The Gravediggers’ Bread by Frédéric Dard

Review published on July 14, 2018.

The Gravediggers’ Bread opens with a wry comic tone as we enjoy Blaise’s jaundiced view of the world, he is a deeply cynical character. As that fades and the dark tale of secret obsessions progresses, it all becomes more disturbing. The Gravediggers’ Bread is an homage to The Postman Always Rings Twice, with more than a nod to Double Indemnity, it’s clear Dard took inspiration from Cain’s writing. Only don’t think this is mere copying because there are a couple of sophisticated plot shifts and character dynamics that make this an original thriller. It has much more wit than Cain or any of his French contemporaries. The Gravediggers’ Bread has a tone and style all of its own. The wiring is fast paced, taut and spare and the novel is loaded with insight into the way people think and act when they are in love and when they feel betrayed.

According to his Parisian friend Fargeot, Blaise is a pessimist, but Fargeot isn’t the one who took an early train to the provinces in search of a job vacancy that has already been filled. Blaise phones Fargeot from the little town post office to say he will be back in the city on the next train. But before he leaves the booth he discovers a wallet on the floor. It contains a photograph of the beautiful, if dishevelled, blond woman who used the phone just before him. It also has ff 8,000 (a lot when you are unemployed), a photo of a man and an address. As he looks at the photo of the woman he decides to do the decent thing and return the wallet. “With hindsight I think my crisis of conscience owed more to the town than to Germaine Chastain. I needed to create a happy memory to combat the dissolution aroused in me by this smug little place.” Monsieur Chastain chides his wife for losing her wallet but he doesn’t see that Blaise has pocketed the photo of the man because it is not the husband. Chastain, much older than his wife, offers Blaise a job at his undertaking firm as a salesman. “The good thing about our profession is that we’re protected against unemployment, you see. Of course, we had a little dip when penicillin came along….” he says. All the time Blaise is avoiding Germaine, but that night she comes to his hotel to thank him and to ask a favour. She wants him to deliver a message to her lover, explaining that her husband won’t let her leave the house the next day to meet him. Blaise confesses that after a few short hours he thinks he is in love with Germaine, “You may or may not believe me, but jealousy was gnawing at my insides….” Already the presence of a lover in the nearby village of Pont-de-l’Air has complicated The Postman Always Rings Twice scenario but be ready for more twists and turns.

Blaise and Germaine have a complex relationship, the guilt/remorse theme derived from Therese Raquin is subverted as the story develops. Other characters can be difficult, also complex, just when you begin liking someone they do something unpleasant and shake your faith in them. The story has real psychological depth and a sense of poetic justice. Very noir in the American tradition, much more frank and open in the French tradition. The prose is spare, as I have said but so much is packed into this small novel of less than 160 pages.

This is the fifth Dard novel to be translated into English for Pushkin Vertigo in the last two years and each of them is a real treat. Dard is often described as a disciple of Simenon, but heretical as it may sound, I prefer Dard. He has a unique take on events and is a consummate storyteller. How these novels were not translated when published, in this case in 1956, is a mystery I can’t fathom because they are so damn good. These novels rank among the best of French crime fiction. If you are a fan of Cain or Simenon you will love Dard.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Gravediggers’ Bread by Frédéric Dard
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782272014 Jun 2018

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