Frédéric Dard: C’est toi le venin (You’re the Poison) (1957)

I have no idea why I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard novels so far. Possibly, because in France his standalone novels are a bit overshadowed by his San-Antonio series, which never tempted me. Or because he was so prolific that I had no clue where to start. He wrote at least 280 novels, twenty plays, and sixteen adaptations for the cinema. There was one novel, however, I always meant to read because it has been made into a movie (Toi, le venin – Night is Not For Sleep aka Blonde in a White Car), of which my dad was very fond. He even had a single of the film music. That’s why I chose this book over all the many others that sounded just as good and also over all those already translated into English.

Ces’t toi le venin, which I would translate as “You’re the poison” tells the story of Victor Menda. Victor Menda, a young man of twenty-eight years, is down on his luck. He has no job, no money, no relatives, no friends and serious dept at the casino. The story’s set on the Côte d’Azur and at the beginning we see Menda walk along the sea, contemplating suicide. He eventually decides against this drastic measure and takes a walk along the water. Suddenly a car stops. A woman’s at the steering wheel and demands that he join her. Menda does as he’s told. He’s intrigued and wants to see the woman’s face but a scarf hides it. She finally stops again and wants to have sex with him. Although he finds this openly demanding behaviour a tad intimidating and even revolting, he still accepts. When she finally boots him out again, there’s nothing else he can do but write down her number plate.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given away too much of the plot, as what I just summarized doesn’t take up more than a few pages. The story as such begins when Menda finds the owner of the car. The car belongs to Hélène, the older of two very beautiful and rich sisters who own a huge villa near Nice. The younger sister, Ève, sits in a wheelchair since the age of thirteen. The young girl develops a massive crush on Menda and so the older one begs him to stay with them. Unfortunately, Menda falls in love with the older one.

It soon becomes obvious that things are not as they should. There’s someone using the car at night but it doesn’t seem to be Hélène. Other strange things happen, which alert Menda.

The atmosphere and the mood in the novel get darker and darker. At first Menda thinks, he’s struck gold, but soon he can’t shake off the feeling of being trapped and used. Someone is playing cat and mouse with the people living at the villa. Is it one of them or someone from outside?

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

I’m a sucker for books set on the Côte d’Azur, but even if Dard had chosen another setting, I would have enjoyed this book a lot.

I hope to watch the movie soon, until then, I’ll listen to the score. It’s captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

While C’est toi le venin hasn’t been translated yet, some of Dard’s other novels have been published by Pushkin Press in their Vertigo series.

 

 

Pascal Garnier: La place du mort (1997) – The Front Seat Passenger (2014)

The Front Seat Passenger

I’ve seen French crime writer Pascal Garnier mentioned on so many blogs that I could no longer resist and had to read him. La place du mortThe Front Seat Passenger seemed like a good choice as it’s short and the story sounded intriguing.

Fabien loses his wife in a car accident. Until that day he thought they were fairly happy. At least as happy as you can be when you’ve been married for a long time and have taken the other one for granted. Still, finding out she wasn’t alone in that car but with her married lover comes as a bit of a shock. While he may not be mourning her, he’s outraged and comes to the conclusion: If that guy took my wife – I’m going to take his widow. And he starts to pursue the other man’s wife, follows her, observes her, enters her apartment.

After his wife’s death he moves in with his divorced friend Gilles. Both men are unemployed and spend their days playing with Gilles’ small son, looking out of the window, smoking pot. Their playful cohabitation is often interrupted by Fanchon, Gilles’ ex-wife, who doesn’t think it’s funny that the two men behave as if the weren’t any older than her small kid. It’s a hilarious set up.

Fabien is anything but likable. He’s sarcastic, frustrated, acerbic. His comments and observations are a lot of fun. Not everything is amusing though. He may be astute when it comes to others, but he doesn’t seem to have a good feeling for himself and so, after a while, the reader feels uneasy.

The writing is surprisingly good, placing this crime novel firmly among the more literary of its kind. I really liked how he included small details – like the movements of pigeons on a windowsill, for example.

The first hundred pages of this book were really excellent but unfortunately from then on it went downhill. What started as a great contemporary French crime novel turned into a Hollywood plot. Think “Misery” with a twist. I have no idea why Garnier chose to flush his original story down the toilet. I can’t imagine he couldn’t come up with another idea for an ending, so it must have been a deliberate choice. I’m just not sure why.

Not one of the other reviews I read had a problem with the end. I have to admit, the writing is so good, that I, too, was tempted to forgive the end but I failed.

Because the first hundred pages were outstanding,  I’ll be reading more of him. I just hope the next book will not be such a mixed bag.

Here are two more favourable reviews by Guy here and Emma here.

On Jacques-Pierre Amette’s Le Lac d’Or, Léo Malet’s New Mysteries of Paris and Eugène Sue’s Mysteries of Paris

Unfortunately there is no English translation of Amette’s excellent crime novel Le Lac d’Or whose title is the name of a Chinese restaurant that is an important refuge for the main character in this book and aptly indicates the setting, Chinatown in Paris. Only one of Amette’s numerous books – the Goncourt Prize winning  Brecht’s Lover  or La Maîtresse de Brecht – has been translated so far.

It’s a pity as Le Lac d’Or (2008) is a great read and it’s no wonder he has been compared to Léo Malet and Georges Simenon. Like Malet’s Fog on the Tolbiac BridgeBrouillard au Pont de Tolbiac, Amette’s novel is deeply rooted in the 13th Arrondissment. Place d’Italy, Pont de Tolbiac, Chinatown. It’s not one of my favourite arrondissements but it’s a part of Paris nonetheless. In any case, the 13th is one of those arrondissements that hasn’t any tourist appeal. It is an area with many atypically high buildings, concrete passageways, bridges and as said before, Paris’ Chinatown. But not even Chinatown is very picturesque.

At the heart of the novel is police inspector Barbey who has to investigate the murder of a prostitute. Chloë wasn’t a simple prostitute, she was a police informant and his ex lover. Why they split is not clear as they seem to have been made for each other, what is clear however is that the separation still hurts him, even some years later.

At the time of her murder Chloë was informing on a group of gangsters who regularly rented a few rooms in a hotel in the 13th. They have plenty of reasons why they would want Chloë dead. Reasons and opportunity.

The ending is not what one would expect but it isn’t completely surprising either. Amette’s strength is the description of a lesser known Paris and his likable but sad and exhausted inspector. There were a few interesting bits on the murder of a prostitute and that people think far less in terms of victim when the person who has been murdered was a prostitute. The most important aspect however is that this book is rooted in a tradition that started with Eugène Sue’s Mysteries of Paris.

The book put me in the mood to read some of the Léo Malet titles I haven’t read yet, one of which the afore-mentioned Brouillard sur le Pont de Tolbiac – Fog on the Tolbiac Bridge. Or Eugène Sue. Malet followed Eugène Sue’s famous Les mystère de ParisMysteries of Paris, calling his series the “new mysteries of Paris”. Each of his short and taut books is dedicated to another Parisian arrondissement.  I liked all of those I read. He captures the places well, the stories are interesting, the tone is unique.

If you look for a Paris-set series in English, then I’ve heard that Cara Black is quite good but I haven’t tried her yet. I think she also changes arrondissements from one book to the other.

Have you read Léo Malet or Eugène Sue? Or Amette’s Brecht’s Lover?

This post is my first contribution to Karen’s and Tamaras‘s event Paris in July.