The King of Fools and The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard

Review published on December 2, 2017.

Dard is a secret the French have been keeping to themselves (or more accurately no one had the sense to render his best work into English before). Immensely popular at home (and even in Eastern Europe), these are the first UK translations of his great crime novels and they are rare gems indeed. It’s a thrill to find a writer so good that he clearly ranks alongside the very best exponents of the genre. Remarkably, Dard produced nearly 300 novels in his career, of course most of his output was pulp – including 170+ novels featuring a French James Bond-esque secret agent. However, the series of novels these two stories come from are known as the ‘novels of the night’ and they are very different. Dark psychological tales of murder and consequence that nudge the boundaries of genre and are a cut above the norm. Dard may have been prolific but these literary crime novels are a tour de force of imagination and style. Dard seems to believe in Simenon’s rule of striking out the purple passages leaving a lean and precise prose that motors along at pace and gets the heart going but is still intelligent and insightful. These are short novels, not more than 160 pages and can easily be read in an afternoon (actually, once you start, you will want to finish in one sitting). They are a match for Simenon in terms of plotting and character development and surpass him in tension and intensity (the human tragedy at the heart of both novels is palpable). This is so much better than pulp fiction and it is to Pushkin Vertigo’s credit that they have published six of Dard’s noir classics because these novels should be savoured and lauded with the best of European crime fiction. While Dard was a household name in France it seems incredible that he wasn’t really recognised in Britain during his life time. I really hope these books help to set that straight. Dard was actually the victim of crime himself when his daughter was kidnapped and he had to pay a ransom to get her back, something he later used as a plot.

The King of Fools is a beautifully judged and balanced short novel. A crime story of obsession and deception that is powerful, heart stopping, emotionally intelligent and thought provoking. There are some neat twists, some that you can see coming and one final one that is poetic and elegant. This is the story of Jean-Marie Valaise, captivated by the beautiful English woman whom has stumbled into his life. His desire to be a knight in shining armour is his downfall. Marjory has a sadness about her, a vulnerability that Valaise can’t resist. On a whim he leaves his beautiful girlfriend Denise on the Côte d’Azur and follows Marjory to Scotland. The place is new to him, he is out of his depth, the events that happen are strange and unsettling. All that he has to sustain him is his mad love for the elusive English woman. When her husband is murdered it’s hard to know where the truth lies, this is a tale of shifting sands. As Jean-Marie narrates his tale we are trapped in the nightmare with him.

The Executioner Weeps won the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière in 1957. In it, Daniel Mermet is enjoying a holiday in Spain in the little town of Castelldefels just south of Barcelona. Driving back to the hotel one night he hits a young woman carrying a violin case. He is sure that she deliberately walked in front of him. She is still breathing and so he scoops her up and puts her in the car. Unable to speak Spanish and afraid to contact the police, he takes her to his hotel. The patron Patricio fetches a doctor, a dishevelled looking man who examines the patient, its a slightly creepy moment and the disconcerting tone of the novel is set. Finally the doctor patches her wounds and pronounces nothing serious is wrong with the patient. The following morning Daniel visits the girl to discover that like him she is French. She is shocked and upset to find out she is in Spain. They settle on the name Marianne for her because she can’t remember her name or what happened the night before or anything about her past life. The couple fall in love but her past haunts them. Daniel investigates and what he finds out wounds his heart. The illusion of innocent young lovers with no past is shattered even though the obsession is too strong to give up on. A tragic tale unfolds of a dark past and two people trapped by circumstances destined to catch up with them. Each twist in the tale is a knife in the heart of Daniel Mermet.

The beauty of both these novels is their brevity and depth. The understanding of how the human heart will react in extraordinary circumstances is profound. The male lead characters are vulnerable, disarmed by love, struck by obsession and in both cases face a situation beyond their own control but of their own making, (classical tragedy). The ingenuity of the twists make the plots very satisfying. Valaise and Mermet are honest narrators of their stories, this is both poignant and visceral. The overwhelming sense of ‘no way out’ in both tales overhangs everything. Lovers of Simenon and even Christie will enjoy these tales but they are more frank than English novels of the time when it comes to human relationships. The two novels have very different endings but neither has the smooth and easy finish of the films of the time where the bad guys get their comeuppance and it all works out in the end for the heroes.

These are dramatic and emotional psychological novels with a great feel for character. I was involved and entertained for few hours with each. I cared about the characters very much and I have to go now to find the other books in the series so I can treat myself for Christmas.

Paul Burke 5/3

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782271970 pbk May 2017

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782272564 pbk Mar 2017


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