suggests swapping it for a meal for four in his restaurant. Done! And for their bed that night, Manou spots an empty train in its sidings. The boys all get in and spread out amongst the first-class compartments. Unexpected luxury!


Uncle JeromeChapter Ten – Blast-off.  Daniel wakes up from a funny dream where all his family are journeying to Chiberta on an exclusive train. But what does he see when he wakes up? The train they slept on is moving! Whilst they were sleeping it was brought into service. What are they going to do when the ticket collector asks for their tickets? They decide to keep the blinds down and hope not to be noticed. It turns out that they weren’t the only stowaways, and a number of people get off the train when it stops a mile or so from Bayonne – including the Cross Eyed Man!

They’ve got just enough coins to get the bus to Chiberta. Thrilled finally to arrive there, they make their way to the Villa Etchola. There’s no one else there yet, but Mme Bégou the housekeeper spots them and invites the boys in for some breakfast. Later on, whilst the boys are relaxing in the garden, the cross-eyed man makes another appearance. Daniel can’t take any more of this. But before he causes a scene, Steve shows him an article in the local paper that Mme Bégou left behind. The reward for finding the Jackson-Villars boys is now fifty thousand francs. Daniel decides to telegram Steve and Benny’s parents so that no one else can claim the reward.

The first family member to arrive is Uncle Jérôme, who decided to stay with friends in Bordeaux. When the boys explain their adventure to him he is most impressed. And now he also has to think what to do about the cross-eyed snooper, Barboton. He gets out his elephant gun in order to fire a warning shot. But first he gives Barboton the chance to move on. Barboton feigns deafness – but he hears the gunshot all right! And quick as a flash he’s on his bike and dashes off.

Next to arrive, just before dinner, are Pascal and Lucy. During the evening they reveal that Jules and his family are perfectly well. But how to deal with Grandfather, who will be mortified to discover that his movement orders came to nothing? Pascal and Lucy also don’t want him to know about their night in London! Daniel says that he won’t keep the fifty thousand francs, but wants to give it to the one person who suffered as a result of helping them – M. Peyrol.

In the gardenChapter Eleven – Happy Days. All’s well at the Villa Etchola as the family have some childish fun in their new environment. A telegram announces the arrival of Steve and Benny’s father by air that evening. This makes Steve anxious.

Taxis from the station bring Granny and Grandfather, Jules and Elvisa, and their two children. Grandfather insists on knowing that all his instructions were followed meticulously, and the whole family dutifully lies to him in agreement! Grandfather wants to know who Steve and Benny are – and they tell him they are schoolfriends of Daniel. Some wild cats break into the garden in the hope of eating Patapon but the family scare them off – Jérôme with his gun, the others with a hose of soaking water.

When the Jackson-Villars arrive, Grandfather recognises Steve and Benny’s mother, an attractive woman who used to be a film star. The father presents Daniel with the cheque, which he accepts on behalf of Peyrol. Jackson-Villars asks Daniel if he thinks Steve and Benny did the right thing by running away. ““No”, Daniel replied, unprompted. “I think children have better ways of making their protest just as strongly. It was bad luck Steve chose the worst way he possibly could. You can blame his Irish blood. It makes him do things on the spur of the moment.””

The book ends with Grandfather agreeing the purchase of three bottles of fine champagne to celebrate. And he suggests writing out a movement order to get them. “”No!” his three sons yelled with one voice, raising imploring arms to heaven.”

To sum up; The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man is an exciting, humorous adventure story that demonstrates care for younger family members and the ability of boys to become friends unexpectedly. As is often the case with Berna, there are few slightly worrying aspects – specifically cruelty or callousness to animals being a source of humour; but it is a product of its time. It’s a light, fun book to read, pacey and exciting. I am, though, still perplexed at how Daniel proposes to get the money to Peyrol – I don’t think they exchanged addresses, and Facebook didn’t exist in those days! 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. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Champion, which has never been translated into English. After that came La Grande Alerte, translated into English as Flood Warning. I remember this as being a gripping and sometimes frightening adventure. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Knights of King Midas (1958)

The Knights of King MidasIn which we meet Charloun and his gang, who try to raise money in any way they can to support elderly people who had lost their homes in a fire; and at the same time become a thorn in the flesh of the greedy Town Clerk Monsieur Amoretti!

The Knights of King Midas was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Millionnaires en herbe, which translates literally as Millionaires in Grass, with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. Wildsmith is considered one of the great children’s books Illustrators, winning the 1962 Kate Greenaway Award for British Children’s Book Illustration; he lived from 1930 to 2016. As “The Knights of King Midas”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1961, and by Puffin Books in 1964. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1964, bearing the price 3/6.

In the first two books we met Gaby and his gang; and in Magpie Corner we met Frederick; older, and more of a loner. The Knights of King Midas introduces us to another bunch of French ragamuffins, Charloun and his gang, living in the more glamorous town of Port-Biou, set in the French Riviera; Berna gently mocks the children’s Provençal accents when he notes they pronounce Coucoulin’s name as Coucouleeen. There is no such place as Port-Biou but it obviously borrows from Port-Bou on the Pyrenean coast; at one stage Berna places it as between Marseilles and Menton, and he also points out that fish caught at Port-Biou are sent to the hotels of Bandol and Sanary, two coastal resorts between Marseilles and Toulon.

Whereas Berna’s earlier books were set against either the grim and poverty-stricken Louvigny, or the manual labour of a petrol station, this book opens with a bucolic theme – stag-hunting; although that’s no less hard work, and provides an excuse for the gang to rush about noisily imitating hounds. But this rural environment feels much more positive than his previous urban settings. At first, the children’s apparent bloodlust about the stag seems cruel to our modern eyes (but then, children are cruel!) with the enjoyment of cornering the animal (“the brute”) and endangering its life (“he’s making straight for the rocks on the Pointe. What a joke if he goes over the edge!”) But once we realise they’re trailing a donkey, and have been for the past ten months, and they always make sure the donkey is safe and unharmed after their games, suddenly they seem much more childlike and playful.

There are eleven members in Charloun’s gang, plus the twelfth; unseen, in the form of the famous Mistral wind, that occasionally helps them. It’s a sign of the times that the children can take advantage of the countryside setting to decorate their boat with wildflowers picked from an island. Today, of course, that would be totally unacceptable – we’re always told not to pick the flowers! But in 1958 things were different, and there was no shortage of wildflowers. The open-air countryside aspect of this book extends out into the water too. The third chapter contains a thrilling but also strangely restful description of a fishing trip out in a boat, the boys relaxing on board until a fish bites then it’s full activity until it’s caught.

There is an fascinating portrayal of the rough (although loving) corporal punishment handed out in those days. For example, we see Amoretti attempt to kick Charloun in the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t be allowed today, of course! When she saw his dirty shorts, Angel’s mother “rewarded his carelessness with a sound slap”. Such was parenting in the late 50s. Mlle Blanc is fond of her schoolchildren and exercises her discipline in more subtle ways. Berna describes the gang thus: “the eleven of them shared a birthright which meant more in her [Mlle Blanc’s] eyes than all the virtues – whatever happened, they were never bored.”

As usual, Berna gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a member of a gang. Mlle Blanc understands that for the gang to bond together firmly, they need to have an enemy. It had been Piston the donkey – it was to become Amoretti. In this book we also see what it’s like to be on the outside of a gang: “Mademoiselle Blanc was only sorry to see how closed Charloun and his friends kept their small circle. Doudou had been expelled for cowardice two months before and they had kept their number at the awkward figure of eleven. Mademoiselle Blanc had a twelfth up her sleeve – Philippe Vial, who was bored to death because no one would have anything to do with him.” It’s a class-based decision to exclude him from their gang; he’s seen as a posh Parisian, a firm outsider, and they want nothing to do with him.

There’s also a horrendous undercurrent of sexism; when the gang decide which six of their number will be part of the Blue Danube crew, they choose “the two prettiest girls”. Ah well – as Maurice Chevalier would have said, thank heavens for little girls. When Charloun is considering which members of the gang have contributed the most towards acquiring the funds, he doesn’t count the girls. “The girls had had bright ideas and they had helped in a thousand different ways, but they were not so free as the boys to pull off the big bits of business and so that sort of thing could not be expected of them.”

Nevertheless, this is a charming book of true altruism. The children use their skills as gang members, both collectively and individually, to raise as much money as they can in order to help people less fortunate than themselves. None of them holds back, none keeps their resources to themself, none puts their own fortune above the others. As Philippe’s grandfather lawyer observes: “the children concerned combine healthy common sense with a lunatic logic. They’ve understood that you should never take anything, or give anything, without putting in a little of the small change of life which no one can see but which gives things their real worth – loving kindness.”

By so doing, they also defeat Amoretti, a somewhat pantomime villain character, who embodies greed and bullying. Like Gaby’s gang in the first two books, this is a gang that you, the reader, would really like to join. All the way through, the children benefit from the kindness and the wisdom of Mademoiselle Blanc, who subtly guides them to success, and who, too, is a beneficiary of the children’s experiences, appreciating their generosity and joining in with their innocent happiness, which you sense will nourish both her and them in the years to come.

As usual, Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. I loved the description of the sea at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Pastourelle and Cadusse are fondly and reflectively looking out at the water. “In the distance, the sleepy sea was streaked with glittering points of light that slowly snaked its surface as the current moved them. At regular intervals a gentle swell would lift the fifty boats moored to the jetty and would die away with a cool plop against the harbour wall.” It’s a description that appeals both to your sight and your hearing.

In Berna’s first two books, poverty was tangible in both the gang and their local environment. In Magpie Corner, there was much more money around, but it was derived from hard work and crime. In The Knights of King Midas, things are much more relaxed. “Port-Biou was paradise enough, and, rich or poor, the children did not worry about money”. The Vial family are particularly comfortable and well-off, and fortunately, innately generous. The local traders are happy to pay for a good fish supply, for example; the regatta, the quiz show, the scrap merchant are all wealthy sources that the children can easily tap into. Perhaps this level of creature comfort – albeit that some of the parents have to scrimp and save to get by – enables the children to be altruistic and generous. They don’t need the resources for themselves. This book also has less micky-taking, name-calling, cruel nicknaming than Berna’s earlier works. If there was one attribute that marks this book out, it’s probably simple kindness.

As in all of Berna’s books that we’ve looked at so far, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Angel gets a dirty bottom from sitting on his stone on the beach, the dirt turns out to be rust because his stone is the top of a 12-ton cupola from the wrecked USS Massachusetts, bombarded on the day of the Allied Landings.

For a book with a number of subtle nuances – for example, the suggestion of a growing relationship between Philippe and Miqué, which Charloun simply can’t see, and which is never further touched on – there are admittedly some very clunky plot developments, no more extraordinary than Philippe’s unexpected success on a TV quiz show – although Angel’s discovery of valuable wreckage on a beach also takes the biscuit. Perhaps you have to suspend disbelief in this book more than in Berna’s previous books; but it’s written in such a winning style that you’re prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt all the way through.

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!

Big GameChapter One – Big Game. Berna introduces us to the gang. Charloun, Rigolo and Miqué are going off to follow the stag; en route they meet Norine, Angel, Titin, Sandrine and Frisquet. Rouqui, Coucoulin and Rosette are missing, but Charloun expects they will join them on the stag hunt. The younger members pretend to be hounds, barking excitedly, whilst Charloun takes charge with his hunting horn, calling the pack to order. It soon emerges that it’s not a stag they’re hunting, but Piston the donkey.

Having lost the trail, a twelve-year-old boy emerges from the pinewood where the gang had located Piston. He wanders over to where Piston was standing munching a branch of wood and starts talking to the donkey. At that moment, the Mistral howls up the road and frightens Piston, so that he charges at the boy; but the boy is too quick and makes his escape. The noise this produced alerts Miqué and her make-believe hounds to resume the hunt.

But events get the better of them. Coucoulin notices a trickle of grey smoke come puffing out from the bushes. Boldly, Rigolo, Sandrine and Rouqui join him to beat out the fire with their cudgels but it’s too much for them. Charloun gives the order to “run to the shanties” and “warn the Mohicans”, but they’re too late. The fire had already engulfed the first shanty, the Pastourelles’, and all the shanty residents had rushed outside with a few possessions, trying to put out the flames with a small supply of water – and the children help in this endeavour.

Eventually three firemen arrive from Port-Biou but there isn’t much left for them to save. Unfortunately, town clerk Monsieur Amoretti overhears Madame Escoffier, one of the shanty residents, accuse the children of having caused the fire by their games. Amoretti cuffs Charloun in punishment. But it’s Miqué who realises the seriousness of this accusation and runs off to tell Mademoiselle Blanc, the schoolmistress; and the two of them go off to tackle Amoretti.

Mohican's EncampmentChapter Two – The Mohicans’ Encampment. On her arrival Mlle Blanc wastes no time in establishing the innocence of the children, and accuses Amoretti of making up the story about the children causing the fire – she tells him that if he won’t stop accusing the children, she’ll accuse him in public – which would be believed because he’s always wanted to get rid of the shanty houses, home to the Mohicans – so called, because it sounds like La Mouilllecanne, the name of a little reeded-up local estuary. The firemen go into the burnt-out forest but there’s no sign of Piston, dead or alive. Charloun wants to give Amoretti a piece of his mind but Mlle Blanc talks him out of it.

Fifteen elderly people, now homeless, gather outside the Escoffiers’ cottage – the one house not destroyed. Amoretti pretends to be sympathetic – although for years there had been interest in converting the land to a holiday park or to preserve the fishing village. M. Cardusse blames Amoretti and the council for not clearing the land properly – they were powerless to protect it against the fierce Mistral. Their only hope is temporary accommodation at the schoolhouse until Casteran, the builder, can construct something for them. Charloun suspects there’ll be a back-hander in it for Amoretti.

Charloun discovers that Miqué thought she saw an additional person in the forest – presumably the boy described in the first chapter. But that’s nothing to worry about now – the main thing is for them to do all they can to help the Mohicans. Charloun orders everyone to empty their pockets – and between them they can muster five hundred and sixty francs, “barely enough to buy a small joint of beef! How much poorer can you get!” sighs Charloun. But what’s his plan? To support the Mohicans in a financial fight against Amoretti and the Council – even though many of the gang didn’t really believe they could achieve anything.

And we learn about Philippe Vial – a boy at school who’s clearly not a gang member, and is undoubtedly the boy who was also lurking in the forest when the fire started. He’s been ostracised because he is a posh outsider from Paris, and not very talkative. His mother tells him that the Mohicans’ land is ripe for development. “Philippe was appalled. He did not grasp it at all, but the fire, which had started by being rather a joke, now swelled to the size of a disaster.” Does that mean Philippe started the fire?

As the family walk around the shanties, which have been haphazardly re-erected with the help of some kindly folk, Monsieur Vial explains the history of the encampment, how it was let on a peppercorn rent, but how it’s now much more valuable and a grand hotel – The Residence, Port-Biou – has already been designed – by M. Vial himself. Amoretti and the Council will be ready to pounce. As Philippe discovers more and more how vulnerable the pensioners now are, he becomes very quiet and guiltily furtive.

Rouqui's BouillabaisseChapter Three – Rouqui’s Bouillabaisse. Pastourelle and Cadusse gaze out across the sea and regret that they may have to move away – they’ll miss this fantastic sight. Rouqui and Frisquet ask Pastourelle if they can take his boat – the Lion des Mers – out into the water to catch some fish. At first it looked as though they wouldn’t be lucky, but then the boys landed a bass, “a luxury piece” according to Rouqui. More fish are caught – perch, wrasse, dorado, even a sea-scorpion. All the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse.

Meanwhile Charloun and other gang members stage a public conversation, alerting eavesdroppers to the fact that there would be a splendid bouillabaisse at the Admiral hotel tonight. It has the desired effect; several unexpected table bookings result in the chef panicking. Lo and behold, Rouqui and Frisquet turn up at the hotel with two baskets of freshly caught fish and a demand for 5,000 francs. The chef reluctantly agrees this high price, and the boys are ecstatic. That’s the first lot of money to donate to the Mohicans.

7,850 francs is the total for the day; however, it’s a long way from the million francs that Charloun has worked out is needed to save the Mohicans from the workhouse. Coucoulin carelessly confesses that he has a valuable stamp in his collection – worth 80,000 francs. Sell it! cry the gang members but Coucoulin has other ideas.

Amoretti is unnerved by the sight of the gang, walking near the shanties. Could they ruin his plan to acquire the land?

The British Guiana Two Cents GreenChapter Four – The British Guiana Two Cents, Green. Mlle Blanc is impressed with the children’s efforts to raise a million francs, although she cannot believe they will achieve it. Poor Coucoulin has become the target of a series of mental bullying tactics to try to get him to sell the stamp; but he’s as obstinate as Piston. However, when his sister prays that he sells the stamp, he gives in, saying that he will use the proceeds to buy real estate.

Coucoulin offers the stamp to M. Bodin, the dealer. He’s very impressed with the stamp and offers him the choice of 90,000 francs for it, or exchanging it for 120,000 francs worth of other stamps – even 130,000 francs’ worth. A very generous offer that stops Coucoulin in his tracks. But Coucoulin insists on the cash, and just as Bodin is slowly counting it out, Coucoulin’s grandfather, Toussaint, takes the cash from under his nose. Hysterical, Coucoulin shames Toussaint into giving him back the money.

True to his word, Coucoulin brings the money to Charloun and the rest of the gang, who celebrate wildly. With so much cash now collected, the gang decide to take turns to guard it carefully. Frisquet suggests that they give themselves a name – and they go with Coucoulin’s suggestion of the Order of the Knights of King Midas – owing to the gang’s golden touch.

The chapter ends with a dramatic confrontation between Miqué and Philippe; her virtually accusing him of starting the fire, him neither denying nor admitting it, but suspecting that it would be through Miqué that he might become accepted by the gang.

Gondoliers of the Blue DanubeChapter Five – The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube.  News of the Order started to spread like wildfire, and quickly Charloun and the gang members were teased by the adults of Port-Biou as Knights and Millionaires. Their next plan was to win the prize in regatta race in Bandol, and Charloun gave the Yacht Club Commodore the crew name, The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube. However, M. Pastourelle won’t lend the gang the use of his rowing boat – the distance is too far and the whole project is too dangerous.

However, Rigolo’s father is the local boat-builder, and knows of a few ownerless craft that the gang could use. All that was left was for them to find gondoliers’ costumes and to make the Saint-Anatole boat presentable. But the gang couldn’t compete with the rich boat owners of Bandol. Mlle Blanc suggests they decorate the boat with flowers – picked by their own hands. So Rouqui and Frisquet take the Lion des Mers out to the Ile de Biou and discover plenty of beautiful blue delphiniums that will recreate the “Blue Danube” look.

Charloun and Rigolo were to be navigator and engineer, together with the two prettiest girls, Miqué and Sandrine, and the two youngest gang members, Norine and Angel. First the boys constructed some wooden shapes to fix to the boat so that it looks like a gondola. The others decide to pick the flowers at the very last moment so that they look as fresh as possible. They get a great haul late at night, and Miqué spends the whole time silently gazing and reflecting. “I’ll never ever see anything so lovely” she sighs; and Charloun misunderstands her because he is a boy without a developed sense of empathy.

Mlle Blanc is accompanied by Philippe Vial as they watch the blue boat coasting into place. With the crew members dressed in white, the boat is a true picture. And despite stiff competition from more luxury and richly appointed craft, the 100,000 francs prize was awarded to the Gondoliers. No one can believe it, least of all the children. And as the Saint-Anatole journeyed back to Port-Biou, the sea became awash with blue delphiniums.

Troubadours of Queen JoanChapter Six – The Troubadours of Queen Joan.  As Amoretti was reading about the children’s success in the local newspaper, Mlle Blanc had cashed the 100,000 franc cheque and had given the cash to the children. The bag that contains the loot is getting bigger all the time, and she warns them about keeping the money like that, but having a growing pile of cash is all part of the fun for the children. Amoretti wants to find out how the children are spending the money but he can’t find anything out; but the children learn that they must be careful with the money.

Meanwhile Mlle Blanc is still encouraging the gang members to allow Philippe to join them. He’d be an asset, she is sure; and would help to bring more money into the fund. Miqué alone had seen him at the site of the fire, and had never breathed a word to anyone. But now she saw the time was right to question him: ““First tell me who set fire to the pine wood”, she said abruptly, “and then we’ll see.” Philippe took his chance, while he had it. With Mademoiselle Blanc to back him up he was sure he could win her over. “I’d like to. But promise to keep it to yourself. No one will believe it but…” “All right.” Philippe put a friendly arm around Miqué’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Mademoiselle Blanc looked away. A broad grin spread slowly over Miqué’s face. She was thirteen, Philippe a few months older, and it was natural that she should see the funny side even of a disaster. When Philippe finished, she was doubled up with laughter that brought tears to her eyes.””

Philippe tells Miqué that a film company is making a movie in nearby La Cadière and are looking for extras – they need a boy and they pay well. Quick as a flash Miqué rushes off to tell the others. Rigolo cycles off to get the advert and the gang realise the best person for the job is Titin. Titin’s not so sure though, especially as the advert describes the role as donkey boy. Nevertheless, the next morning Titin approaches Piston’s owner, M. Mazet, to ask if he can borrow his donkey. Mazet has no objections – but Piston probably won’t like it. However, Titin treats Piston so gently that the donkey obliges him with a gentle obedience, and much to M. Mazet’s surprise, Piston walks to La Cadière with Titin on his back.

Just before their destination they chance upon a huge number of donkeys and boys, all hoping to be chosen for the role. Piston doesn’t like that one bit and charges into the crowd, demanding that the rest of the pay attention to him. The director is instantly taken with Titin and Piston and gives them the role. Titin delivers his words perfectly, but just before the actress playing the Queen can reply, Piston lets out a mighty bray and everyone falls apart laughing – except the Queen, who is furious at being upstaged by a donkey. But the scene works, the writer writes the braying into his script and the Queen has to take her cue from Piston. The scene takes three days to shoot and Titin is paid 2875 francs an hour – 70,000 francs in all.

The Treasure VanishesChapter Seven – The Treasure Vanishes. On a lovely day, Rouqui is catching fish, and Sandrine and Miqué are chatting with Mlle Blanc. Miqué is looking after the money, and her bag, which is blue, contains 295,000 francs. When Charloun tallies up the income for the day – only 800 francs – he asks Miqué for the bag so he can add the new cash to the rest. But, horror of horrors, the girl realises she has left her bag somewhere. Devastated, she bursts into tears. Charloun is furious. He jumps on Rigolo’s bike and heads towards the bench in front of the Café Vieux which is where she must have left it. He returns, dejected, without the money. The bag wasn’t there and M. Vieux had seen nothing.

The children split up to hunt for the bag – but no luck. Charloun thinks their only hope is that someone has taken the bag to lost property at the town hall – but that would alert Amoretti and that could be disastrous. Angel goes off to ask. Strangely, Miqué seems calm – with almost a smile on her lips. When Angel gets to the lost property office he’s deliberately vague but Amoretti is highly suspicious – if there’s money in the bag, there is an implication that Angel must have stolen it. But they go through every blue item in the lost property office and Angel insists that it isn’t any of them. Once Angel has gone, Amoretti gives orders to the local policeman Garidan and Cucq to search the village for a blue bag. He wants to get to the money first.

However, to the rescue comes Philippe. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome, he reveals that he found the bag and couldn’t let anyone know about it earlier because his family had visitors and he couldn’t leave. He hadn’t touched a penny of the contents – and the gang members are enormously relieved! But what are they to do about Philippe? Should he now become a gang member? They put it to a vote – and it’s almost unanimous that he should join. And, after allowing them to waste a lot of time, they let the two policemen know that the missing bag has been found – but not without some teasing!

Big BusinessChapter Eight – Big Business. The gang realise that their growing wealth has relied on some lucky breaks. Where will the next lucky break come from? One day Angel wore his best clean white shorts, and when he got home, the seat was absolutely filthy – enough for his mother to give him a slap (wouldn’t be allowed today!) The next time he wears those shorts, they’re covered with rust stains again – and this time she “smacked him on the spot”. Mme Despardieu complains to Charloun but he can’t understand how Angel is getting his shorts dirty.

Charloun and Rigolo determine to get to the bottom of the cause; and they quickly discover that it’s because Angel sits on a particular stone outside the emplacement where the gang usually meet. Rigolo investigates the stone further and discovers something potentially precious. They cover the stone with sand and the next day ask Mlle Blanc for some advice. She thinks they might have a right to ownership, but it needs to be discussed with the Harbour Board – and Rigolo’s father used to work for them at the time of the invasion. Investigations continue; M. Cabbasole and Mlle Blanc engage a lawyer to draw up a legal statement.

Charloun and Rigolo were nowhere to be seen during the Bastille Day celebrations; but just as Amoretti was congratulating himself on a nice profit from the firework display, the boys surprise him with possible information about a treasure trove. Only enough information to infuriate him of course! With Cucq on their trail, they return to dangle more information in front of Amoretti – and then turn and flee at the last moment.

Finally they tell Amoretti what they have discovered – the twelve ton steel cupola salvaged from the USS Massachusetts bombarded by the Germans on the day of the Allied Landings. Amoretti is determined that he should not have to share the value with the children – but they’ve already instructed the scrap merchant Cabassole to act for them. And their share of the loot turns out to be 405,000 francs. Charloun concludes that they have ten days left to raise 300,000 francs – and it’s only Philippe who hasn’t pulled his weight yet.

Back coverChapter Nine – Double and Quits.  The days march on, and the gang continue to raise what money they can from odd jobs, fishing and the like. They target their efforts on a grand jumble sale but, although it raises 30,000 francs, it’s not enough. At 250,000 francs short, Miqué has the bright idea to approach the contractor to see if they can knock something off the quotation for the work.

Meanwhile, much to everyone’s surprise, Philippe turns up – on a TV quiz show! And the top prize is – a million francs. The gang all watch as one by one all Philippe’s opponents are eliminated, owing to his extraordinary general knowledge and maths ability. He wins 512,000 francs – and then is asked if he’s like to double it to 1,024,000. The gang is on tenterhooks whilst he decides – and he chooses to double! But Philippe doesn’t let them down – and is the proud winner of over a million francs.

Sprung up like MushroomsChapter Ten – Sprung up like Mushrooms. The gang arrive at M. Casteran’s office with all the money to instruct Casteran to build the properties for the Mohicans to move into. But he cannot do it until the end of August – and this is not quick enough to save the Mohicans from the meanness of Amoretti. However, he is moved by little Norine’s gift of three francs and does his best to order the immediate construction of bungalows for the Mohicans.

At 8pm Casteran’s men move in to start the construction work. Pastourelle can’t fathom how they were instructed or who’s going to pay for it. Casteran tells them it’s being taken care of; and only then do the gang fully appreciate the extent of their achievement. Overnight all the new bungalows are erected, and the Mohicans are free to move into their new accommodation.

But no one tells Amoretti! He wakes up the next morning, thrilled that he will finally be able to take possession of the Mohicans’ land. Arriving with his policemen in tow, he cannot believe his eyes when he gets there. Left looking both foolish and tricked, Amoretti’s plans have come to nothing.

The spare money from the fund is divided out among the Mohicans, save for a little reserve that Mlle Blanc uses to host a huge celebratory meal and party. And Philippe is able to reveal the identity of who it was that started the fire – Piston! He had stolen a charred branch from a bonfire that some locals had used to cook fish – and he had walked it back in his mouth and the burning end had set light to the shanties.

The book ends with Mlle Blanc in a reflective mood. “Her joy was tinged with sadness. Charloun, mad as he was, had held to his word and had won through; now it was all over so soon! As Miqué had said one evening not long ago, “I shall never, ever see anything so lovely.” In those simple words she had given expression to the everlasting discontent of those who seek perfection, the wish of children who live their golden age and want the world to return to it. “No!” Mademoiselle Blanc told herself. “Never have regrets. These happy times will always live in their memories and be there to cheer them, even when life is at its darkest.”

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManTo sum up; The Knights of King Midas is full of kindness, generosity, understanding and compassion; but the opposition embodied by the character of Amoretti is rather unsubtle and two-dimensional. Despite its occasional faults it’s a very enjoyable read with a big feelgood factor; and there are some amusing insights into practices that are no longer acceptable – hitting your children and discriminating against girls come to mind! 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. Paul Berna’s next book was Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which wasn’t translated until seven years later in 1965, as The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – Magpie Corner (1957)

In which we meet Frederick, whose father runs the new petrol station at Magpie Corner. One day a stranger enters their midst; who is he, and what is his interest in the station and in Frederick’s father? And why is his father always so surly to his devoted son? All will be revealed in this engrossing and heartfelt tale of contraband and family relationships.

Magpie Corner was first published in 1957 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Carrefour de la Pie, which translates literally as Magpie Crossroads, with illustrations by G. de Sainte-Croix. As Magpie Corner, it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1966, a full nine years after its original French edition. Unlike the previous Puffin editions, which were translated by John Buchanan-Brown, this book was translated by Helen Woodyatt and apart from the frontispiece and dust jacket, contains no other illustrations. My own copy of the book is the second hardback impression, printed in 1967, bearing the price 18/-. Helen Woodyatt’s only other translation in print, as far as I can see, is a 1964 translation of Marguerite Thiebold’s Pascal and the Tramp.

Leaving behind Gaby and his gang from the first two books, in their rundown suburb of Louvigny, we’re now in the peaceful village of La Rua, which actually exists in the eastern region of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, approximately 70 km north of the provincial capital, Besançon. The book begins with an account of how the children have to keep the cows from straying on to the busy main road nearby; that would be the D1, which links the communes of Vitrey-sur-Mance and Membrey. However, Berna also tells us that a by-pass connects La Rua with Rouvray, via the grasslands of Chamarande, in the direction of Mâcon, which places the story to the south of Paris. Furthermore, Berna points out that Madame Paulin no longer has to travel to Tournus or Pont de Vaux to trade, both of which are very close to Mâcon, further complicating the issue! I think this is one of the situations where Berna has chosen real places but has nevertheless created a mystery and fantasy about them.

The book centres on Frederick; and it’s a very powerful, moving portrait of a kind-hearted, resilient boy, who’s a bit of a loner. He’s ignored and unloved by his father, and, as a result, all-consumed by suspicion as his life lacks reassurance. In his other works we’ve seen so far, Berna excels at showing the strength that can be gained from being a member of a gang. Frederick is as far away from having a gang to be a member of as you can possibly get. He seems to be a fish out of water; friends with the two girls, but estranged from the company of other boys. At the age of fifteen, Frederick is much older than the average age of Gaby’s gang. Whilst they’re looking for escapades to pass their spare time, Frederick is much more focussed on what he’s trying to achieve. He’s like a Rottweiler on the track of a criminal, and he’s not going to let him escape. Gaby’s gang spend the whole time laughing; but there’s not much laughter in Frederick’s life. There’s no sense of early romance between him and either Colette or Fanny, unlike the charming developing relationship between the much younger Marion and Fernand.

Rather than playing, Frederick now turns to work for a release from his worries. Vehicles have become his friend: he can tell a six cylinder diesel from its thundery rumble, and Berna makes this association stronger by his sensuous description of petrol fumes; “the all-pervading smell of petrol obliterated the natural scent of the newly mown hay. But the children liked it.” He’s never more at home when tinkering with engines and watching a master at work; and the more he works on the petrol station, and the more exposure he has to the other drivers, the more his confidence grows. You sense it’s a very different boy who closes the book than the one who opens it.

This is an exciting, devious, complicated little tale, with double-crossing villains and double-crossing heroes. Today, it would probably not be acceptable to have a book, ostensibly written for children, where smoking featured so heavily. But this was France in 1957; Langlais doesn’t flinch an inch when his son starts smoking in front of him. There’s not one word of criticism or negativity connected with the cigarettes; no asides about health issues, it’s just a mundane, 100% acceptable, routine. In fact, when Frederick teases Morden towards the end of the book, sniffing at the cigarette smoke, he says “it smells good, doesn’t it?” As well as all that smoking, there are plenty of trips to the café to enjoy some of Uncle Armand’s rosé. Pushing bad habits on children? Perhaps that’s how we would see it from the 21st century. Little surprise, perhaps, that this book has been largely forgotten – which is a shame, because it’s a superb tale, beautifully written.

The Street MusicianLike The Street Musician, Magpie Corner is a reflective, atmospheric book, with some superb writing and intense examination of the hero’s motives and emotions. Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. Towards the end of the book, when Jeremy and Frederick have set a trap of which Langlais is unaware, but will benefit from, he expresses the father’s anxiety: “Monsieur Langlais was the most vulnerable. He was rather like a tethered goat put out unawares to tempt the tiger, and ignorant of the body of men ready to help him.”

Unlike the previous books, this is a much more male-oriented story. All the significant players – Frederick, his father, Jeremy, the speed-cops, the postman, Morden, and the two people in the 4CV, are all men. Colette and Fanny play a lesser role in Frederick’s life as the book progresses. And Mme Paulin and Frederick’s mother barely feature at all. I feel this increases the book’s sense of maturity and seriousness; definitely a book written for fifteen-year-old boys.

A Hundred Million FrancsI’ve noticed how Berna likes to give nicknames to some of his characters – not always affectionately. In A Hundred Million Francs, one of the henchmen gets called “Ugly”. In The Street Musician, the tramp is called Spare-A-Copper, the nutseller is Monkeynuts, and they call the accordionist, M. Anatole, “The Phantom”. In Magpie Corner, the nicknames are becoming a little more unkind; right from the start Frederick refers to Jeremy as “The Hunchback”, and Colette calls the two 4 CV men, “Duckbeak” and “Clownface”. Maybe it’s true that children, particularly in those days, gave uncomplimentary nicknames to adults they didn’t like, but looking back on it from our viewpoint, it feels not only childish, but rather unpleasant. I’ll keep a watch on Berna’s use of nicknames in future books.

In Berna’s other books so far, poverty had always played a tangible role in the stories and in the day to day lives of the gang. In Magpie Corner, there is no such poverty. The Petrol Station and the Café Restaurant are both doing extremely good business and there is no shortage of money to provide the characters a comfortable life. The poverty is of a different kind; the poor quality of the relationship between Frederick and his father, and the lack of communication and support that the father should provide. However, it’s also interesting the extent to which people will put themselves out for free cigarettes – thronging the roads with their cars on the look-out. Although today cigarettes are taxed so highly that they are a luxury item, back in 1957 I would have thought they would have been relatively cheap; so maybe there isn’t as much money in circulation in the wider society of this book.

As in Berna’s previous books, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Jeremy asks Frederick about the abandoned quarry at Senozan, Frederick describes it as the “cemetery for scrap iron […] there are something like two thousand wrecks there. Vans, private cars, tractors, as well as all the German and American military machines from 1944, tanks and even armoured cars. It’s an enormous pile and the council can’t get rid of it.” The treasure of the Lost Legion goes on to play a significant role in the book.

A couple of the plot twists are written a little heavy-handedly. The book suffers from one awfully heavy moment of obvious exposition, when Frederick overhears the conversation of the men from the 4 CV; almost farcical in the way it gave telegraphed the plot. The big surprise that’s kept right to the very end should also, I feel, have been written with a little more sophistication, so that it emerged naturally from conversation. The big surprise is also, I can’t help but think, very far-fetched and unlikely; but it does allow the book to finish on a high.

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!

FrederickChapter One introduces us to the Paulin family; Mme Paulin runs The Magpie Inn on Magpie Corner; a renovated barn which she turned into an eight-bedroomed café, restaurant and mini-hotel. Aunt Guitte is head chef, Uncle Armand runs the bar, and her two daughters, Colette and Fanny, do their best to keep an eye on the cows, as the family still ran a small farm too. On the other side of the road, a new SICA petrol station had been built, and the Langlais family moved in to run it. Fifteen-year-old Frederick Langlais quickly became friends with the Paulin girls: “he was very friendly and they liked him at once. He was different from the village boys of La Rua and Rouvray, who were mostly pretty rough and rowdy.”

Whilst watching the cars, Frederick, Colette and Fanny get talking to Claud and Poulard, a couple of speed cops (“we’re not cops, we’re guardians of the highway”), taking a break. Claud notices M. Langlais working at the petrol station and mutters to himself, “I’m sure I’ve seen that chap somewhere before,” which intrigues and slightly disturbs Frederick, the only person to hear him. Frederick is always concerned about his father’s wellbeing. “You’ve only got to look at him. He seems to be obsessed by some awful dread. And it’s only since we came here. I’ve got the impression that he’s expecting something terrible to happen.” Where the girls are curious about all the people that go by, Frederick just watches and worries about his father – “the man who had become a stranger to him”.

Policeman Claud asks Frederick about his father: “he used to be a long-distance lorry driver […] he had his left shoulder badly smashed in an accident. For six months he had to have some marvellous electric treatment which works miracles. His shoulder is quite all right now, but he can’t drive any more. So someone found him this job, which is far less tiring.” When Frederick goes back to the petrol station at the end of the afternoon, his father isn’t welcoming, but simply gives him jobs to do. “Monsieur Langlais avoided his son as much as possible. Frederick’s blind admiration and devotion embarrassed him. The child had an unusually sympathetic nature which he longed to show to his father, but he was too young to know how to express himself and only succeeded in irritating him.”

We learn that Frederick doesn’t believe that his father was away for six months in an American hospital. “Frederick’s vague suspicions were strengthened after his father came back. He suddenly appeared without any warning at the little villa they had taken in Choisy le Roi. He insisted on leaving again that very day. He pulled down their suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and told them to pack quickly and be ready to go as soon as darkness fell. He said he must go into the country to convalesce. The whole affair seemed suspiciously like a flight from something or someone.”

“One morning by chance he happened to see his father taking a shower. The ex-lorry driver had two perfectly good shoulder blades and no trace of a scar anywhere.” Not driving; but not injured; and away for six months… what could it be?

LanglaisChapter Two sees a ramshackled old Citroen lorry pull up for petrol just as Frederick and the girls are returning home from school. The lorry looks like a hearse, held together with wire. Its owner, whom Frederick christens “the hunchback” because of a swelling on his back, tells M. Langlais that he’s looking for a job; he’s a mechanic, and he could help Langlais provide a breakdown service. They go to the Magpie Inn to discuss it, whilst leaving the petrol pumps to Frederick. When they emerge, slightly worse for wear after the consumption of plenty of rosé, it’s agreed; M. Jeremy is to have the spare room and will give Langlais 40% of everything he makes.

Jeremy certainly brings Langlais out of his shell; there had never been so much laughter in the house, and between them they set up the new workshop in under an hour. “Frederick turned back clenching his fists. For the last six months he had been trying to be a friend and companion to his father. And now this wretched hunchback had stepped into his place with no difficulty at all. An hour later they all met for dinner; father, mother, son and the irrepressible visitor. Monsieur Jeremy was very polite and talkative; he told some funny stories and when he raised his glass to his lips he crooked his little finger in the grandest possible manner. Both Monsieur Langlais and his wife were much impressed by so much elegance […] but the boy kept his head down and concentrated on his food. He felt deeply suspicious and offended.”

The worst moment for Frederick is when Jeremy remarks to Langlais, “your boy doesn’t talk much” and Langlais replies “he’s fifteen years old, and children of that age are all more or less idiots.” Frederick is furious. But he’s also determined that Jeremy shouldn’t do anything to make his father’s life worse.

JeremyChapter Three, and Jeremy is already making his first sale to an old farmer from Uchizy with a clapped-out old truck, whom he convinces to part with two hundred francs in exchange for a valve overhaul and a general check-over. Even Frederick, watching at a distance, admires his sales technique.

Frederick’s suspicions about Jeremy are raised again with the news that Colette saw him sitting outside and smoking at 2am. (You’re not allowed to smoke on petrol forecourts nowadays!) But, true enough, Jeremy does the repairs on the truck, and he and Langlais get on like a house on fire; although Frederick still regrets: “it won’t make any difference to me […] whatever he’s like with other people, he never seems to care for me.”

Just as Frederick is about to go sit by the river with the girls, his father tells him he wants him to help Jeremy with his work. Frederick sees it as an opportunity to find out what Jeremy is really like, so he changes into overalls , goes into the workshop, and receives his first lesson in vehicle mechanics. Against his better judgment, Frederick is impressed, and actually enjoys the work. Jeremy says he can come back any time for more jobs – and he’d get paid at the proper rate. But the mood sours when Jeremy asks Frederick more detailed questions about his father and the business; Frederick determines not to give anything away.

However, going back to the job in hand, Frederick feels more at ease: “Frederick had forgotten all about Colette and Fanny and the arrangements for a swim in the cool water of the Saône. His thoughts were concentrated on helping to put together the pieces of this jig-saw puzzle as he listened enthralled to the mechanic’s professional talk. He was able to be quite useful and he felt entirely happy and engrossed. No one had ever before talked to him in such a friendly way or allowed him to take part in such serious work. For the first time in his life he was experiencing the pleasure of working in harmony with a man of professional ability. His father had never given him that satisfaction.” A few hours later and Frederick and Jeremy are laughing away together. They take the repaired truck out of the workshop, and Langlais watches them. “Jeremy gave the thumbs-up sign and accelerated the engine. Monsieur Langlais came up to them to speak to the mechanic but did not pay the slightest attention to his son, whose beaming oil-covered face was leaning out of the door longing for some sign of recognition.”

Frederick feels he may come to terms with Jeremy’s presence “in a way no longer possible with his own father.” At dinner, Jeremy compliments Frederick on his work, but his father gives him no praise, only saying that he was to assist Jeremy for two hours every morning – which Frederick felt was going to eat into the fun of the holidays too much. When he tells Colette and Fanny, they’re disappointed. But Frederick has a thought about why Jeremy has suddenly turned up. “I wonder if he could have come here because of the cemetery […] the one at Senozan, the car scrapheap.” People had been visiting it recently, because of a newspaper article, “about the treasure of the Lost Legion. This had been a pathetic army formed by a rabble of Asiatics who had trailed pitifully after the routed Wehrmacht. In September 1944 one battalion of this comic opera army had vanished completely, apparently wiped out somewhere between Mâcon and Tournus”. Maybe Jeremy is hunting for this treasure?

Meanwhile, Langlais decides to stay open in the evenings, to see if the trade is worthwhile. Late at night, Frederick watches through his window to see his father working on the pumps, with Jeremy watching him in the shadows; “I’m watching over my father, who is letting himself be dominated by a horrible stranger.”

At 2am, the rumble of a lorry awakens Frederick. “The hunchback emerged suddenly into the light from the pumps. The driver leaned over again, and Frederick heard him say, “That’s good! You got the place all right? […] “Don’t talk here!” [Jeremy] said in a low voice. “The kid’s bedroom’s just there. Come over here! […] their low murmurs were unintelligible”. Jeremy filled the lorry with fifty litres of petrol and then it drove off. But Frederick is absolutely convinced that something is not right. All he knows is the name on the side of a lorry – SOBITO International Road Transport.

Claud and PoulardChapter Four The next morning Frederick simply doesn’t know what to do. Fanny explains that SOBITO is a new company with four lorries working regular routes, and they are next due to drive past Magpie Corner on Monday night. Should they watch out for it? Maybe there’s enmity between SOBITO and other hauliers over the monopoly of routes.

Langlois notes with excitement how many litres of heavy were sold overnight from pump five. ““That SOBITO lorry alone took fifty litres,” said Frederick in a gently but very clear voice.” Frederick explains how he watched the transaction; Jeremy is obviously shocked. Whilst the two men enjoy a drink and a laugh at the Café opposite, Frederick beseeches his mother to tell the truth about what really happened to his father. “Your father killed someone with his lorry […] it wasn’t his fault, I’m certain, but he was sent to prison for six months for that one wretched stroke of bad luck, which cost the life of an unknown man. A thing like that leaves its mark on a man, and your father is very sensitive. Don’t mention it to him – ever!”

After this revelation, Frederick feels he understands his father better; no longer frightened of him, but sympathetic. But he can’t resist quickly telling his father not to trust Jeremy – and his father calls him out for his words: “I’m not going to take any advice from a child like you. You are far too young to criticise grown-up people!”

Later, chatting with Traffic Cop Claud, Frederick admits he’s concerned about the presence of Jeremy in their lives. He goes on to tell Claud about what he’s just discovered about his father’s accident, and Claud tells him of an accident involving a cyclist the previous year, where a lorry driver took the blame for the dead cyclist’s bad road behaviour. Was it the same accident?

Magpie CafeChapter Five Life is busy at Magpie Corner. Jeremy has lots of customers and appreciates it when Frederick lends a hand – and, despite himself, Frederick always enjoys working alongside an expert. But when pushed, he has a full-on argument with Jeremy, accusing him of wanting to know where the family money is kept. Frederick discovers that Jeremy has been told about his father’s accident. Jeremy says he wants to be friends with Frederick but the boy is having none of it. Jeremy flies into a rage: “””I dare you to repeat to your father everything you have said to me!” he shouted, stamping his foot. He hates the sight of you, you silly little ass, and well you know it!””

Meanwhile, two sinister men had left their 4CV for repair, and were returning back to the café. One asks Uncle Arnaud for “cheaper” cigarettes. “”I do occasionally have a chance of getting a few packets free of duty for my regular customers,” he said peaceably. “But I don’t manage to keep them long, I don’t ask where they come from.” Are they Customs officers? Whatever, they convince Mme Paulin to let them have a room for a couple of nights. Frederick’s suspicions are even further aroused. He sees them in an argument with Jeremy, but he’s not taken in – he thinks it’s a charade for his benefit.

On a whim, Frederick decides to go and hide at the quarry at Senozan, to keep a watch out for anything suspicious. And who does he spy? None other than the two men with the 4CV. Frederick overhears their conversation: “If the stuff really was here everyone would know about it. There are plenty of nosy parkers around. It’s not so easy to hide ten tons of cargo. Besides, no lorry could get along that track.” Then the other man: “Listen, Louis, do you know what I think? I think the boss is worried stiff. The must know he’ll never get his fifty million cigarettes back again.” Worst of all for Frederick, the men mention Langlais in respect of this crime. “Packets of Diamond and Princess have been in circulation the whole way along this main road. It’s pretty obvious, especially as Langlais is hiding himself so near here.”

Frederick decides it’s time for action. He searches all the tunnels and eventually finds a chamber which hides a second chamber – and at the end of it, he feels the wheel of a lorry…

SmokersChapter Six sees Frederick speak directly to his father: “I know I’m only a kid, and probably not much good at anything. But I do want us to be friends again. Whatever it is that you have done doesn’t make any difference to me. After all, you are my father and I don’t want anyone to harm you, and they shan’t if I can stop them.” He can’t see his father’s reaction behind his dark glasses, but he hopes his message has hit home. Frederick also tells the girls about his adventure at the quarry – well, some of the details at least.

Later that night, Frederick comes down to talk to his father again. “Please listen! That hunchback is one of Monsieur Morden’s spies! […] We must go away at once Dad, We can find somewhere to go, it doesn’t matter where…” Langlais replies: “Yes, Frederick, I’ve known all along. I guessed it from the first moment when he was so keen to come and work here. But it was too late then to do anything about it. The moment they located me here I couldn’t move without involving us all, you, your mother and me, in a tragedy. So I tried to deceive him by playing his game. I let him spy into my private affairs so that he could see that I was only an ordinary sort of chap like thousands of others.”

At last Frederick and his father can talk freely between each other. Langlais understands and knows that his son is fully supportive of him, and Frederick is desperate to know more. Langlais doesn’t want to keep running and hiding for the rest of his life. He’s happy enough in their new position and wants to fight to keep it. But he confesses to his son that for years he drove Morden’s lorries knowing full well he was carrying contraband; but what could he do? His pregnant wife was delicate, his son was about to be born. He wanted to be able to provide for them as best he could. “As a matter of fact I never enjoyed one single moment of that ill-gotten comfort. It was poisoned by my sense of guilt, and my fear of being found out. When you were a little boy you used to ask innocent questions about my job – what sort of loads I carried, that sort of thing. And when I answered I found I was lying, lying to an innocent little boy. My life seemed to have become one big lie. I gradually became so ashamed that after a while I found myself avoiding you. It is natural for children to trust their parents and when you were about six you had a way of looking a me which made ashamed to think that I could deceive my wife and child so terribly.”

More revelations from Langlais. When he caused the death of the cyclist, he was accelerating away from rival smuggling gangs who would have stopped his lorry and taken control of his load. Langlais felt that if he accepted the blame and went to prison it would rid him of Morden and his illegal work for ever – but no. The contraband he was carrying at the time of the accident never came to light. Clearly, Jeremy and the 4CV men are working for Morden and trying to locate the stolen lorry and its goodies. So Langlais wants Frederick to keep an eye on Jeremy, and maybe take his mind off trying to find the contraband; Frederick suggests the girls will keep the 4 CV men out of harm’s way; which just leaves the SOBITO men.

So why, when Langlais finally goes to bed at 2am, is Frederick missing from his bedroom?

CalasChapter Seven Calas the postman arrives for a morning rosé at the Café and starts to brag about smoking both Diamond and Princess cigarettes – which just so happen to be the brands that were in Langlais’ lorry. He tells the 4CV men that they were just lying on the ground on the road from Chamarande that morning. Then two other men come in, also smoking the same brands. The 4CV men, whom Colette has nicknamed Duckbeak and Clownface, grow more unsettled and ask Uncle Armand for local countryside tips; Armand offers the services of the two girls to walk with the two men in the countryside (that wouldn’t happen today!!)

Frederick (who tells his father he just went for a walk the previous night) cheekily offers Jeremy a cigarette from his new packet of Diamonds. Jeremy is thunderstruck and is desperate to know where Frederick got them – and he tells the same story as the postman. Jeremy says: “I know people who would pay the earth to get their hands on a stock of these”, to which Frederick replies, “would they pay enough to let my father live in peace?”

Frederick asks Jeremy if he would like to live in the area for good. Jeremy concedes that it’s a good place, and that he was lucky to get on so well with his father. Later that day, Frederick spots Duckbeak and Clownface hiding in a taxi. Something’s going to happen soon, and, for once, it’s Jeremy who seems the most nervous.

4CV MenChapter Eight sees Frederick on a late-night rendezvous with Calas – down at the abandoned lorry in the quarry at Senozan. This is where Calas gets his endless supply of cigarettes, of course; and the only other person who knows about it is the driver, Young Charley, who won’t be happy until the whole stash has gone, and now never goes near the place. He unwittingly got involved in Morden’s contraband scam, and hadn’t a clue what to do with the lorry. It was Calas’ idea to hide it in Senozan.

Together they worked to fill two big sacks with cigarettes, but at this stage, what they did with them is a mystery. Frederick walks home at about 2am only to be discovered by his father. The two of them watch as a long-distance lorry accelerates towards the filling-station and knocks down all the pumps, and, without stopping, hurtles on to rejoin the main road and disappear. Langlais does his best to make the site safe, although Jeremy is reticent to help. When the police come, Frederick is able to give the number plate of the lorry – although he doesn’t mention it was the same lorry that called the previous week. Frederick also takes the opportunity to needle Jeremy once more, and he’s not happy about it.

Chapter Nine And we straightaway know what Frederick and Calas have done; as loads of people descend on the quarry to pick up hundreds of packets of cigarettes that are just lying on the ground. And, good news: SICA repaired the petrol pumps at 6am the next morning, so there was hardly any loss of trade. After some closer questioning by Frederick, he discovers that the lorry that is hidden in the quarry was not his father’s but another run by the same company – he confirms that the driver’s name was Charley.

Two men dressed in black check in to the Café for an overnight stay – and Uncle Armand is convinced they are customs officers. Over lunch Frederick realises that Jeremy has his own argument with the 4CV men – but he won’t say what it is. Perhaps, thinks Frederick, Jeremy can finally be trusted… However, Jeremy has devised a plan, and asks Frederick to provide him with one complete carton of cigarettes, containing five hundred packets of twenty. He won’t say why; but Frederick agrees. And then Jeremy drops a bombshell – Morden is coming to Magpie Corner tomorrow.

Another surprise – in conversation with traffic cop Claud, it emerges that they knew all along about the abandoned lorry and the plentiful supply of cigarettes, as Frederick watches him puffing away at a fresh pack of Diamonds. Claud invites Frederick to confess to the liberal scattering of packets a few days earlier – but he stays quiet. Nevertheless, Claud informs Frederick that he knows full well where the missing lorry is – safely parked out of harm’s way.

At night, Frederick has been true to his word and Jeremy divides up the cigarettes and stashes them all over the red 4CV; in the boot, behind the cushions, under the seats, in the door pockets. That done, Jeremy, Frederick and Calas drive around the village, dispensing cigarette packets everywhere.

Chapter Ten The by-pass is choked with motorists on the hunt for free cigarettes, some to smoke themselves, some to set up stalls to make a profit. Langlais is asked to see the police about a trivial matter, which leaves Frederick and Jeremy in charge of the big final scene. They were just serving some customers when a royal blue Jaguar pulls up at Pump Number One; Morden, his chauffeur and two other men. Morden wishes to see Langlais but Frederick explains he is with the police but will be back soon, maybe with some officers. Unimpressed with the sight of “his” cigarettes being shared out all over the place, they get out of the car and wait for Langlais to return, while Jeremy works on the Jaguar. Meanwhile the locals continue to smoke their hearts out.

Langlais tells Morden that he ought to leave whilst he can, but Morden is not in the mood to change his mind. Then Frederick bursts in and tells Morden it’s his Cherbourg lorry that is stuck locally and that, as no one came to claim it, for the last three days it’s been the property of Calas, the Postman. “”As for my father’s lorry,” went on Frederick, still perfectly calm, “I can’t say yet, because it’s in the hands of the traffic police and the Special Branch for suppression of smuggling.” Claud and Poulard arrive and confirm that the lorry Langlais was driving is currently being stored in Lille “in a shed behind the Customs Office!” Morden denies ownership of the vehicle; Claud confirms “for a cargo of that nature and tonnage […] counting the expenses, taxes, surcharges, compensation, damages and other indemnities claimed by the Customs, the Treasury and the State (all in algebraic progression, mind you), I should say our man would get a bill for about eight hundred million francs.”

On the road out to Rouvray, Morden and his men are stopped by Customs Officers – and five hundred cartons of Diamond cigarettes are found in the boot – the contraband that Jeremy had planted on them, when he was attending to the Jaguar.

Frederick confronts Jeremy with his suspicion that “it was you who planned that robbery of the two lorries in league with the drivers’ mates, wasn’t it? […] But it all went wrong because of my father and his accident. Klaus tried to rob you in his turn, and then young Charley lost his head. Monsieur Morden looked for his lorries all over France, and you were looking for them too on your own account. For a short while you hoped you could recover the Senozan one, but it was impossible for one man alone, and I got in your way.” Jeremy denies it, but we know Frederick is right.

One final revelation: the cyclist who died as a result of the accident, and the guilt for which Langlais has had to deal with for so long, had been dead six hours when the police arrived. So Langlais has been living with that guilt unnecessarily! It wasn’t him!

The Knights of King MidasTo sum up; Magpie Corner wasn’t translated until nine years after it was written, so, in the sequence of British publications of Berna’s works, it appears later and out of place, and I think has long been overlooked as a result. To my mind it’s a book of great atmosphere, considerable sadness; not a typical childhood funtime romp, but an examination of some of the darker sides of life. I really like it! 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. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Kangourou Volant, which was never translated into English. So we’ll skip that one so that the next in the Paul Berna Challenge is The Knights of King Midas, and once more we’re in the world of gangs; not Gaby and his friends, but Charloun and his gang, so there’s a whole new bunch of French youngsters to meet. I can’t remember much about it, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Street Musician (1956)

The Street MusicianIn which we meet Gaby and his gang again; whilst the toy horse from A Hundred Million Francs is out of action, they need to find a new adventure. One day Marion is asked to give one of her dogs to a blind man who plays the accordion on the street corner, and she gives him the beautiful Nanar, a dog with a bright yellow coat. However, when they next see the dog with the accordionist, it has changed colour – it is now a beautiful black dog. Why should that be? Gaby and the gang have to uncover the truth and it leads to much deeper things…

Le Piano à bretelleThe Street Musician was first published in 1956 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Piano à bretelle, which translates as The Accordion, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As The Street Musician, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1960. As in the previous book, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, and illustrated by Richard Kennedy. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1961, bearing the price 3/-.

Once again we’re in Louvigny, that very workaday railway town just outside Paris, with its grim industrial atmosphere and air of poverty. The same streets, the same cafés that featured in A Hundred Million Francs are all back in the story, as is Gaby’s gang, happy to leave their “gloomy school” every day at four. Also making a reappearance is Inspector Sinet, although with a markedly less important role in this book.

It strikes me that The Street Musician is a much more reflective, and much less action-packed, story than its predecessor. Although Gaby is still in charge, the growing maturity of the characters of Marion and Fernand is the one most significant development within the gang members. They have an awareness that they are the outsiders in the gang, and are occasionally made to feel insecure by the actions of the others. “I’ve noticed for some time that we aren’t exactly everybody’s favourites” Fernand tells Marion. Later, he buys her a brooch for a shilling at a fair, which she proudly wears – until she loses it, much to her annoyance. It’s a symbol of their special friendship; too young to be a romance, but it does set them apart from the rest of the group.

povertyPoverty is still a tangible aspect to the story and to the gang. Considering they have so little, the purchase of the brooch is even more significant. But it creeps through in other parts of their lives. Gaby’s firework display at the end of the book amounts to nothing because he could only afford to buy cheap out-of-date stock. Most people throw toys or balls to their dog for them to play catch, but Berna points out that Marion throws stones for Fifi, because they are free.

1956 still wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War and its legacy still scars this townscape. The gang’s new headquarters is close to a commemorative plaque that remembers twelve Resistance men who had fallen before a firing squad; the wall still bears the marks of the bullets. The hidden street, Rue du Bout de l’An, that is an integral part of the solution in the story, was created by setting up checkpoints by the Germans at the entrances to their depots during the Occupation. A hole in a wall, through which Juan spied the Bollaerts’ place, was caused by a wartime bomb that had never been restored.

There are some further indications about the hostility and loneliness of the environment; the Rue des Estaffiers is described: “harridans with their hair in curlers turned to stare in hostility as they went on their way. An urchin accompanied them to the crossroads, heaping them with choice epithets that were not current in the Rue des Petits-Pauvres.” The local kids adopt a gang rivalry against Gaby’s gang, but they have the decency to respect Zidore’s scars – a hard reputation can often be helpful. And the loneliness of the environment is beautifully encapsulated by these following sentences after Marion has been moved by the sad sweetness of the accordion playing: “The throbbing air of the gipsy love song spent its enchantment despairingly on an empty landscape from which the very birds seemed to have flown. The last notes fell away into the silence around them.”

Paul BernaBerna – and by necessity, with his translator Buchanan-Brown – certainly had a way with words. Whilst there are few words and phrases that one would today certainly associate with the latent racism of the age, I don’t believe there is any cruelty or discrimination intended in the emotions of the book – far from it. I loved his description of when Tatave revives, after his accident at the beginning of the book, “groaning like a cow with stomach ache”. There’s a very funny description of Criquet’s mother: “Though Madame Lariqué was built on formidable lines she was as nippy as a centre forward”. And there’s a charming summation of the message of this book through the words of M. Douin: “don’t forget the one thing in life that really matters is the trouble we give ourselves in order to help other people”.

I loved the accounts of the younger kids and their relationship with insects and birds; Juan with his tame sparrow Picolo, Tatve and Zidore releasing may-bugs into the classroom for general disruption; it’s such an innocent era away from our modern times of social media and knife crime. And you have to admire Gaby’s sneaky way of shortening lessons by tampering with the clock! The children are not goody-two-shoes at all, they’re right little scamps – which only makes you want to be part of their gang even more. Berna’s gift of expressing children’s emotions – from hilarity to loneliness – is again the driving force behind the book.

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!

Waiting in the SquareChapter One – The Red Lorry. Once again we meet Gaby’s gang, all ten of them crammed onto a bench in Théodore-Branque Square, with Tatave, the fattest, hanging off the end. Tatave has his arm in a home-made sling, showing off his noble wound; but the gang are having none of that, and they all swayed on the bench to knock him sideways onto the ground.

Tatave is not the only one to bear a wound. Mélie has a black eye and facial scratches; Berthe’s head was wrapped up in a turban bandage; Zidore has a swollen nose and legs covered with antiseptic. This is all because Tatave lost control of the headless horse toy as it thundered down the Rue des Petits-Pauvres and flew straight into the limbs of his friends. However, the horse fared worse, disintegrating into a hundred different pieces. So now they need something new to get their teeth into. Marion comes up with the wise words: “adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them”. She suggests they roam the streets of Petit-Louvigny in an orderly fashion in an attempt to sniff out a new adventure. Gaby agrees, so it’s a plan.

Fernand Douin, quietly but sensibly, realises that the Théodore-Branque Square is the perfect place for people watching. He also realises that a big red lorry, with the name Bollaert written on the side, had come up the same road at the same time for the last three days. It was the fact that the driver stared at him when he braked at the crossroads that really made Fernand suspicious.

The driver’s name is Paul Pierce; he’s English and works with his brother James at Bollaert’s. Berna’s description of them is very entertaining: “they had the same long horsey jaw, the same florid complexion and they kept their neighbours at a truly British distance”. After he’s brought his lorry back to Bollaert’s yard, he has a word with the boss about the children hanging around in the Square. He knows they’re the kids who solved the Paris-Ventimiglia case, and suspects they might cause their operations a problem. Bollaert isn’t worried. But now our curiosity is piqued – what are they up to?

Spare-A-CopperChapter Two – Criquet and the Small Ad. Following Marion’s suggestion that they look for adventures, little Bonbon decides to follow the tramp, Spare-a-Copper. He watches him get money off people in the street, then dive into the Café Parisien for some refreshment, then emerge again, “much more peculiar” than before. The tramp confronts Bonbon, demanding to know why he’s following him; and when Bonbon tells him it’s to see if he gets into a Cadillac, Spare-a-Copper is dumbfounded and runs off. Maybe he is hiding some secret?

Over the WaterWhen the gang meet up to report back on their findings, no one has discovered anything remotely adventurous. Even following Inspector Sinet, as Tatave did, only led to observing the Inspector play cards with some friends. Criquet, however, has found an advert in the paper, by a disabled man looking for a dog. Marion thinks her dog Nanar would be perfect for the man, so she promises to take him round the next day.

James PierceWalking home, Fernand tells Marion about a strange experience he had earlier. He had investigated the (allegedly busy) offices of Bollaert’s to find it was as silent as the grave. No one around. So he crept around a little more – and found himself captured by Paul Pierce and Bollaert. They send him on his way with a boot up the backside, and Fernand flees. He and Marion decide to keep it to themselves, and, later on, at home, Fernand decides not to tell his father the details, even though he’s curious to know what his son has been up to.

Meeting TheoChapter Three – The Mysterious Monsieur Théo. Next day, Marion, accompanied by Zidore, Juan and Fernand, takes Nanar to the address in the advert, 58 rue des Estaffiers, to hand him over to the disabled man. However, someone very different from what they expected opens the door. Monsieur Théo isn’t disabled, and according to Zidore, looks like “a retired wrestler”. Uncertain whether to give him Nanar, Marion is won over by the man stating the dog is for a blind man. Once the children leave, Théo, together with his henchman Sacco, dye the dog black – and at the sound of a man playing the accordion, Nanar leaps to his feet and goes to join his new master.

Chapter Four – A Useful Lead. The gang decide that Nanar can be their spy in the enemy camp, and work out the best way to keep an eye on him – and the Bollaert employees at the same time. Gaby organises the watch on all exits of the Rue des Estaffiers like a military exercise. Sinet nearly catches them planning, but they fob him off with an excuse.

The gang man their stations, but because they’re not expecting a black dog, they don’t notice a man coming out of No 58 with Nanar. Bonbon even goes to stroke the dog, not realising it’s Nanar. When Monsieur Théo does emerge, without a dog; they track him nevertheless, and if Théo does notice them, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Then, most unexpectedly, he turns straight into the Louvigny Police Station. Not wishing to attract Sinet’s attention again, they give up their quest for the day, but even more suspicious about what Théo is getting up to.

AccordionistChapter Five – A Tune on the Accordion. Théo leaves the police station with a couple of men and leads them back to the rue des Estaffiers. Sacco returns with Nanar, and two other men, Popaul and Lofty, show up. Théo obviously has plans for them all but we don’t know what they are yet. The two men from the police station promise Théo that they’re not afraid of hard work, which pleases him enormously.

The gang agree to try again the next evening, but Marion and Fernand note that they can hear some distant music. It’s the accordionist, black dog by his side, mournfully playing his music for the housewives of the rue des Petits-Pauvres. Marion, of course, instantly recognises Nanar, although she doesn’t say anything at first. The accordionist pauses; then plays one last song, Pour deux sous d’amour, then packs his instrument away and just sits on his campstool. After a while, the peanut-seller, Monkeynuts, makes a surprise appearance; he walks up to the accordionist, and they (and Nanar) walk off towards the station. The mystery thickens.

Chapter Six – Monsieur Bollaert Takes Flight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the accordionist was last seen (by Juan and Criquet) walking into 58 rue des Estaffiers. At school the next afternoon, whilst the boys are trying to come to terms with the vagaries of the hypotenuse, they could hear the accordionist in the street outside, which made them itch to finish school early and follow him.

Keeping a sensible distance, they trail him to the rue de Paris, where Marion and Fernand, seated on a bench, pretend to do homework. At around 5pm, Monkeynuts appears, tries rather unsuccessfully to sell some nuts, then sits on the bench next to the children and complains about trade. They obediently sample his nuts. Then Amédée, the newspaper seller, appears, talks to the accordionist, who nods sagely and carries on playing. A delivery driver shows up with newspapers for Amédée to sell, Monkeynuts joins him and the driver for a brief conversation, and then, at Monkeynuts’ signal, the accordionist starts his walk with Nanar, back to No 58. All very mysterious.

Fernand’s shadowing takes him among the children of the neighbouring district, and he tries to ingratiate himself with them by playing football. When the game’s over, he’s still following the accordionist, who he realises has renamed Nanar as Toby – although Nanar seems perfectly happy with that. Fernand also begins to realise that the tunes the blind man plays have a certain pattern. He’d play the same selection, then pause a few minutes motionlessly; then play Pour deux sous d’amour. Fernand wonders if it’s some kind of code. Then he sees Paul Pierce driving one of the Bollaert vehicles down the rue Ponceau, his brakes screeching to a halt when he caught sight of the accordionist. Pierce doesn’t see Fernand; he just watches the blind man intently without noticing anything else. Then he starts up his lorry again and drives towards the station.

Whilst the other members of the gang pool their information, Pierce confronts Bollaert with the news that the blind man “is back”. Bollaert receives this news as though it were a punch to the stomach. He plans to move his family to a safe house that no one knows about.

DetectivesChapter Seven – The Detectives’ Club. Over the next fortnight, the gang members shadow the blind man, reporting back each evening to the other members of the Detectives’ Club at their new Headquarters by the gasworks wall – a location, which only ten years earlier, had been the site of the deaths of twelve Resistance men who had been shot by firing squad. Bonbon establishes that the blind man is called Monsieur Anatole, but everyone refers to him as The Phantom – which name the gang decide to adopt. From their observations, they conclude that Monkeynuts guides the Phantom out of Monsieur Théo’s every morning and returns him there every evening; he spends the mornings at the Place du Marché, and the afternoons at the bus depot, when he receives orders which would take him to some other seemingly random places. Zidore worked out that he earned just 95 francs for four hours’ playing.

PhantomOne day Juan observes the Phantom start to play outside the Bollaert premises, with Paul Pierce and M. Bollaert watching the accordionist intently. Another man was also watching – a “gorilla of a man in a striped seamen’s sweatshirt” – presumed working for Théo. He too starts to shadow the Phantom. Spare-a-Copper also turns up, and Bonbon, as ever, takes the opportunity to taunt him. The Phantom plays Pour deux sous d’amour as usual.

The Phantom’s rapid reaction to receiving a fifty cents piece – swiped into his hand in a second – convinces Gaby and Zidore that he is only pretending to be blind, and can see perfectly well. With Théo’s new henchman at loose, the gang decide that they need to be in twos so that they can cover each other; but Marion decides she wants to see the blind man herself, alone.

Marion gets too closeChapter Eight – Marion and the Blind Man. After attending to her appearance and making herself look very respectable, Marion goes out, telling her mother she has a date with the blind man. Gaby and the gang reported that the Phantom had gone in a different direction from usual, and Marion was straight away on his trail; keeping as quiet and hidden as possible, even telling the dog not to give the game away. At one stage, the Phantom takes off his dark glasses and Marion can see his face properly for the first time; “the empty pits that once had been his eyes” suggested to her that he genuinely was sightless.

But Marion gets too close. And, through whatever sensations the blind man felt, he grips her hand and demands to know why she had been following him. Quick as a flash she says it was so she could ask him to play Pour deux sous d’amour again. But as soon as he had let go of her, then the rough guy, in the seaman’s shirt, Sacco, appeared and also grips her by the neck.

Sacco tries to get information out of the Phantom about what Marion wanted but he doesn’t really give him any help; and with that, the two men start to head back to their headquarters. When Marion reports back, and confirms that the Phantom is indeed blind, and, in a sudden rush of emotion, she finds it hard to conceal her tears at the suspicions of the others about him. Gaby tries to smooth the waters with a joke along the lines that you can’t believe everything you see. Agreeing that in future they shouldn’t all jump to conclusions, they go for a swim and a bathe. And on the way home, Marion is disappointed to discover that she lost the brooch that Fernand had given her.

with the mapChapter Nine – A Dangerous Game. As the heat of June frustrates the children in school, they continue to spend their spare time checking up on where the Phantom wanders. He’d started to go down the loneliest lane in the town, where he couldn’t possibly make any money. It just doesn’t make sense to Gaby and the gang.

One evening he stops outside 104 rue Cécile, with Zidore trailing him. Fernand asks him in, and they pore over their street map, much to the amusement of M. Douin, puffing away on his pipe. The map gives Fernand a clue as to the reason for the blind man’s wanderings. “Where we went wrong was right at the start when we thought the blind man acted as a messenger or a sort of secret agent for those people […] But if we accept the fact that, on the contrary, Monsieur Théo and his men are helping the Phantom, then it’s as plain as plain! […] The blind man has been really exploring this town for his own purposes.” Convinced that every time he plays Pour deux sous d’amour, he is in fact signalling to someone he can’t find, Fernand and Marion expect he will continue to play that song twenty times a day until he finds who or whatever it is he is seeking.

On this particular occasion, the blind man walks off, trailed by James Pierce, who himself was trailed by gang member Juan. M. Douin warns them all of the dangers of their undertaking but – of course – young people like that are frightened of nothing.

Chapter Ten – The Trap is Set. Juan continues his trail of James Pierce, and reports back as usual. Gaby splits the gang into two groups for the next day’s observations. On this particular Thursday all the town characters were out and about – Monkeynuts, Spare-a-Copper, even Inspector Sinet. Monkeynuts takes the Phantom by the shoulder and leads him on his round. It appears that what the children suspected was correct – that he will continue to do his rounds until he finds who or whatever it is responds to his playing.

Again it’s Juan who comes up trumps. He’s been observing Bollaert’s regular activity. Every evening Bollaert drives towards Petit-Louvigny and doesn’t come back. Juan scrambles through an overgrown neighbouring garden to discover that there is a hole in the wall, left by a bomb during the war, and through it he could see that the Bollaerts’ house is empty and it looks like it hasn’t been used for ages. So where does he go? Gaby sets up an elaborate observation schedule so that one of the group MUST see what happens.

RobbersChapter Eleven – The Street They All Forgot. All eyes on M. Bollaert, then, as he finishes his working day, gets into his Renault, and drives off. But somewhere between the Rue de l’Aubépine and the Rue des Estaffiers, he goes missing. Gaby blames Bonbon for taking his eye off the ball and following Spare-a-Copper instead. But Bonbon has discovered the tramp’s hideout on Rue du Bout de l’An, and what do they find there? Bollaert’s Renault. It’s a quiet, gentle, green place to live and the children are entranced. Is that the mystery solved then? “No,” says Marion, “I’ll go and see Monsieur Théo tomorrow morning and I’ll tell him his blind man left one street out.”

NanarChapter Twelve – Marion in the Robbers’ Den. Using the excuse of asking how Nanar is getting on, Marion confronts Théo at his garden gate. She also starts to tell him about the blind man, when he invites her inside – and, confidently, she joins him. Explaining about all their trailing and discoveries, Théo is impressed and promises to tell all; starting with who is the “ogre” of this story – the blind man. Théo makes her promise she won’t tell any of the others about this yet, in case they accidentally ruin his plans. Théo describes his place as a kind of convalescent home for ex-prisoners. “Poverty and bad luck make more criminals than the desire for easy money” he says. The other men start to chip in with aspects of their stories; does the reader believe them? They agree that all the children will come back at 6pm that evening and help the blind man to leave his murky past behind him.

Chapter Thirteen – The Boy in the Garden. Six o’clock, and the gang watch Bollaert drive up. Then, when the blind man arrives, the children all go up to him. “You’ve found the right spot” says Marion, and the blind man simply nods in silence. Then, to the tune of Pour deux sous d’amour, they are amazed to see a little boy, maybe ten years old, emerge from behind the bushes and go right up to the gate. After a short period of tender quietness, Bollaert storms out of the house, rushes up to the boy, grabs him and gives him to his wife, who had also come out to see what was going on, and she takes the boy indoors. Bollaert then threatens the blind man with the police if he doesn’t go away. Gaby defends the blind man, but Bollaert goes on to talk about his criminal past, and one by one the children leave the Phantom’s side – all except Marion and Fernand. But, after due thought, they return to the blind man, to which Marion says, “I don’t hold it against you […] but if you hadn’t come back, Fernand and I would have left the gang.”

Marion also invites herself into Spare-a-Copper’s lair; he’d lived there for many years until the Bollaerts moved in a few months earlier. And he does confirm that the boy in the garden is the blind man’s son.

Chapter Fourteen – The Kidnapper. The blind man walks on, and it’s not long until Marion and Fernand realise that he is in great trouble. He had dropped the dog’s lead and was walking out into the traffic in what seems like an attempt to take his own life. Fortunately the children get to him in time and are able to walk him safely back to Monsieur Théo’s. But there they find out the truth about the blind man’s past. He used to kidnap children. And when he was finally found guilty, the court chose to deprive him of access to his own child. The boy’s mother died, and so he was adopted. One day in prison, the blind man (before he lost his sight) saw a newspaper that showed his son somewhere in Louvigny, and that’s how he knew to come back there to search for the boy. In a further act of divine retribution, the kidnapper actually went blind as a result of a chemical accident in prison – but he had always pretended to be blind as part of his kidnapping method. That’s bad karma for him.

It’s further revealed that the Pierce brothers were two lorry drivers who cornered the kidnapper on the run; and that the boy was very fond of his black dog, Toby, whom Nanar has been impersonating all this time. No wonder the Bollaerts were concerned when Pierce recognised the blind man in Louvigny. Théo requests that Marion and Fernand are discreet with this information, as there would be many people out there who would wish harm on the blind man. And the gang prevaricate and try to confuse Inspector Sinet when he questions them about the newspaper photo of the boy.

CelebrationsChapter Fifteen – The Fourteenth of July. The case more or less solved, the blind man wasn’t seen on the streets anymore and the gang members miss him. Marion suggests to Théo that he should encourage the blind man to go back out and play his accordion in the best places, and raise the money to at least help pay for the dog’s enormous appetite.

DancingAs the summer grew warmer, those inhabitants of Louvigny who could afford to, went on their seaside holidays. Not the gang members, who had to make do with staying at home. Nostalgically promenading the route that the blind man used to take, Juan and Fernand notice that the Bollaert lorry garage is all shut up – presumably the Bollaerts and the Pierces had moved away for good. There was a big lottery win in the town, and Gaby and the gang took it upon themselves to try to work out who the winner was – but they are unsuccessful.

PlayingThe gang pool their resources and buy fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. Gaby’s plans of a big display in the Douins’ front garden come to nothing as the fireworks turn out to be cheap old stock. But just then, at 11pm, come the familiar accordion sounds…. And the children all danced to their friend’s instrument. Someone bought beer and lemonade and it grows into a street party, and it was very late when everyone disbanded.

And then Marion tells the blind man a big, but kindly lie – that his son was joining their gang. That seems to put his mind at ease. And last revelation of all – Spare-a-Copper is the big lottery winner; Bonbon sees him getting into that Cadillac that he had always suspected!

Magpie CornerTo sum up; it would have been a feat indeed if The Street Musician surpassed A Hundred Million Francs in either its quality or its sales, and I think it’s fair to say, it doesn’t. It’s slower, and more repetitive, and its moments of peril are briefer and less exciting than in its predecessor. That said, when the denouement starts to unfurl it’s still a very exciting and emotional read, and there is a very dark moment when Marion and Fernand prevent a suicide. 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. I think it’s a while now before we next meet Gaby and his gang. Next in the Paul Berna Challenge is a book that is usually omitted from the list of his works translated into English, probably because it wasn’t translated until nearly ten years later – Magpie Corner, published in France in 1958. I remember this being a very strong and moving story, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge – A Hundred Million Francs (1955)

A Hundred Million FrancsIn which Gaby and his gang enjoy playing with a broken toy horse, recklessly careering down the streets of Louvigny until one day it is stolen. They seek the help of Police Inspector Sinet to try to retrieve it. But the horse is stolen around the same time as a hundred million francs go missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. A coincidence? Sinet and the gang get to the bottom of both crimes and find they are surprisingly linked….Be warned, there are spoilers, especially in the second part of this blog post where I offer you my chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book.

Cheval sans teteA Hundred Million Francs was first published in 1955 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Cheval sans Tête, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As A Hundred Million Francs, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1957. The literal translation, The Horse Without a Head, was its original title in the first American edition, published by Pantheon in 1958. It was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, who translated nearly all of Paul Berna’s books; and it featured illustrations by Richard Kennedy (1910-1989), who illustrated many notable children’s books and gained his apprenticeship at The Hogarth Press under Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

My own copy of the book, which you can see at the top of this page, is a Puffin edition, reprinted in 1970. As at the time Britain was nearing the change to decimal currency, the price on the back cover is shown as both 20p and 4/-. This is the only Paul Berna book in my possession that was bought new from a bookshop. I also had a new copy of The Clue of the Black Cat, but that was lost in the seas of time. All my other Bernas are second-hand (but largely in very good condition, I’m pleased to say!) The pages have gone a little brown, but pleasantly so; there’s no foxing, tears or other marks. I’ve looked after it well for the last 49 years!

Disney horseThis is the only book by Paul Berna to have been adapted for film; Disney made The Horse Without a Head: The 100,000,000 Franc Train Robbery in 1963, with a cast including Jean-Pierre Aumont, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Peter Butterworth, Lee Montague, Peter Vaughan and many other well-known actors. The script was by T. E. B. Clarke, who was responsible for many of the famous Ealing Comedies, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob. Paul Berna hated the film! In an interview with him dated around 1984, by Roger Martin, he said (as translated by me) “I have only one regret about Le Cheval sans Tête, and that’s that it was brought to the cinema by Walt Disney. They made it into a gangster film, distorting it right from the opening scene where we see the mobsters preparing their hold-up of the train.”

The inspiration for the story came from two different sources. Firstly: Berna’s childhood. He grew up as part of a large family and he too had a headless horse that he used to play with as a child. Back to Monsieur Berna to tell us more: “There were seven of us. The three eldest were boys, the Big ones. Then came a girl and the three Little ones, including me. The Big ones used to try to steal our “headless horse” […] I was very familiar with this horse well since it was my favourite toy. I had to hide it from the cellar to prevent them from grabbing it!”

He went on to say that being part of a large family, where there were loads of arguments but nevertheless loads of fun, had a major impact on him, both personally and as a writer for young people. And you can really see the influence of having lots of people around him in his books. No one (that I’ve come across) conveys the thrills, tensions and that sense of belonging and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang like Paul Berna does. And this is shown to superb effect in A Hundred Million Francs. But he also derived inspiration for writing the book having seen the film of Emil and the detectives, the original one, made in 1935. Although he had not read the novel, he said to himself: “Why not write crime novels for young people?”

map-of-french-regionsThe setting. Berna was notable for establishing very precise locations for his books. He would use places that he knew very well personally, such as Aix, Bordeaux, Marseille and Brittany, to give that personal touch, Other than that, he would pore over the most detailed maps he could find, extracting the names of tiny villages, or even street names to stimulate the imagination. Sometimes he would mix these detailed real locations with places that he made up from pure fantasy.

The setting for this book is the town of Louvigny, which exists as a suburb of Caen, in Normandy. However this Louvigny-Triage is a railway town on the route between Paris and Ventimiglia, on the northern Italian coast. We can assume that it is a suburb in to the south-west of Paris. Berna locates the story in and around the rue des Petits-Pauvres, the rue de la Vache Noire, the rue Cécile, and a ruined enclosure called the Clos Pecqueux. The roads and their connections are so intricately described that you could well imagine that this was a real location. But he confirmed in interview, “Louvigny-triage does not exist. It is not Villeneuve St Georges, as was believed, but an imaginary place that seems more real because of its disparate elements of typical working-class suburbs.”

Style. The book won the Salon de l’enfance Award for 1955. However, it also received some criticism at the time for its tone, and the use of slang. Berna defended himself against those criticisms, not believing the slang to be excessive. Personally, I think the tone is just right. Of course, there are a few slight anachronisms and moments where the book surprises you with its use of language, but much of that may be from John Buchanan-Brown’s translation. I understand that Paul Berna’s style in the original French (which I haven’t read) is actually quite adult and mature; and you never get the feeling that he is in any way talking down to his readers – this is a strength that makes it stand out against, say, the children’s crime stories of Enid Blyton, which were from a similar period.

Industrial GloomIndustrial gloom. It struck me how unsentimental Berna’s description of the railway town is, with its discarded ironwork, trucks, rails, sleepers, and so on. This is not a comfortable, middle-class setting. This is a bleak, industrial wasteland, where you have to pick your way through the machinery of the past to find a place to play. Berna recreates this harsh landscape with superb grit. When Roublot brings Fernand the toy train, the boy rejects it because “if we want trains, we’ve real ones on the tracks at the other side of the road”.

It’s not just the railway industry that has impacted the town. Marion explores Lilac Lane, near a coal-yard. “True, the coal-dust had killed off the original lilacs years ago, but their memory was preserved by the lane, a cut winding between high walls until it brought you to the disused saw-mill, whose empty and crumbling buildings backed on to the rue Cécile.” When the gang members walk home from the shed, we read that “they stumbled in the bomb-craters that five or six Allied air-raids had left in the Clos Pecqueux during the war.”

Even crime in this town is unglamorous. When Sinet is reflecting where the horse might have been hidden, he imagines it’s in “an old shed […] twenty bags of mouldy flour, a cask of rough wine, a roll of shoddy cloth, all sorts of wretched little things taken on the sly”.

But, as if to make up for all this gloom and poverty, there is humour. The slapstick comedy of the woeful crooks breaking into the building. The larking around of the gang members dressed in carnival outfits. The joking behaviour in the Magistrates’ Court. Once the crime has been solved, Inspector Sinet is frequently seen laughing along with the children. And even if those moments of comedy don’t actually make the reader laugh, we appreciate the fact that the characters are basically happy – and that makes us happy too.

povertyPoverty. Berna was attracted to write about people in poverty. Again, from that 1980s interview, he observed: “I like these circles. When I was in military service, I discovered amazing people, peasants, workers, especially chtimis (people from the Nord – Pas de Calais areas of France), people relying on Assistance, desperately alone, who had to borrow six sous to buy tobacco. What they were looking for was a presence to break their inhuman isolation. Since then I have always had a great attraction for the poor.”

It’s obvious that the gang members themselves are from poor families. When they bring food for the gang to eat at the sawmill, it consists of eight potatoes and a stock cube; Criquet sneaks in one cigarette for the entire gang to share. When Marion invites the gang to her house for hot chocolate, before going out on an adventure, we find out that her mother “took these brigands’ visit very well, considering that she found they had eaten up her supply of bread for the weekend during the five minutes they had been there.” And Criquet cannot empty his pockets in front of the reporters, because “his mother had stitched them up to make his trousers last longer.”

Father Brissard says there are eleven in the gang – ten, plus “a boy from Nazareth”. I’m not sure to what extent that’s deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Certainly today I think it’s unlikely you’d share some religious message under those circumstances to a gang of ragamuffins. And one other totally anachronistic moment in the book comes when Marion organises the purchase of some cigars as a present for Sinet. Children allowed to purchase cigars? Only in France!

Gang mentalityGang mentality. What I love most about the book is its depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a gang, its subtle rules and etiquette, and the interdependent relationship between the gang members. As a rather isolated child, reading this book really made me crave being a member of a gang like Gaby’s. It’s sad how Marion and Fernand fear that the loss of the horse could lead to the break-up of the gang. They realise they need an additional purpose to meeting out of school, and not just the general reason of being friends or gang members. They have to be united through a separate reason – and playing with the horse is the perfect reason.

Berna shows several aspects of the gang mentality. The selflessness of individuals, bringing in a potato or a cigarette for everyone to share. There’s the loyalty shown by and to each individual member; for instance, when they all stand silently, intimidating Roublot at the market. They have the ability to all make each other laugh, such as when they dress up in the silly costumes and entertain each other with their inventive charades. They even take it in turns to look after the rusty key.

The gang members all have their own little qualities and traits, but the two stand-out characters are Marion, because of her incredible understanding of dogs, her calmness and practicality under pressure, and her kindness, as well as her daring; and Gaby, who, although is the leader of the gang (because he is the oldest) is only one of two children (the other being Fernand) to express his emotions through crying. So in their way both are surprisingly forward-looking role models for the two sexes – it’s ok for girls to be strong, and it’s ok for boys to be emotional. Another vital element of this particular gang is their over-riding honesty, as shown when they empty their pockets in front of the reporters.

Although the girls are just as daring as the boys – and given Marion’s special position within the gang as treasurer – the times are still traditional enough for it to be expected that the girls will do the gang’s domestic chores, like preparing food and tidying up, whilst Gaby and the boys make plans. It is perhaps a criticism that the younger female members of the gang are its least well described and least interesting characters.

At the end, they’re almost prepared to make Sinet a member of the gang; they always show generosity towards those who have been generous to them. But they don’t trust outsiders as a whole; which is why they make up silly answers to the journalists’ and reporters’ questions that they fear will expose them and give them publicity they don’t want.

Other thoughts that came to mind whilst reading this book were surprise at the genuine moment of peril when the crooks start shooting at the children through the slats in the barricade. The gang members treat the attack with contempt, but, seriously, this could have killed someone! And the sequence where Berna joyfully describes Marion’s gradual summoning of the dogs to come help fight the crooks reminded me of the twilight bark in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, written in 1956. If there’s any sense of copycat about the two scenes, note that A Hundred Million Francs came first!

Given these are all decent people, I was quite surprised at this brief exchange:

Sinet (of Roublot): Did you know he’d already been to prison?
Fernand: No, but you can tell what he’s like by his face.

Talk about judgemental!

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

Careering down the roadChapter One – Half Holiday. We’re instantly introduced to Gaby and the rest of his gang; ten children careering down the hill between the rue des Petits-Pauvres at the top and the rue de la Vache Noire at the bottom, on the famous Headless Horse toy. It had been bought for Fernand Douin by his father from a rag and bone man (or rather exchanged for three packets of black tobacco) but its head and legs didn’t last long – and it never even had a tail.

Other gang members we meet are Marion, the gang’s treasurer, who rescues and returns abandoned dogs to health; little Bonbon, whose job it is to stand on corners and warn passers-by that the headless horse might be racing through; Tatave, Bonbon’s older and more corpulent brother, who always brakes at the wrong moment; Juan, “the little Spanish boy”; Zidore Loche; Mélie; Berthe Gédéon; Amélie Babin, “the gang’s first-aid expert”; and Criquet Lariqué, “the little darky from the Faubourg-Bacchus”. These were different times, and I’m sure that was not meant to be offensive.

ZigonYou can tell that Gaby is the leader of the gang by the heroic way in which it’s described that he holds the record for lasting longest on the horse; 35 seconds without once putting on the brakes. Gaby insists on having no one older than twelve in his gang, because “once you’re over twelve, you become a complete fool and you’re lucky if you don’t stay like that for the rest of your life.” Like any generous despot, he plans to extend the age limit to fourteen, so that he himself doesn’t fall foul of his own rules.

We’re in the town of Louvigny-Triage. Clearly a railway town, “all the men were on the tracks, in the sidings, the signal boxes, or the railway workshops, and the women were either shopping in the Quartier-Neuf or were strolling round the Thursday Market.” When Fernand thinks the horse is broken for ever, he thinks “there was nothing like it from Louvigny to Villeneuve-Saint-Georges” (a small commune in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris).

Other local residents whom we meet, largely as a result of their accidental clashes with the horse, are M. Gédéon, Berthe’s father; M. Mazurier, the coalman; César Aravant, the scrap merchant; “Old Zigon”, who gets money for old bottles; Mme Macharel, who has a bakery in the Market; Roublot, another market trader – “a nasty-looking specimen, with a heavy, sallow face that mirrored his petty dishonesty”; Inspector Sinet (of whom more later); M Joye, Gaby’s 17-stone, mechanic father; Mme Louvrier, Bonbon and Tatave’s mother; and Mme Fabert, Marion’s mother.

Walking the horse backWhile the gang are at the market, observing Roublot spouting his selling patter, all eyes turn to the subtle figure of Inspector Sinet, who seems to be following a man in a blue boiler-suit through the market. Roublot appears particularly ill-at-ease seeing this, and before long he’s left all his stock and market stall equipment where it was and fled. On his way back home, Fernand notices the headless horse lying in the middle of the road, far from the safe place he had left it for his father to repair. At that point, Roublot appears, silent and menacing; but Marion, who’s with Fernand, lets out a piercing whistle; three of her biggest doggy friends came to the call, and once more Roublot flees.

Sadly, M. Douin takes a good look at the broken horse and realises he can’t fix it. The problem is a broken fork. Tears fall from Fernand’s eyes. But M. Douin has a plan – the next morning they will visit M. Rossi at the car factory who will be able to forge a new fork for them with ease. The chapter ends with father and son, happily mending other parts of the horse, whilst Mme Douin watches with amusement.

An offer to buy the horseChapter Two – Goodbye to the Horse. Not a very optimistic chapter title – is this the end of the horse? We’ll find out! But first, an explanation of the Black Cow, as in rue de la Vache Noire. Marion thinks it refers to an abandoned engine – continuing with the emphasis on this being a railway town – with Berna’s lovely phrase describing its out-of-place presence, “as unexpected as a hippopotamus in a field of daisies”. Gaby, Marion and some of the lads keep their promise to Old Zigon to replace the bottles they broke the previous day, emphasising that they’re honest and decent types. They consider going to the pictures, but it’s too expensive, especially as they have to pay for the two poorest members of the gang. Tatave suggests selling the bottles to Old Zigon, but Marion points out that they’re not theirs to sell, and that it would look bad trying to make money out of an old man. Again, that underlines both their decency and how hard-up this environment is. In the end, Marion gets the money from a lady, whose Pekinese Dog Marion had nursed back to health.

Beware of the dogsMeanwhile, at the Café Parisien, Roublot is seen deep in conversation with some other “toughs” – “deep in conversation, leaning across the table, their hats nearly touching”. Inspector Sinet also turns up at the café, a sticking plaster on his cheek, which gives the gang members something to laugh at. And on Saturday night, M. Douin comes home with the horse. M. Rossi had given it a coat of paint, greased the hubs, put back the wheels and straightened the bent spokes. It’s while the children are testing the horse to see how well it’s running that M. Douin tells his strange tale; that someone at the Café Parisien had offered him five thousand francs for the horse. When Douin refuses, he offers him ten thousand. Ten thousand!!

Grim locationWhilst the gang members are playing with the horse they notice two men in fur-lined lumber jackets watching them. Somewhat spooked by this, they return home. When M. Douin looks through his window he confirms that the two men are the same two who made the ridiculously expensive offer to buy the horse. A couple of days later, the same two men try to grab the horse off some of the younger members of the gang. Things escalate as the gang continue to refuse to sell, and then the men start to get violent. “Wait till the toe of my boot gets you, my lad” says the one called Pépé; “I bet it doesn’t,” snorted Gaby, “My dad’s the only one who can lay a finger on me, and he has to catch me first.” And just as it seems like there’s going to be a big fight between them all, Marion whistles for her doggy friends, and Hugo, the boar-hound, Fritz and César all come at her command and attack the men. As soon as the one called Ugly cries for help, Marion calls them off; and the two men limp away, defeated, and with their coats ruined. But just why are they so interested in the horse?

At playM Douin decides to do a bit of investigating himself. He calls on Blache, the rag and bone man, from whom he originally obtained the horse. Blache remembers the unusual circumstances in which he came across the horse – clearing bomb damage in Petit-Louvigny. Whilst he was looking at it, someone told him that the horse had belonged to him before the bomb damage destroyed the house. When Blache tried to identify this man – as he knew the people who had lived in the area – the man told him to beat it, and take the horse with him. But Blache finally remembered the man’s name – Mallart – and had discovered that Inspector Sinet had arrested him last week. And – good news – Blache still owned the head that went with the body.

The horse stolenWhen Douin gets home, he discovers that Fernand hasn’t arrived home yet, and Mme Douin begins to get concerned. So he goes out to look for him, and thinks he should find Gaby’s dad to ask if he knows where his son is. M. Joye informs him that the horse had been stolen!

Father BrissardChapter Three – Inspector Sinet. Next day, it’s back out with the gang on the horse, riding high through the neighbourhood. However, on his turn, Fernand loses control of the horse and is flung from the saddle, whilst the horse continues on its merry way, straight into the path of some burly men in a van – including Pépé and Ugly, who take hold of it and speed off with the gang’s prize possession. Hurt and outraged, they decide to report the theft to the police; on the way meeting Father Brissard, who sympathises with their plight.

MarionInspector Sinet and his colleague Lamy lament how uselessly they spend their days, never grappling with any proper criminals. They long to be allowed to work on an exciting case, like the recent robbery of a hundred million francs from the Paris-Ventimiglia Express. Nevertheless, they listen to the gang tell their story, and in return, Sinet and Lamy promise to help. Sinet is just about to screw up his notes and chuck them in the bin when he remembers that the horse had indirectly helped him to capture Mallart the other evening – so he felt more inclined to help. Then Messieurs Joye and Douin show up, apologising for the kids but explaining that the horse is really all they have. Sinet is now determined to do his best to help.

Roublot and FernandChapter Four – A Rusty Key. Going home from school, Marion and Fernand agree they must find a replacement for the horse, or else the gang risks falling apart. Marion suggests training one of her dogs as a gift for Fernand, but he refuses because his mother doesn’t like animals. Fernand lets himself into his house but carelessly fails to close the door properly. He’s soon joined by the intimidating Roublot, foot in the door, holding a large square parcel. Inside is a brand-new train set, which he says the market folk had clubbed together to buy for the gang as a way of saying sorry that the horse had been stolen. Fernand is unimpressed. Furious, Roublot takes it back, and then does his best to search the kitchen cupboards, wardrobes and other hiding places. But Fernand threatens Roublot with the fire poker and he soon flees the scene. Shortly afterwards, Inspector Sinet arrives, wanting to know why Roublot was there. Somewhat improperly, Sinet asks if he could search the house and Fernand assents – but it is to be their secret.

Roublot at the MarketThe next day, Roublot sets up his stall as usual. He demonstrates his amazing potato chipper to the crowds and sells a couple. Then he realises there are ten young people still watching him – the gang. All on their best behaviour, quietly intimidating him back. At first he tries to laugh it off, but then he loses his temper and threatens to give them a “cuff around the ears”. But none of the gang breaks rank, and it’s Roublot who packs up his stall and flees.

WatchedFernand and Marion start to set up the abandoned sawmill shed as the new gang HQ. After their meagre meal and one shared cigarette, they start to talk about the stolen horse; specifically, when and why it suddenly created such an interest. Realising that it happened on the night of the big accident, eventually they conclude it must have been something that Fernand and his father removed from inside the horse when they were working on it. Fernand remembers that, amongst the removed items was an old key. Gaby’s convinced that it’s also the key to the mystery and insists they abandon their meal and try to find the key at Fernand’s house. They find it, take it back to the shed and read that it has a label attached: “Billette Works, 224 Ponceau Road”.

Carnival masksChapter Five – The Abandoned Factory. Inspector Sinet has spent some time trying to follow up the horse-theft but is currently drawing a blank. Roublot is hard to catch, no one has heard of Ugly or Pépé, and he notes that even the children go missing. But he is convinced that the children have accidentally got themselves caught up in some crime or other.

Le TriageFollowing a tip-off from an old woman who had seen a fire burning at the gang’s shed every evening, Sinet discovers its whereabouts; and is surprised to be met by the ten children, wearing masks they had found elsewhere in the Billette factory, kicking a cardboard chicken about in some kind of frenzied football game. He doesn’t disclose that he has seen them; it’s useful to him to know where to find them if needed. For several days the gang continue to explore the old factory. It seemed to have stopped, mid-production, with partly made fancy dress clothes and accessories, shortly after the war; and the gang frequently parade around in silly wigs and costumes, making each other laugh with their inventive games.

Scary shadowsWalking home one evening, Marion stops and insists on looking inside the Black Cow, to make sure no one is hiding in there. Everyone thinks she’s joking, but she goes in. And, although she keeps it a secret for a short while, she later reports that there were two men hiding inside. The chapter ends with Marion doing her evening walk with her dogs – and noting that they are unusually restless that night.

More masksChapter Six – All the Dogs in the World. After school on Saturday, all the gang members meet at Marion’s house and then go on into the Clos Pecqueux, ostensibly for a run. But Marion is keeping a look-out; and notices two men get out of the Black Cow once they have walked past. One heads back into the town, the other follows the children. In hiding, Marion and Fernand observe a car drive up in the darkness; then five men emerge and enter the Billette building where the rest of the gang were encamped. Gaby and Fernand attempt to barricade themselves in by shoving old work benches up against the door, whilst Marion remains at the entrance hall, and the younger gang members are still playing with the carnival masks – the barricade looked like the remains of a party, with all the broken boxes of festive items. Room by room, the older gang members make it as difficult as possible for the men to progress, but gradually the men power their way through, somehow or other. When they finally stumble in to the end room, one trips over a pig’s head mask and clatters through some old paint cans. When he gets up the gang all laugh at the fact that he has acquired a false black beard.

MayhemFernand and Gaby can identify three of the men as Ugly, Pépé and Roublot; the other two are masked by the collars of their heavy overcoats. Refusing to respond to the threats of Ugly and Pépé, or the hundred francs bribe offered by one of the other men, Zidore and Juan throw some detonator bangers over the top of the boxes so that it sounds like the men are being attacked by gunshot. The arising confusion allows Gaby and Fernand to rejoin the others. But then the men really do let loose with their pistols and start shooting at the children through the slats. And whilst the gang pelt back with their bangers, Ugly and Roublot drag the bench back from the previous room and use it as a battering ram.

All the dogs in the worldMeanwhile, what was Marion doing? She had whistled and called with all her might, and summoned the presence of no fewer than sixty dogs from all around the neighbourhood! They all run back to the Billette building and lay siege on the helpless crooks from behind.

Railway tracksChapter Seven – A Hundred Million Francs. It’s M. Douin who first notices the noises and lights coming from the disused factory and rings the station-master’s office to warn him. As a result, Sinet and Lamy are sent to find out what’s going on. They discover Marion, with all the dogs holding guard over the crooks; on her command, the dogs all let go of the bedraggled men, leaving them for Sinet to deal with. The other gang members slowly come to light – although Bonbon keeps his hiding place just a little while longer, thereby causing a few worries – and Sinet tasks them with emptying all the cupboards on the look out for… what?

Time to countBut there was no need. “There was the Inspector, standing in the middle of the room with his mouth agape and his arms dangling at this sides, up to his ankles in a carpet of banknotes that shimmered in the flickering light of the torches.” Wads of notes were falling from big grey sacks – Lamy counted eleven sacks of banknotes in all. Sinet, Lamy and the children had located the hundred million francs that had gone missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. And then the bombshell – Sinet rounds on Gaby and asks if they’d not gone into the room where all the money had been stashed, and his reply is: “of course we’ve seen them”; and Marion adds “but Inspector […] there’s so much of it! We thought it was false like all the rest.” Sinet gets the children to pick up all the loose notes and pack them back into a sack whilst he watches them, which really offends Gaby. “Thieves? Us? Not likely”.

Don't mess with usFernand loses his temper with Ugly as he was being taken out by the policemen, “and began to pummel his face with both fists, crying at the top of his voice, “where’s the horse?” Sinet is moved by his frustration, but Fernand confirms that “without the horse we wouldn’t have been here tonight and you’d still be looking for your millions!” “How so?” asked Sinet, astonished. “The key was in the horse,” Fernand proclaimed […] “Dad and I had emptied the horse out a few days before, and Dad put the key aside without thinking.”

In courtChapter Eight – The Sixth Man. In the days that followed, the children were required to accompany Sinet to be questioned by the Examining Magistrate; but they were frustrated by the fact that none of the questions related to the theft of the horse. His prime concern was the identity of the sixth man. Five of the crooks have been accounted for – but who is the sixth? Little Bonbon accuses Sinet, much to the Court’s amusement and Sinet’s embarrassment. The inspector admits he was watching the children – and it was all because of the horse. But as a thank-you, the children give the Inspector five fat gold cigars. And all that matters after that is laughing about what a mockery their Court appearance was.

The MagistrateSinet and the children reconstruct the time when they watched Roublot at the market a fortnight earlier, trying to work out who the man in the blue boiler-suit was. Eventually it tumbles to Sinet – it was the petty thief he’d arrested that evening, Mallart. He’s the sixth man. He had the key – and because Sinet was on his tail, he dropped into the headless horse. And Mallart was already in jail!

Taunt the reportersThen the town is besieged by reporters, trying to build up a story to get maximum newspaper sales. The children are happy to put their side of the story, but didn’t trust the reporters not to make it into something sensational. The chief reporter asks Bonbon how much of the money he took. One by one, each gang member empties his or her pockets in front of the reporter, showing how little they had. And then Gaby reports the news that the bank cashiers had counted all the money and the full hundred million francs was still intact – plus one sou, that Tatave had added in as a joke. Not to be defeated, the reporters asked if the children would pose for a photo for the newspaper with all the dogs. They set the photograph up, and when Marion calls for the dogs – they all chase the reporters and photographers who were never seen in Louvigny again.

ZigonChapter Nine – The Horse with a Head. It’s mid-January, and the gang have met up in the club for a slap-up meal of potatoes and hot chocolate. An unexpected guest surprises them – it’s Inspector Sinet wanting to tell them the story behind the whole adventure. The gang can’t wait to hear it.

It had been a well-planned raid on the Paris-Ventimiglia Express, but the problem was that someone had fenced off the end of the road where Mallart was due to take delivery of the money. This meant that the job would take much longer than expected, which is why Mallart decided to dump the money at the Billette Factory and wait for Roublot to join him at a little house rented nearby for the purpose.

BlacheBut Roublot didn’t come, because he too had had some bad luck. He thought he had received a police summons, and fled to Paris to provide himself an alibi. When he got there, he realised it was only a renewal of his street-trading licence, so he returned to Louvigny but couldn’t find Mallart. Roublot decided to go to the market as usual, and Mallart telephoned him via the local café to arrange a meeting time and place. But Sinet was hot on Mallart’s tail, so he dropped the keys into the horse which had just tripped him up – and the rest is history. However, it looks like there won’t be a reward. The bank never promised one, and the people to whom the money belonged weren’t keen to come to an agreement. The gang members look on the bright side, realising the complications of receiving a lot of money.

But there’s one last surprise. One morning, M. Douin answers the door to discover the horse has been returned. It was old Blache who had found it, miles away, on a rubbish dump. The children are, of course, delighted, and Fernand reunites it with its head. Gaby is chosen to give it its first ride. But as he’s heading down la rue de la Vache Noire, out of control, he collides with Old Zigon and his bottle cart. Sixty bottles smashed – but, good news, there are five hundred down in the Billette Factory that he can take.

However, Gaby is in tears, as he confesses he is twelve years old now and too old to be a gang member. He’s furious with himself that he’s too old even to ride the horse safely. He tells the others they will have to find a replacement for him. But, of course, none of them accepts that. Marion says: “sooner or later we’ll all be twelve, but that’s no reason why we should break away from each other. We’ll grow up together, that’s all.” Old Zigon agrees: “the world’s all right if you’ve got good friends.” The book ends with all the gang members laughing and Sinet watching them – and declining an offer to have a ride on the horse!

To sum up; Paul Berna’s first, and most successful book in terms of his reputation and sales, was and still is an escapist delight. The camaraderie between the youngsters and their willingness to be brave and do the right thing comes across as aspirational – I know that’s how I felt when I read this as a child. It’s no surprise that this is the only Paul Berna book that has never been out of print. 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 in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book he published the following year – The Street Musician. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.