The Gritty Noir of Post-Christian France
The French have a certain way with crime. Famously, during the postwar years, French authors and auteurs took the hard-boiled style of Americans like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, and added nihilism and existentialism to make cool thrillers with the smoothest of jazz soundtracks. This is noir—a French word after all.
However, at least a decade before fedoras and loose cigarettes became standard fare at the cineplex and in cheap paperbacks, a Belgian-turned-Parisian named Georges Simenon created a bulldog-like police official with a fondness for beer, his wife’s cooking, and detective work. Jules Maigret, the culmination of Simenon’s streetwise education as a newspaper reporter, bon vivant, and habitué of Paris’s sensual nightlife, is still regarded as one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. Told in poetically unadorned prose, Simenon’s Maigret novels challenge the pretentious pose of those artists who scoff at craftsmen. They are testimonies to his brilliance as a writer, especially since he often churned out two or more per year.
Simenon’s popularity obviously inspired followers. One such man was Frederic Dard, an aspiring writer originally from the French Alps. Like Simenon, Dard found it hard to stop once he got started. The prolific Dard would eventually publish some 250 books under various aliases. Dard’s most famous creation, the James Bond-esque spy San-Antonio, helped him to sell millions of books in France and become friends with the elder Simenon. Although virtually unknown in the Anglophone world, the British publishing company Pushkin Vertigo is currently trying to introduce Dard to crime fiction aficionados through a series of translations.
Interestingly, Pushkin Vertigo has chosen to translate Dard’s more serious novels rather than his comical San-Antonio tales. These works, which Dard called his “novels of the night,” correspond nicely with Simenon’s “hard” or “tough” novels. Like the man famous for his serial detective, Dard found it necessary to occasionally break out and write bitter, cynical examinations of society’s losers. The protagonists of the “novels of the night” are often victims of circumstance, the helplessly lonely or just people with a lot of bad luck. The situations they find themselves in are invariably complex, with false confessions, wanton acts of violence, and unrequited love being the stock and trade. Rarely are these “novels of the night” cheerful, but some have profound messages.
In The Wicked Go to Hell, a deep cover operation to out a spy turns into a rumination on the power of male bonding and friendship. Such a plot device was fairly common in the hard-boiled yarns of earlier American writers, and yet Dard’s heroes can never seem to get the better of the situation. There’s always something to drag them back to hell. For instance, when the French police official Merins gets sent away to one of France’s toughest prisons by the “Old Man” (interestingly, this is the same name that Hammett gave the boss of his first private eye, The Continental Op), he’s blessed in the name of both God and the Devil. The deep shade of gray is further underlined by the fact that Merins is debriefed while officers in another room try to extract a confession through physical force.
At just 156 pages, The Wicked Go to Hell is a punchy book that aims right for the gut. For a majority of the novel, the reader can’t quite figure out which one is Merins, for the two main prisoners, Frank and Hal, constantly trade accusations back and forth. Locked inside the same cell together (along with a deaf and mute criminal guilty of killing his wife), the two men bicker, do battle, and try to stay clear of Bull, the sadistic chief guard. As designed, the men escape the prison. But in good noir fashion, the plan goes a little awry. Frank is shot in the head and goes in and out of blindness, while Hal’s and Frank’s temporary alliance with a beautiful blond servant leads to two deaths. After being saved by the very spy he had been sent to kill, Merins falls back on the necessity of duty and attempts to shoot his target. He intends to miss. “Destiny…is another word for life’s irony, for the kicks in the teeth it administers when you least expect it,” Merins muses at the novel’s end.
The intensity of Dard’s plots are only matched by the inventiveness of his prose. For French readers, Dard is synonymous with made up words and heavily accented slang that provides a sense of gritty realism. In both Crush and Bird in a Cage, Dard orchestrates masterful shock endings that serve to ossify the bleakness inherent in noir. There is no “Glorious Thirty” in these novels; the French economic miracle of the postwar years fails to permeate the rundown village of Leopoldville or the rainswept suburbs of Paris. Louise Lacroix, the 17-year-old factory girl from the communist family, escapes the pervasive smell of cabbages in order to serve a pair of wealthy Americans assigned to the NATO office in Paris. These Americans, the Rooland family, are the epitome of 1950s kitsch—they drink heavily, listen to Elvis, and own tons of canned food but do not know how to cook a proper dinner. M. Rooland is handsome, however, and in Crush, Louise’s attraction turns fatal.
Dard is at the height of his powers in 1961’s Bird in a Cage. This dizzyingly complex noir is about an ex-con who returns home during Christmas in order to reminiscence about his deceased mother’s final moments. Imbued with this sharp nostalgia, Albert sees a beautiful woman with her daughter in a local restaurant. He decides to follow them to a film, then back to their house. Swimming in a strange brew of bright Christmas lights, heavy rain, and loneliness, Albert willingly locks himself in an invisible cage. He ends the book by leaving his life in another’s hands.
Of his many pseudonyms, “Black Angel” fits Dard’s work the best. His “novels of the night” are inky black portrayals of the desperate riffraff of French society. On another level, misery seemed to shadow Dard throughout his life. Following the collapse of his first marriage, Dard attempted suicide. Then, in 1983, his daughter Josephine was kidnapped and ransomed for two million francs. The culprit proved to be a member of a television crew from Switzerland. He had access to Dard’s personal circle because he was reporting on Dard himself.
For readers approaching Dard for the first time, count yourself lucky. Dard’s version of noir is thoroughly human and lacks the often hard-boiled pose adopted by so many French crime writers. His “novels of the night” contain real people trapped in a web of their own failures. Like many other noir writers, Dard reaffirms the Christian spirit of Dostoyevsky, and yet his Catholic France is no longer very Catholic. With tradition taken away, only noir remains. Dard’s fiction is to look upon a cold world without the cathedral’s candlelight.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance journalist who has been published in The Atlantic, the Weekly Standard, The Smart Set, and other publications.