Tag Archives: French crime fiction

The Godmother: Hannelore Cayre

“I’m not ashamed to admit I was a difficult mother, not at all the nurturing type.”

Hannelore Cayre’s novel The Godmother features Patience Portefeux, a 53 year-old Paris-based Arabic translator. Patience, mother of two, and a widow whose husband died years earlier, has utilized her Arabic, becoming a court reporter. Patience doesn’t glam herself up, or try to defy her age; her hair is long, and white, she’s overweight and while she’s “well-groomed” she only wears “monochrome suites–grey, black, or anthracite.” I read somewhere that the middle-aged woman is the most invisible person in society, and that definitely seems to be true of Patience. Yes she’s middle-aged, overweight, probably nothing that noticeable if you work with her…. but take away those labels and underneath her bland disguise, beats the heart of a transgressive personality who submerges into criminalism when presented with an opportunity. 

The godmother

Patience’s criminal expertise didn’t materialize from thin air. It’s in her blood. She tells her life story–how she grew up in the biz, with immigrant parents and countless bodies buried on their land. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn’t an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No, they loved it as a living, intelligent being that can create and destroy, that possesses the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forges destinies, that separates beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money is Everything; the distillation of all that can be bought in a world where everything is for sale. It is the answer to every question. 

Early marriage to a man who also had shady business deals ended with Patience a young widow left with two daughters. They were soon stripped of everything, and this led to a sojourn in a loony bin. Patience clawed her way back and landed the interpreter gig, but Patience realizing that “the interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression,” begins translating “phone taps for the drug and organized crime squads.”  

Despite my disillusion, I made dazzling progress on the career front. My colleagues will say I must have slept with a lot of people. The cruder version that made it back to me : There must have been kilometers of cops’ dicks involved, etc., etc. 

One thing leads to another and before you know it, Patience, dealing with her aged mother who is kicked out of a care home, is deep in the drug industry, and she’s working both ends–moving massive amounts of drugs, sleeping with her cop boyfriend and monitoring phone taps of her rivals. 

Prudence is a wonderful, fascinating peppery character: all the labels attached to her by society are just that: underneath simmers her true nature, and the novel excels in showing how we judge people by these labels. I could have done with less wire tap conversations and more about Prudence as she negotiates society. 

Damn, you’re quite the paradox, aren’t you. You always lower our eyes whenever anybody speaks to you, like you’re shy, but at the same time you’re giving off this feeling of kick-ass confidence–like the very worst scum bags in fact.

Stories, true or fiction, often portray straight-arrow people becoming corrupted when opportunity presents itself, but The Godmother plays with the tantalizing idea that corruption occurs, yes when opportunity presents itself, but also as a laying-in-wait and ambushing the ‘system’ variety.

Translated by Stephanie Smee.

A contribution for the cancelled Quai de Polar 2020. Now I want to read a book about Griselda Blanco. 

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Summer of Reckoning: Marion Brunet

Marion Brunet’s novel, The Summer of Reckoning, explores the near impossibility of escaping the cycle of poverty.  Sisters 16-year-old Céline and 15-year-old Johanna (Jo) should be on the brink of their lives, but poverty and now Céline’s pregnancy have combined to squash their futures. Since age 14, Céline, the more attractive of the sisters, had the curse of early sexuality, so all the local boys compete for her attention, while Jo, with two different coloured eyes, is prickly and considered strange.

the summer of reckoning

The sisters live with their father Manuel and mother Séverine in the Luberon, and while the family is poor, Manuel works on the villas that belong to the wealthy, often absent owners. This creates a surreal contrast, a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, with Céline and Jo trespassing onto the extensive grounds of magnificent deserted villas–enjoying the luxuries that the owners seem to have forgotten about.

Céline and Jo’s home life is rocky and tenuous, their social life almost non-existent, but when Manuel learns that his eldest daughter is pregnant, his deep rage encompasses his own failures as a man, a husband and a father. With Céline, refusing to identify the father, the scene is set for disaster. …

Everyone in the area hates Arabs, and a likely suspect seems to be Saïd, a friend of the family, a young man who hangs around the girls and who has some shady business dealings with builder Manuel.

The novel’s strengths lie in Manuel and Séverine’s bitterness which floats to the surface with the news of Céline’s pregnancy. It’s history repeating itself. Manuel stews on the knowledge that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, considered good enough for Séverine by her land-owning parents. Séverine, who is now going to be a grandmother at age 34, recalls she “did have her moment of glory, twenty years ago-twenty!” She dwells on how she became pregnant with Céline, and how marriage to Manuel seemed the only option at the time. Now roll on 17 years and here she is seeing the same thing happen to her eldest daughter … but this time there’s no question of marriage because Céline refuses to name the father.

There’s a dull simmering rage that runs throughout the story, and these characterizations feel real, bitterly, sadly real. With the exception of Jo, who wants more from life, none of these characters are appealing. Jo rations herself, subconsciously, refusing to meet the expectations of the local boys who have suddenly stopped panting after Céline now that she’s pregnant.

Jo is looking for ways out. She must be patient, but she has neither the age nor the temperament for patience. What she dreams of is explosions, magnificent events, nuclear wars. She is all pernicious expectation and anxiety. Céline’s pregnancy doesn’t actually change anything, and it’s again about her sister, the centre of attention. But there’s something hatching, buzzing in the thick atmosphere, in the family silences. She can feel it, like that sharp taste when biting into a green grape, on alert.

(Readers: there’s a scene of kittens being drowned. I get the addition of this scene: unwanted kittens can be drowned while life moves on (not the same for humans) plus the casual cheap brutality that permeates the tale.  Still the scene is there.)

Review copy

Translated by Katherine Gregor

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UV: Serge Joncour

Members of the wealthy Chassagne family are gathered together at their palatial estate for the annual Bastille celebration. The patriarch presides over the household in his absent-minded detached autocratic fashion. His wife seems a little scatter brained and then there are their two daughters, Julie and Vanessa. Vanessa rather conveniently married André Pierre. I say “conveniently” as the marriage kept a lot of messy domestic details swept under the rug. André-Pierre, who as family fixer “protecting the family,” “keeping secrets,” aware of “sordid goings-on,” has risen in the company, and now Andre-Pierre and Vanessa have two children together. The only family member missing is Philip also known as “the Pyro.” So when a stranger arrives at the Chassagne estate and announces that he’s a friend of Philip’s from boarding school, everyone accepts his presence. Well everyone except André-Pierre, but then André-Pierre knows a few things about Philip that the others don’t.

UV

It’s a beautiful, peaceful summer day; Vanessa and Julie are sunbathing topless when the stranger begins his invasion.

It must have been the white that reassured them .

When a stranger pushes open the gates to your property like that, when he is dressed in white from head to foot, and when that white is so absolutely spotless, you don’t even think about it being suspicious.

The stranger’s name is Boris. He very quickly takes over the household and he’s one of those shape shifters who knows what people want, and then he morphs to feed that need. At first, Vanessa and Julie seem to dominant, but that’s only because Boris’s arrival sparks sisterly competition. Soon the entire household is beguiled by Boris. He flirts with both sisters and listens to the father’s stories, but after he saves the father from drowning, Boris’s place as an honoured guest seems assured.

There’s the occasional glimpse into Boris’s thinking, and it’s clear that he’s a predator:

To him his family configuration was the ultimate exoticism: this arrangement in which people are at their most docile, their most vulnerable too, ripe for the picking.

The big questions are: what does Boris want? What will happen when Philip returns?

This is a tale of dominance and control. There’s the dominance of money, sex, power, class, cruelty, and violence. The Chassagne family live in a gilded environment in which money, lots of money, is thrown at problems and then those problems simply go away. Boris, however, shakes up the established order. By various means, he soon controls the household. He entertains the parents, flirts and gropes the sisters and even whisks off the children into danger. Boris keeps pushing the boundaries and he keeps getting away with it. André-Pierre is the only one outside of the circle of enchantment but then he’s dominated by a healthy fear of Boris.

There’s something fascinating about this sort of story and how a complete stranger, with sheer dominance, can bewitch a group of people out of their comfort zone. Especially when you think that privileged people like the Chassagnes would never ordinarily run into someone like Boris. They are not nice people at all, but they are still no match for Boris and his cunning. Of course, in these situations, you’ve never sure how far things will go.

I liked UV but found the characters held at arm’s length. The tale skimmed the surface and it could have been much more engaging if events had been explored. There’s a red herring which seemed annoying rather than anything else.

Here’s Emma’s review and it seems to match mine.

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Article 353: Tanguy Viel

Tanguy Viel’s Article 353 explores a murder through the narrator/murderer’s ex-facto explanation of the crime. A definition of exactly what Article 353 is can be found at the end of the book. After watching 6 seasons of the French series Spiral, I can’t say that I understand the French legal system, but I have grasped that it is very different to America (and Britain). I’m glad I had the Spiral experience in order to understand a little of the French legal process.

Article 353

Article 353 is set in a dying seaside town on the Brittany coast. It’s the 90s, and middle-aged divorced, Kermeur, is expecting a 400,000 franc layoff payout. Thanks to the town’s mayor, Le Goff, Kermeur at least has a roof over his head for himself and his young son. They live in a gatehouse of what is rather grandly termed the local chateau. Kermeur maintains the grounds.

As always in these sorts of towns, places with beautiful scenic views but no industry, there’s always talk of Big Money coming in and making a splash. In this case it’s Lazenec, a middle-aged man who arrives one day at the chateau along with the mayor, Le Goff. Lazenac is new to the region but suddenly he’s everywhere in his fancy car and his fancy yacht. He buys the Chateau and the land and plans to build a resort on the land. It’s an investment opportunity:

What I should’ve thought that evening, and what I’ve learned to think since, is that it’s never a good sign to run into twice in the same day a guy you didn’t know the day before. 

I’m not revealing spoilers to say that Kermeur is arrested for the murder of Lazenac: for tossing him off of his yacht 5 miles off the coast to be exact. The novel is Kermeur’s side of things as told to the judge.

Imagine that, I told the judge, a seaside resort here on Brest Bay! And I continued reading the article line by line, with its big sentences like all the region lacked was the faith and courage to face the future, there was undeveloped potential here, it said, for generations we’ve been sitting on a gold mine covered by cabbages and artichokes, a new era of tourism and development was dawning, it was time to prepare to enter the new millennium

I was part way through the book when I looked up the currency exchange rates for 400,000 Francs in 1990. At that time, it was about 69,000 dollars and change. Now Kermeur is a man in a tenuous position: he doesn’t own a home, has a marginal job and  may lose that plus the home he lives in as a result of these swanky resort homes. Kermeur is seduced by the idea of success & wealth, and he acts foolishly. When a slick developer goes knocking on doors looking for investors, that means he DOESN’T have the money himself: he wants yours.  He’s not doing you any favours, he’s helping himself. Whether or not you think Kermeur is justified in his subsequent actions is going to be a personal decision.

I liked the book’s premise; I enjoy books that centre on people’s relationship with money. We spend our whole lives working for money, spending money, thinking about money, and not understanding money. Many of us lived through the last crazy housing boom and saw people assuming insane amounts of debt. We all read about the suicides, the marriage break-ups, the moonlight flits. People seemed to want to climb out of their established status, and use the boom to move on up the ladder–flipping houses and perhaps even becoming landlords in the process. I knew many people who were ruined and will never recoup. So who made all the money? Makes me think of Marx and The Wages of Labour. … 

I found the book’s bias … is that the right word ? … or should I say, decided moral direction, uninteresting. Someone is swindled. His life is ruined. Is murder justified? Unfortunately, the book’s structure leads the reader down a certain prescribed path of judgement. A different structural narrative (say events as they occur) would have allowed for a wider scope of issues such as morality, wishful thinking, etc. As is, we know what happened. Kermeur finally understands why he did what he did: Why he gambled with the largest amount of cash he would ever get his hands on in one lifetime–money he could not afford to lose. I felt as though I was being at best guided, at worst, told, the moral judgement I should feel about this ‘case.’

review copy

Translated by William Rodarmor

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Gallic Noir Volume 1: Pascal Garnier

Gallic noir

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a Pascal Garnier fan. His dark, bleak humour fits my mood and world view so I’ve loved (most) of his books. Gallic Books has compiled three titles into one volume, so if you’ve been waiting to check out Garnier, this may be a great choice for you. Volume 1 includes:

The A-26

How’s the Pain?

The Panda Theory. 

Here’s a list of my reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

The A-26 is the story of brother and sister Bernard and Yolande. Yolande, “Yo-Yo” (an apt name since she’s bat-shit crazy) live together in disharmony with Bernard ‘caring’ for Yo-Yo, but this insane world spins out-of-control when Bernard, a serial killer, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is my least favourite Garnier. It contains Garnier’s signature motifs of death and decay, but I felt as though I needed a shower after reading it.

Onto How’s The Pain? which I rated much higher. I really liked this one. This is the story of an aging hitman, posing as an ‘exterminator’ who picks up a directionless young man as his driver. This book contains a depth absent in A-26, and the description of Bernard’s hopeless mother is extraordinary, painful, and hilarious all at the same time.

The Panda Theory concerns a stranger who turns up in small town in Brittany. Again the central motifs of death and decay are present. This wasn’t the easiest read for me for its rather constant references to meat, but this is a cleverly written book that doesn’t veer from its imagery.

There are three volumes of Garnier’s Gallic noir available

Review copy

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Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie

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The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.

Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread is another well crafted, tightly written noir tale from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint. This is a classic tale of adultery and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice but add more twists and turns as ill-fated lovers attempt to outrun Fate.

Gravediggers bread

This short novel takes us right into the heart of our first person narrator’s life. Blaise Delange, a man with a checkered past, unemployed and desperate, has been funded by a friend in order to seek employment at a rubber factory in a provincial town. By the time Blaise arrives, the job is gone. When Blaise finds a wallet stuffed with 8,000 francs, he considers taking it as a “consolation prize,” but then he thinks about the beautiful, sad, badly-dressed blonde woman who dropped the wallet and decides to return it. The owner is Germaine Castain, the wife of the town’s only undertaker. Blaise visits their depressing home and walks into a scene of marital misery.

Then I went up to the door and drove the yellowish little man back into the interior of his shop. The inside was even more wretched than the outside. It was cramped, dim, lugubrious and it smelt of death. 

One look at Achille Castain, an ugly, unhealthy, brutish man old enough to be Germaine’s father, tips Blaise to be careful how he proceeds. Blaise can see that all is not well in the marriage, and so he lies about where he found the wallet. He realises that Germaine can’t possibly love this disgusting man, and yet Achille, rather than treasure a wife that is so much younger and beautiful, abuses her and treats her like an indentured servant. Why did they marry? Why is Germaine, who has no children to consider, staying with this man?

A few hours later, Achille offers Blaise a job, and Blaise, attracted to Germaine and curious about this incongruous marriage, decides to stick around. Turns out that Blaise is a terrific salesman, and soon Blaise, an opportunist, is selling up: talking grieving families into buying fancier coffins which reflect status, guilt, or loss. Achille thinks he knows his customers (after all they all live in this small, dull town), and so he makes the mistake of selling what he thinks the family will spring for, rather than attempt to work on other, latent emotions.

“You see Delange,” he said. We can’t expect anything on the business front here. It will be the second-lowest category and a pauper’s coffin.”

“Why do you foresee that?’

“The fact that it’s the grandfather. That’s ten years now they’ve been spoon-feeding him and changing his sheets three times a day. If they could they’d stick him in the dustbin.”

Soon, there’s an unhealthy, tense, claustrophobic little triangle at the bleak, depressing funeral home with Blaise watching and fantasizing about Germaine, and Achille watching Germaine with suspicions that she has a secret lover….

The Gravedigger’s Bread does not take the conventional path. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but the plot was more complicated, with Fate interacting more capriciously, cynically and cruelly than anticipated.

I’ve read several Dard novels, and here they are in the order of preference:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

The Gravedigger’s Bread goes straight to the top of the list.

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Three Days and a Life: Pierre Lemaitre

“The wheel was coming full circle.”

Pierre Lemaitre’s novel, Three Days and a Life is essentially a study of guilt, the fallout of violence, and small town prejudices in the aftermath of a murder. Murder is an irrevocable act, and the consequences, as we see in this novel, are unpredictable. The story begins in 1999 with Antoine, a twelve-year-old boy, the son of the divorced Madame Courtin. Antoine and his mother live in the small, dying town of Beauval–a place where everyone knows everyone else. You can live there for years and still be an outsider.

Antoine is a normal twelve-year-old who longs for a Playstation of his own, and with a sudden awareness of his own sexuality, he has a crush on blonde Émilie. The Courtins live next to the Desmedts: the brutish Monsieur Desmedt, his wife and two children: Valentine and 6-year-old Remi. The Courtin household is rigid whereas the Desmedts’ home is chaotic. but the best thing about living next to the Desmedts is that Antoine can play with their dog Ulysses.

three days and a life

One day in the woods, Antoine accidentally kills Remi, and in a blind panic, he hides the body. Will he get away with murder? ….

About 2/3 of the book follows Antoine’s actions as the townspeople realise that a child is missing. Paralyzed with guilt, and waiting for the police to knock on his door, Antoine watches events unfold from his home. Unpopular residents are rounded up and questioned, and then nature intervenes.

The second, last third of the novel opens in 2011. Antoine now lives in Paris, is in a wonderful relationship, and is close to becoming a doctor when he reluctantly agrees to return home He is being recalled by fate to meet his punishment. ….

Truth be told, the terror never went away. It dozed, it slumbered, and it returned. Antoine lived with the knowledge that, sooner or later, this murder would catch up and ruin his life. 

I’m very glad to have finally read a Lemaitre novel. For this reader, the first section with Antoine as a boy was good but overly long–especially when he repeatedly imagined various scenarios. However, the second part paid off in its conclusion. To say more would spoil the novel for other readers, but Fate shows, once again, that one cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to run. In the case of Lemaitre’s tale, do not expect simple retribution. The plot is far too subtle for that.

Reading the acknowledgments, I saw the name Patrice Leconte pop up. This made me mull over the idea of this book as a film. The first two-thirds are introspective while Antoine wrestles with his guilt, but with the right script, this would make an excellent film.

Review copy

Translated by Frank Wynne

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The King of Fools: Frédéric Dard (1952)

“Poor Ivanhoe,” she sighed. “You have no idea what fools heroes can be.”

In Frédéric Dard’s novel of nightmarish obsession, The King of Fools, Jean-Marie Valaise is on a solo holiday in Juan-les-Pins. It was a holiday he’d intended to take with his long-term girlfriend, the elegant, self-contained and uber self controlled Denise:

I should have been with Denise. but we had broken off just two days before leaving, on some petty pretext. For a moment, I had considered cancelling my trip, but then decided the Côte d’Azur would be a timely distraction, and left anyway. I regretted it now. Holiday resorts are best approached in a happy frame of mind, or they can seem more depressing than all the rest. Truth be told, my sorrow was not acute. Rather, I experienced a feeling of intense disenchantment that left me weak and vulnerable. I felt the nagging torment of physical regret too. With Denise, the act of love had been easy, and reassuring. 

One day, Jean-Marie sees a woman getting into his car. The incident turns out to have been a mistake, but the woman, who didn’t leave a wholly favorable impression, left a bag with a thousand francs inside. That night, Jean-Marie spots the woman at a local casino. She seems, for this second meeting, to be almost a totally different person, elegant, beautiful and cultured. Jean-Marie, normally a cautious man when it comes to money, throws discretion to the winds, gambles and loses, but no matter, soon he’s chatting and half in love with Marjorie Faulks, the Englishwoman he met earlier that day.

King of Fools

Jean-Marie meets Marjorie a third time when she invites herself into his hotel room while he’s in the shower. While Jean-Marie’s awkwardness is smooched over by Marjorie, still the incident seems bizarre. She breaks the news that she’s married, but Jean-Marie, who’s decided that Marjorie is bitterly unhappy, pulls her in his arms for a kiss. They part, but promise to write….

Denise shortly shows up at the resort and quickly sniffs out Jean-Marie’s mood. After all they’ve been together for years, and they have a strong commitment to each other as friends but not as lovers. They break up a couple of times every year, and yet always get back together. Jean-Marie’s feelings for Marjorie are different: it’s intense, an obsession he can’t control.

After a letter from Marjorie, Jean-Marie dashes off to Scotland where he sinks into an abyss of deception, but not before Denise warns him that he thinks he’s some sort of hero leaving to ‘rescue’ Marjorie, and that it will end badly.

While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the character of Marjorie (she’s a cipher), I was convinced that Jean-Marie, a man whose passions up to this moment had been tepid and controlled, could totally lose it on holiday. Passion unexpectedly overwhelms him; it’s a new feeling, and although there are plenty of warning signs, he doesn’t pay attention. Jean-Marie’s life, a life in which passion takes a back seat to common sense, is completely derailed when he meets Marjorie. This largely happens because his guard is down, and Marjorie has a sly way of trespassing without seeming to do so.

Most of the action takes place in a dreary Edinburgh, with the weather matching the atmosphere of the novel. There’s a large cat-and-mouse section, and Jean-Marie’s life descends into an almost surreal kind of hell, with the novel’s great, ironic twist, in common with many titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, arriving at the end.

For those interested, here’s a list of Dard books read so far in order of preference

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

The King of Fools

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

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The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“She’d sprung from the night, just for me.”

Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint continues to impress with The Executioner Weeps from Frédéric Dard. This latest Dard novel follows on the heels of Bird in a Cage, The Wicked Go to Hell, and Crush. The King of Fools is due to be released in the US in September, 2017.

In The Executioner Weeps, Daniela successful French artist is in Spain on a working holiday when late one night, on a remote lonely road, his car hits a beautiful young woman. She has no identification, no luggage–except for a now crushed violin. Daniel suspects that this young woman may possibly have thrown herself under the car. Since he’s miles from civilization and the woman’s injuries are fairly superficial, Daniel decides to take her back to Casa Patricio, a modest beachside hotel located near Barcelona, and proceed from there. When the woman wakes up, she’s suffering from amnesia.

The executioner weeps

For the first half of the book, Daniel spends time trying to discover the woman’s identity. He knows that her first name begins with M, and together they try various M names on for size. Eventually as shards of memory return, the woman settles on Marianne which she is sure is her name. Thrown together by circumstance, it isn’t long before Daniel falls in love with Marianne–even though common sense should tell him otherwise.

I was living the dream that all men have of loving a woman without a past.

He contacts the French embassy, the police, every institution he can think of, but everyone is disinterested in Marianne’s plight and Daniel’s dilemma. The consensus seems to be that someone will eventually come looking for this stunning young woman…

Daniel’s dilemma deepens when he receives a letter concerning an upcoming exhibition is America. He decides to stop waiting for something to happen and using the labels in Marianne’s clothing, he sets out to discover her past himself. Soon he wishes he hadn’t.

This is as much of the plot in this splendid, tightly written noir that I’m going to reveal. The tale begins with a central mystery–the identity of the young woman–Daniel spends half the novel trying to discover the truth and half the novel trying to evade it. The plot, with its sense of creeping dread and impending doom, raises many questions about the nature of love: idealisation, self-deceit, corruption and the love object. Is Daniel protecting Marianne or is he protecting his ideal?

Significantly Daniel decides to paint a portrait of Marianne:

What I set out to show was what I could see in her. She surrendered slowly, easing herself out of her own personality to become what I wanted her to be. I no longer separated my creation from my model. I took a human being and spread it out on a surface that had no limits. 

But when the painting is finished, Daniel is disturbed by the results:

From a painterly point of view, it was first rate. Yet I didn’t like it, because with this particular canvas something strange had happened. I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her: it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity.  

The truth, when Daniel finally discovers it, is devastating, and every step he takes just draws him into a sticky web from which there is no escape. There’s a thematic connection here to Vertigo in the way the author explores just how far we will go to maintain fictional narratives that feed our desires and egos.

For  those interested, here’s my Dard order of preference so far:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

Review copy

Translated by David Coward

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