Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.
The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.
One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.
A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.
This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.
To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.
It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.
I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.
There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.
I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.
Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.
I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!