|Jul 17 2010
Maurice Dekobra was a skilled mystery writer, but even he’d fail to solve the riddle of why he isn’t better known.
Above you see an Aslan cover for the 1961 espionage novel Bouddha le terrible by French author Maurice Dekobra, who we said we’d look into a bit more. We mentioned that it’s a little embarrassing not to have known about an author who has his own adjective, and in researching his life our embarrassment grew. Born Maurice Tessier in Paris in May 1885, he studied in France and Germany, served two years in the military, and eventually launched a career as an international journalist, writing in French, English and German. He took the pseudonym Dekobra in 1908 and published his first novel Les mémoires de Rat-de-Cave in 1912.
Afterward, the travel bug bit him and he took a steamer to the U.S., where for various European publications he interviewed Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller and other prominent Americans of the time. Upon returning to France he resumed writing fiction, and eventually broke through in 1925 with La madone des sleepings, aka Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, a novel that was translated into thirty languages and sold more than a million copies. The book made him a celebrity author, and he traveled the world in style, crossing paths with people like Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, and Charlie Chaplin. He continued to publish novels, incorporating journalistic techniques in a new style that resulted in the coining of that adjective we mentioned earlier “dekobrisme”.
Dekobra’s books were popular vehicles for film adaptation, and more than fifteen became movies, including his 1925 hit Macao enfer du jeu, which Clemens Klopfenstein directed in 1938. All the while Dekobra kept globetrotting—he visited India, Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka), Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, and became one of the few westerners to enter Nepal. His novels up to this point were “cosmopolites” infused with his travelexperiences. For instance La madone des sleepings follows the adventures of Lady Diana Wyndham as she travels by train from London to Berlin to Russia, broke but determined to use guile and gender to make a fortune exploiting a Russian oilfield about which she’s learned. The book was developed as a film in 1928, again in 1955, and was optioned once more in the ’70s with one of our favorite women Sylvia Kristel in the lead. This third version never came to fruition, sadly, though the project reached a stage where posters were produced (and these would be quite expensive collector’s items, we suspect).
In the late 1940s, Dekobra shifted literary gears and began writing pure detective novels, and he also wrote screenplays and even dabbled in film directing. Dekobra died in 1973 but it’s safe to say that he was a guy who lived to the fullest. His life and career stand as remarkable achievements—he traveled to exotic places almost unheard of in his day, met some of the most interesting people alive, and sold millions of books that were translated into seventy-seven languages. Today in Europe, heremains a twentieth century author of great renown; in the U.S. and many other countries where his books once sold well, he is virtually unknown. It’s a mystery we haven’t solved yet, but we’ll keep working on it. In the meantime, we’re happy to have finally made his acquaintance, and hope you’ll do the same.
FranceParisLa madone des sleepingsMadonna of the Sleeping CarsMacao enfer du jeuBouddha le terribleAslanAlain GourdonMaurice DekobraMaurice TessierClemens KlopfensteinSylvia Kristelcover artliterature