From the outset, Frédéric Dard’s novel(la) The Gravediggers’ Bread is a sleazy, objectifying piece. On the first page alone, we are awash with references to the “admirable curves” of “the fairer sex” from the perspective of a thoroughly dislikable anti-hero who just has to possess her. It feels like this book is in heat.
The aforementioned man is a drifter named Blaise who is down to his last Franc when he chances upon a bundle of cash and a woman – Germaine. She’s married to another unpalatably overbearing oaf – Castain, her older husband, the local funeral director. Germaine is looking for a way out; Blaise a way in. Signals, like moral lines, were made to be crossed. And so we have ourselves a set-up very similar to James M Cain’s masterful noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (not that that’s a bad thing).
Dard does take the plot for a few nice detours away from Cain’s straighter narrative but that bitter flavour of resentment, repression and dumb men’s lust for femme fatales comes through sharp and gritty like a shovel to dead ground.
And yet, it’s hard to grasp onto any of Dard’s trio of victims and aggressors, never mind feel much love for them, especially when some of the author’s dialogue feels like it’s been filtered through some overly indulgent wheels of camembert instead of going under a brutal editor’s red pen. But maybe that sordid fantasy is what you’re looking for.
Regardless, other passages bristle with intoxicating atmosphere. Whether it’s a “provincial post office that smell of sadness” or “the crushing weight of the cops’ stares on the back of our heads”, Dard is brilliant at describing the unspoken tones of noir – the creeping dread, the red-blooded lust and the vein-bulging tell-tale signs of sin’s smothering aftermaths.
Dard wrote over 300 novels during his storied career so it’s no surprise that some, like The Gravediggers’ Bread, lack polish or a considered feel that other luminaries such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler made their name from. Dard is more urgent than them with his take no prisoners attitude. His are the kind of short novels you can blast through on a train journey, your mind’s eye struggling to match the author’s sprint. Like a missing person: he was there and then, all of a sudden, he was gone. You don’t remember if all of his shirt buttons were done up properly; you are too immersed in the erotic pull of the mystery. It’s far more interesting.
A lurid little thriller for the sinners, Frédéric Dard’s vintage noir The Gravediggers’ Bread is begging to be exhumed and, thanks to the noble efforts of Pushkin Press, it joins a fine miniature collection of his other works already published by their great crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo.
I reviewed another Dard/Pushkin Vertigo title (The Executioner Weeps) right here on the blog so be sure to check that out or just plunge right in with a delicious extract of The Gravediggers’ Bread on the Pushkin site here!