Last year, I was introduced to the ‘French master of noir’ Frederic Dard when Pushkin Press’ Vertigo crime imprint released his first title Bird in a Cage. It was a very clever piece of noir and I loved it.

I thought, therefore, it was time to foray into my second Dard novella, and so picked out the latest release – The Gravediggers’ Bread. It was as fascinating as the blurb promised and it is safe to say that Dard has clearly been quite the find for Pushkin Press.

Gravedigger's bread
Pushkin Vertigo Edition

When the book opens Blaise Delange – unemployed and down-on-luck –  is standing outside a phone booth waiting to place a call to his friend. Blaise has arrived in a small town to interview for a job at a rubber factory only to realise that the position has already been taken.

Finally the phone booth opens and a woman emerges from it…

In reality, the person for whom I stood aside was a woman of around thirty, slim, blonde, with blue eyes that were slightly too large.

 If she had lived in Paris she would have possessed the thing she most lacked, namely a certain sense of elegance.

Once Blaise is through with his call, he notices a wallet in the booth, left there by the woman. A closer inspection reveals 8,000 francs, the woman’s identity card, and another man’s photo.

There is nothing to stop Blaise from claiming the money; there’s no one around, he has already lost out on a job opportunity and here is lady luck giving him a consolation prize.

But he cannot get the woman out of his mind. And so rather than keep the money, he decides to return it to her.

Meanwhile, both he and the reader learn that the woman’s name is Germaine Castain and she is married to a man old enough to be her father, Achille Castain.

Achille Castain runs an undertaker business and is the funerals director so to speak.

“I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.”

When Blaise returns the wallet to Germaine, he manages to keep her out of trouble, and somehow also gains Achille’s trust. Achille offers him a job as a salesman, which Blaise accepts.

And that is how Blaise comes to stay in the town becoming quite adept at selling coffins and funeral services being quite the opportunist. It also gives him a chance to stay close to Germaine with whom he has fallen in love.

It gradually comes to Blaise’s realization that all is not hunky dory in Achille and Germaine’s marriage. Also, Germaine is keeping some kind of a secret that annoys Blaise greatly.

That’s the bare outline of the plot and I will not reveal more.

How will Blaise win Germaine over, while she is still married to Achille? How is it all going to end?

At 157 pages, The Gravediggers’ Bread is a tense, taut and riveting novella that keeps you on the edge as the ill-fated pair – Blaise and Germaine – seeks to outrun Fate. But will they succeed?

Dard has etched his characters quite well. He has successfully created an atmosphere that is bleak and claustrophobic and yet compelling and fascinating.

For all that he is unemployed; Blaise displays a flair for his new role as a salesman. There is one scene particularly, which stands out. This is when he accompanies Achille to meet his first client. Achille thinks it’s important to understand the psyche of his clientele, which he believes is the key to figure out what type of coffins will eventually sell. For Blaise that’s a passive strategy. He is bold and outspoken and chooses instead to address their clients’ hidden emotions and aspirations to make a sale.

Blaise is not just blunt and direct in his job, but also when he is conversing with Germaine to whom he frankly tells what’s on his mind. After all, despite his dubious character, he remains strangely a hopeless romantic.

Germaine, meanwhile, marries Achille because of a troubled past. And some bizarre need to stick to scruples makes her hang on to her husband even when he physically abuses her.

Achille Castain is an old brute; vicious, suspicious and a wife beater.

The Gravediggers’ Bread then is classic noir fare – obsession and murder at its heart – and with enough twists and turns (all done rather well) to keep the pages turning and make you race feverishly towards the end.

I loved Bird in a Cage, and thought The Gravediggers’ Bread was even better. I have four more Dards to look forward to and hope the Pushkin Vertigo imprint keeps more translations coming!

Translation credits from the French go to Melanie Florence.

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