Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

Last year, Pushkin Press launched their new Vertigo line with some impressive titles: Vertigo (naturally), The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, and She Who was No More All three novels can be categorized as crime–no argument there, but each one was unusual in some unique way. The Pushkin Vertigo foreword, with the tantalizing sentence, “Whose dark or troubled mind will you set into next?” promised an emphasis on the psychological, and these three titles certainly fit the bill. I then read The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses which were police procedurals and much more standard novels… I began to wonder if Pushkin Press could continue with the early promise of the unique Vertigo line–were there enough previously ‘undiscovered’ (read untranslated into English) crime novels to feed this imprint? And then I read Frédéric Dard’s  Bird in a Cage. This is a noir novel in which the main character, the narrator, Albert, finds himself embroiled in a disorienting crime, the details of which initially make no sense. Maneuvered by the fickle hand of fate, he becomes a pawn in the perfect crime.

bird in a cage

Our narrator, Albert, returns home to Levallois after an absence of six years. It’s a dreary, depressing homecoming to the grim little flat his mother lived and died in.

I sat down in the old armchair next to the window where she always did the darning and looked around at the silence, the smell and all the old things that had lain waiting for me. The silence and the smells had greater reality for me than the damp-streaked wallpaper.

Albert’s mother died 4 years before, but her mattress is still rolled up on the bed, and there’s a “glass for the holy water and the sprig of blessed palm.” Albert mentions that he only heard about his mother’s death when he received her funeral notice. Why didn’t he return home? Where has he spent the last six years? The answers to those questions are revealed later in the novel and are integral to the plot, so no reveal here…

So a depressing homecoming for Albert. There’s no one to welcome him; his only relative, his mother is dead, and to top off the sense of heavy loss, it’s Christmas Eve. Albert has returned at the height of the holiday season. Outside, the streets are noisy and full of life, and Albert decides to join the holiday makers, but being surrounded by joy makes him feel worse:

The narrow streets of Levallois were full of happy people. They were knocking off work bearing Christmas supplies and thronged around open-air stalls where fishmongers shucked bucket-loads of oysters under wreaths of coloured lights.

The delis and cake shops were packed. A limping paperhawker zigzagged from one pavement to the other calling out the news, but nobody gave a damn.

Acting on an impulse which Albert later identifies as a desire to recapture his childhood, he stops at a small shop and buys a Christmas decoration–“a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust.” Inside the cage is a bird made of velvet. For some reason Albert can’t identify, the purchase lifts his spirits and then later, he wanders into a restaurant where he catches the eye of a very attractive woman who’s there with her daughter. …

That’s as much of the plot that I’m going to discuss. This evening, which begins with loneliness, blends into bittersweet memories and ends in murder. Albert finds himself neck-deep in a web of intrigue and deceit, embroiled in the outcome of a bitterly unhappy marriage. The Christmas decoration which Albert bought on a whim is integral to the mystery, and this tiny object marks a turning point in the tale. While the decoration is a very literal object, it also symbolizes Albert, and that significance becomes poignantly obvious when the tale ends. As with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, the ending is left to the reader’s discretion–the nightmare hasn’t ended, and some mysteries do not have a definitive ending.

I was delighted to discover the prolific  Frédéric Dard, and even more delighted to learn that Vertigo will be releasing several other titles by this author: The Wicked Go to Hell, Crush, and The Executioner Weeps. Bird in a Cage is highly recommended for those who like crime/noir novels from an unusual view with an emphasis on the psychological.

Review copy

Translated by David Bellos (original title: Le Monte-Charge). The book is also apparently titled The Switch.

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25 Comments

Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

25 responses to “Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

  1. The list of his titles makes rather grim reading – “The Wicked Go To Hell”,”Strangler”.,”Stone Dead”. According to Wiki he wrote under a host of other names, including William Blessings and Cornel Milk!

  2. Ooh, excellent. I have a copy of this one on the shelves just waiting to be read. Glad to hear it didn’t disappoint.

  3. I really enjoyed this and have just bought the second one Pushkin have released, The Wicked Go to Hell. It reminded me of Pascal Garnier.

  4. Oh Guy this does sound a little bit on the weird side, but in a good way. I’m intrigued to find out why he didn’t return home before now for a start!

  5. Pat

    Dard is particularly known in France for his San Antonio series which numbers 175 volumes, yes I said 175. These books are full of play on words but several were translated into English at the end of the 60’s, start of the 70’s. If you can get hold of a copy of any of these it’ll be a chance to see his particular universe and at the same time to see how well the translator was able to treat his cereal puns and other word play

    Pat

  6. I just bought this this weekend so I was delighted to see your review pop up in my inbox, and even more so to see it’s positive. I plan to read this very soon. I just finished She Who Was No More which was great (though I love Les Diaboliques so much that’s no surprise) and am planning to slip a few of these short Pushkin Vertigos in among other reads.

    Nice review, very much looking forward to reading this. Nice cover too I thought.

    • I think you’ll see a connection between She Who Was No More and this one in a -nightmare-that doesn’t end- way. Hope you like it. It looks as though there are some other promising titles on the way.

  7. I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard yet, but this sounds excellent. I must say, I always thought he was rather a trashy writer.

    • I hadn’t heard of him before so I had no expectations. I read somewhere that he’s often compared to Simenon, but I haven’t read enough Dard to say. He wrote a lot so perhaps why he’s often denigrated (Simenon was also undervalued).

  8. This is a new name for me. He sounds like someone I would enjoy. And this series sounds like one I would like too. I’ll have to keep an eye our for Veritgo.

    • Since writing this review I looked at Dard’s Wikipedia page and from the descriptions of his work given there, I wouldn’t have been the least bit interested. As Caroline says he sounds ‘trashy.”

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