Nov 06

THRILLERS FOR KIDS! — #4 le cheval sans tête

FT + The Brown Wedge13 comments • 3,587 views

berna51 years old, and more widely known in the UK as A Hundred Million Francs, this rereads as potently as ever, despite the by-now somewhat clunky translation (the always tricky problem of slang). Gaby’s is I think the BEST KID GANG EVER — ten-strong, living in the poorer quarter of the small Paris-satellite faxctory town Louvigny, multi-cultural (Juan is Spanish Romany, Criquet is black, Tatave is er fat), raging in age from 11 down to 4 (I think — Bonbon looks about that in Richard Kennedy’s wrigglingly lively illustrations) [update: confirmed]. Tho Berthe and Mélie slightly take the “twins” role — they giggle more with each other than engage with the rest — and Zidore and Juan remain a little unsketched (but there are three further books for them to unfold as people) (which I haven’t read for 30 years, but HAVE RE-ORDERED FROM AMAZON) (one of them cost 1p!). But oh MARION THE DOG GIRL, my first ever fictional dreamboat!! Er, anyway, the gang’s obsessive pleasure is a headless wooden horse on tricycle wheels, which they ride pellmell down a steep cobbled street until it hurtles them into a patch of bomb-cratered wasteland, hard by an ancient rusting railway engine known locally as the “black cow”. The horse is rattling junk worth nothing to any but them — until one day a local villain offers them a fortune for it. They reject the offer with scorn — and shortly after the horse is stolen!

The climactic confrontation has been done plenty of times elswhere, one way and another — how can smallish kids outwit and then overpower strong, determined young men? No spoilers (well, not totally)! But as villains, the grown-ups are mean-spirited bullies as much as anything — so their comeuppance is tremendously excellent. The involvement of the kids — in advance and in place of the police — is unusually well justified: in fact their slightly arms-length relationship with the melancholy and disenchanted Inspector Sinet is very engagingly drawn. As are the restricted limits of their world — steep street, wasteland, nearby market, abandoned factory across the wasteland, that’s it, apart from a few indoor scenes.

berna2In form it’s a set of strikingly vivid set-pieces, from the opening drama with the horse — Tatave smashes it into the bottle-collector’s cart and breaks its fork — to the campfire-at-night-in-the-snow interlude to the BATTLE IN AN ABANDONED CARNIVAL NOVELTIES FACTORY! In tone, it’s about the absolute trust the children have in one another — their mutual value, their individual and collective honour — and their circumspect, resolute, cheeky way with anyone aged 12 or above. But it’s also about imagination, kids without a bean creating for and with one another out of next to nothing an adventure-realm all of their own, to postpone a fairly grim-looking future.

THE DOG GIRL: Marion is an awesome character — i am biased but YES SHE IS. She’s not technically the leader (that’s Gaby) or the “character reader identifies with” (which is Fernand), but she’s the brains and heart of the gang, tomboyish (of course), plus strong, quiet, sometimes almost pitiless — and more than a little witchy. Grown-ups are wary of her; Gaby defers to her. Her “sorcerous gift” — which is on the far edges of the zone of scruffy quai-de-brumes-ish realism everywhere established — is a power over dogs: because she can cure them (for neighbours near and far, rich and poor) she can call on them, and when necessary she does.

(the second image is from a french edition, or possibly a comicbook version — illustré par Morris, le papa de Lucky Luke: the man i assume is sinet, not sure which the kids are…)

UPDATE: I just reread The Street Musician, which arrived superbly promptly from amazon. Next in the series (everyone two years older; the horse this time smashed being repair, again by fat Tatave): more a mystery than a thriller (why would a blind street musician need to dye his seeing-eye dog black?), it’s about ingenuity, being quietly observant — and forgiveness. The occupation is more directly mentioned: the gang’s meeting spot is right under a memorial plaque for a group of resistance fighters shot by the Nazis, the bulletholes still visible in the wall — the children’s activities, says Berna simply, do not dishonour this sacred spot. Villainy is in fact not afoot — it’s more like a complex atonement for a previous crime (not war-related), which the kids end up making possible: turning to the final page, the Richard Kennedy illustration, the children dancing on Bastille Day, as the musician plays for them, Fernand and Marion more than ever a couple, was a lovely “ambushed by semi-expected emotion” moment for me. (“Zidore and Tatave gave a disorderly display of rock’n’roll…”) Berna wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms — see comments — and all available biogs are strikingly cagey. Which means what? I’d love to know more.


  1. 1
    Tom on 17 Nov 2006 #

    The Morris illustration makes them look a bit like THE PERISHERS!

  2. 2

    yes it’s not really how i picture them at all but then the kennedy illustrations are seared into my memory

    i am now wonderin if the perishers is sekritly ripped off of the morris comic-book maybe

  3. 3

    Bit more info on Berna:

    Pseudonym of Jean Sabran. 1908-1994

    Novels as Berna (all for children):

    * Threshold of the Stars (1954) (SF)
    * Continent in the Sky (1955) (SF)
    * Horse Without a Head, the (1955) in UK = The Hundred Million Francs)
    * Street Musician, the (1956) just reread — see update in a moment
    * Knights of King Midas, the (1958)
    * Flood Warning (1960)
    * Mystery of Saint-Salgue, the (1962)
    * Clue of The Black Cat, the (1963)
    * Truckload of Rice, a (1968)
    * Secret of the Missing Boat, the (1969)
    * They Didn’t Come Back (1969)
    * Myna Bird Mystery (1970)
    * Gaby and the New Money Fraud (1971)
    * Vagabonds Ashore, the (1973)
    * Vagabonds of the Pacific (1973)

    (bolded = Gaby’s Ten stories)

    Sabran also wrote adult tec fiction under his own name — though I can only find a little about it on the net, esp. the promising-sounding HARD BOILED DICKS No.12 — and under the further pseudonyms
    Bernard Deleuze (small amount), Paul Gerrard (common english name = googleblocked) and Joël Audrenn (lots inc THIS

  4. 5

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  5. 6
    MidiMagic on 29 Apr 2009 #

    Disney made a movie of “The Horse Without a Head.”

  6. 7
    John Morris on 1 May 2009 #


    A child I know is going away to French immersion camp. When she was little several of the Berna Gaby books were read to her (in English). I was thinking that if it was possible to get French versions it would be a nice accompanyment for the trip. So, two questions,

    1) Does anyone know the French name of Gaby and the New Money Fraud? (See below for the set of four books) This is the one book that I don’t know the French name of.

    2) Does anyone know how to acquire in North America these books, but in French?

    For the record, here is the set of four books, including 3 out of 4 with the original titles en francaise:

    1. A Hundred Million Francs (Le Cheval sans tête), 1955
    2. The Street Musician (Le Piano à bretelle), 1956
    3. The Mystery of Saint Salgue (La Piste du souvenir), 1962
    4. Gaby and the New Money Fraud, 1971

    (From Wikipedia)

    Thanks very much for any info,


  7. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 May 2009 #

    john, try here: it’s all his books (under all his aliases) in french — you can crosscheck at least some of the bernas against my list above…

  8. 10
    Linda in Georgia on 7 May 2009 #

    Sorry, messed this one up originally. See next comment.

  9. 11
    Linda in Georgia on 7 May 2009 #

    This doesn’t add anything to John’s quest, but I recently found out through this entry that there were sequels to THE HORSE WITHOUT A HEAD…one of my favorite books and one of my favorite Disney movies (since they didn’t mess with the story too much). So I hunted them down in the last month and found all of them, including GABY AND THE NEW MONEY FRAUD. Despite the copyright date listed for this one, it takes place BEFORE MYSTERY OF SAINT-SALGUE. The original French copyright date is 1961. It tells how they bought the van and of a mystery the van involves them in. Inspector Sinet appears again (he’s been promoted to Commissaire.

  10. 12
    Linda in Georgia on 7 May 2009 #

    John, I tried to contact you through the link on your name and it doesn’t work. I thought to look in my book! Duh! The French title for GABY is “Le Bout du Monde.”

  11. 13
    Francesca in Toronto on 30 Sep 2012 #

    I too live in Toronto and I read the 100 Million Francs as a child in the 1970s. It was my most favourite book. I also found and read the Street Musician as well. But I have never read the last 2 books. I have also never seen the movie.

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