The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The King of Fools
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1952

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!

The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard, translated by Frank Wynne

Gravediggers
The Gravediggers’ Bread
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1956

Frédéric Dard has been on my list of authors I wanted to try for an age so when I read that The Gravediggers’ Bread was an inverted novel I couldn’t resist starting there.

The book’s premise bears some similarities to James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least in terms of the initial scenario. Some elements and moments may seem familiar – particularly a biting of a lip that draws blood during a kiss – which led me to wonder if this was an intentional homage. Ultimately though the two novels take quite different paths and should be considered entirely separate works.

The story concerns a young man, Blaise, who is visiting a small provincial town in the hopes of securing a sales job for a factory. On arriving he discovers that he has got there too late and someone else was already hired. He is telephoning the friend who encouraged him to try to let him know the bad news when he discovers a woman’s wallet. When he returns it to her, the woman’s husband suggests that he could take him on to assist with sales for his funeral business. Blaise does not care much for the work but is drawn to the man’s wife and chooses to stay for her sake.

The Gravediggers’ Bread is a very short novel being just 160 pages long so I want to avoid going into too much detail about what prompts the crime or the circumstances in which it is done. What I can say is that there is a murder committed by the narrator and we follow Blaise’s attempts to avoid detection. While the identity of the victim will likely be quite obvious, the circumstances of the death and particularly the cover up are entertaining.

Where the novel is most successful is the building of tension as the reader wonders just how Blaise may be caught. Dard builds suspense very effectively in the second half of the novel in a couple of ways. Firstly by reminding us how precarious his position would be should the murder be discovered and secondly by allowing the reader clues as to some of the ways that might happen. But even then Dard has a further twist or two in store for the reader. Even if you work out where this story will ultimately be headed, the execution of these moments is quite sublime, building to a very satisfying conclusion.

While the characterizations within this story initially seem quite simple and familiar, I was surprised by some of the depth that Dard is able to give the relationships between Blaise, the undertaker and his wife given the short page count. Blaise’s role in particular is complex, befitting his role as the narrator, and we may question whether he is as different from the undertaker as he imagines.

There is a moment in the development of that relationship that did leave me somewhat uncomfortable and a little unsure how to interpret it. There is a moment where Blaise exercises some force to initiate a sexual encounter, apparently against the other character’s will. While it seems to begin without consent, following the encounter it never seems to be referred to and Blaise implies that part of the reason for this is the inadequacies of her husband as a lover.

Now Blaise is certainly not a hero, no matter how he may perceive himself and it should be said that the character is the narrator and may not be capable of putting his actions in any sort of context. It is certainly not surprising that this character would not be troubled by his actions and there are some possible character-based explanations for her acceptance of this treatment but as his narrative and perception of those events is never challenged and her feelings are never explained, it is left to linger uncomfortably a little like with a comparable scene in Gone With The Wind. At least for me.

Though I found Germaine’s reaction problematic, I can’t deny that their relationship is interesting and it becomes only more so as the novel nears its conclusion. Dard’s plotting is excellent and while I have read enough inverted stories not to be surprised by the conclusion, it is one of the better examples of that type of ending to an inverted mystery. I think fans of noir fiction will also appreciate elements of that ending too.

Dard creates some striking moments in this story and shows an admirable economy in his plotting. The 160 pages seem to whizz by and each plot twist is superbly executed, even if you pick up on clues as to where this story is going. I was left feeling very satisfied by the resolution to the novel and felt that it struck some interesting and, at times, provocative points in terms of its characterizations.

I am interested to try some other works by Dard and if anyone has any recommendations (in English translation, please) I would be very happy to receive them.

Review copy provided by the publisher. The novel is being published by Pushkin Vertigo in the UK on June 28 and in the US on August 28.