I will confess that I am quite the fan of the Pushkin Vertigo series that is bringing to my attention a whole host of European crime authors previously unknown to me. With the titles to date being generally compact and slim novellas, for this post I will give you a brief overview of my best discoveries to date…
Being such a confirmed fan of Georges Simenon, I could not believe my utter ignorance of the work of Frederic Dard, whose output in terms of number and quality is widely lauded as the equal of Simenon himself. I thought The Wicked Go To Hell in particular was absolutely outstanding, opening with an unnamed and deniable police officer being instructed to go undercover into gaol to initiate a prison break with a recently confined criminal to infiltrate the organisation the prisoner is affiliated with. Not until the final bloody denouement is the reader in possession of the knowledge as to which character is which when the undercover operation begins, being named merely as Hal and Frank. From the claustrophobic intensity of their initial confinement until their attempted escape and beyond, Dard inveigles us in a bizarre guessing game as to which morally dubious man is which, as each tries to deceive and expose the true identity of the other. From the inherent violence of the institution at the hands of sadistic guards, to their quest for freedom, Dard keeps up this emotionally bleak, and sinister tone, which serves to unsettle the reader consistently throughout. I was quite frankly mesmerised from start to finish, despite the darkness and sense of base evil that the book consistently exhibits, and I loved the aspect of reader participation that Dard so skilfully wove into the tale as we seek to discover the true identity of each man, and the descent into immorality we are all capable of.
Equally, Bird In A Cage was imbued with a tantalising mix of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, as a man returns to Paris at Christmas to mourn, and settle the affairs, of his late mother. He encounters a beguiling woman with her young child, whilst dining out one night who inflames his curiosity, being both attractive and the added mystery of appearing to have bloodstains on her sleeve. When he is enticed to return to her apartment, he becomes embroiled in a sinister and dangerous conspiracy which seeks to unravel his life completely. The emotional intensity of this plot is in evidence from the outset, with the title referring to an innocuous Christmas gift for the child, and the psychological impasse that Albert finds himself in, Dard has constructed a claustrophobic existentialist drama that toys with the reader’s perception, and provides an additional deconstruction of male and female psychological impulses. This is a slim dark tale that is engaging enough, but did slightly lack the psychological edge, and bleak immorality of The Wicked Go To Hell, but is worth seeking out as an initial entry point into Dard’s not inconsiderable back catalogue.
In a change of pace and authorial style, I also read You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames, a novella that runs to 87 pages and soon to be a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix. Joe, a former FBI agent and U. S. Marine, harbouring the memories of an abusive childhood, and the violent events of his recent careers, now has largely dropped out from society, earning a living tracking down and rescuing young girls from the grip of the sex trade. Now he has been hired to save the daughter of a New York senator, held captive in a Manhattan brothel, but finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of conspiracy and violence. Described as a toxic shock of a thriller, this bijou slice of American noir, delivers a real punch to the reader, and I was mightily impressed how much well defined characterisation, and breadth of action, Ames crams into such a minimal page count. Quickly your sympathies for Joe is heightened and from the beginning you are rooting for him, your empathy well and truly put into overdrive as the mental and physical damage he has experienced is put sharply into focus, and there is a real strength to Ames’ writing in passages where Joe indulges in some critical self-examination of his own psyche. The degree of manipulation he experiences in the course of this mission is well wrought, and the violence throughout is swift and uncompromising, making this a real read-in- one-sitting thriller. My only slight bugbear is the slight cynicism of the ending which too obviously paves the way for a potential sequel, and left me a little unsatisfied, but with a cover price of less than a vacuous throwaway magazine there’s still plenty here for your fiver. Recommended.
(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)