Dico Dard, selected by Pierre Chalmin, Fleuve Editions, 2015
Crime literature is judgemental. About crime and evil, of course. But also about places, people, times and the weather. Colourful metaphors and flippant comments have long formed part of the Noir stylistic horizon. Noir was recognised as a style before it was theorised as a genre. Chandler and his Chandlerisms, and Peter Cheyney and his far-fetched simile have contributed to enrich crime fiction with lively dialogues, and memorable pronouncements.
For an author like Frédéric Dard, who devoted more than 40 000 pages to telling the adventures of a fictional character, the legendary Commissaire San-Antonio from the Paris Police, aphorisms are strategic instances. Their laconism and directness contrasts with the profusion of the surrounding text. They emerge from the convoluted detective plot as referential anchors. They impress their own rhythm to the narration. They create a mood, and a mode which influence the reading. Their distance, humour, self deprecation, terseness and provocation are all essential part of the reading experience.
The DicoDard, published last month, puts together an amazingly entertaining selection of one-liners and sometimes lengthier observations excerpted from about 200 books by San-Antonio. Stripped from their Crime Fiction narrative, the chosen sentences exist here in their own right. Can they stand alone, dissociated from the crime investigation circumstances which lead to them ? Can these brief notations and conclusions exist without the reasons that brought them about? Can a series of popular novel be trimmed down to a collection of Maxims ? Can the popular writer who penned them be turned into a moralist ?
The task Pierre Chalmin, the editor of the present compilation, set himself was not so much to present San-Antonio as a heir to the Grand Siècle aphorists, a La Rochefoucauld, or a Pascal. Even though the Preface to the DicoDard was written by Eric Orsenna, a member of the venerable Académie Française, San-Antonio is no classic, and remains a stranger to all forms of academisms. He knows how to write an effective sentence, but he is no sententious writer. The selection and montage of quotes from such a large corpus of texts is inevitably subjective and Chalmin’s San-Antonio probably resembles Chalmin in many ways. He especially resembles Michel Audiard, the great screenwriter and dialoguist. His qualities are his gift of the gab, his spontaneity, and a taste for the inappropriate. Funny, and controversial, the DicoDard shows a crime writer committed to make his readers laugh.
The challenge faced by Chalmin was not to locate gems in the ocean of words constituted by the 200 San-Antonio novels. This is fun. Reading San-Antonio is always rewarding and entertaining. There is no shortage of material there. Rather the opposite. What is more daunting is the time needed to do scan through so many texts. It might be frustrating in terms of reading, too. Filtering through a text for the gold of quotable statements and pithy comments on any subject involves a sort of distant reading. But this one had to be carried out by a human reader. There are no automatized research tools for witticism.
There are some dull moments, in over 50 years of San-Antonio production, yes. But every page of every book contains at least one line destined to make the reader smile. And it often makes them laugh loudly. The success of the Dico Dard lies in its carefully constructed rhythm and variety of topics covered. 3000 punchlines thrown at the reader could leave them dazzled. Not here. They are so alert, and well-chosen, that they can be read one after the other, without tiring. This reviewer read the Dico Dard’s 700 pages in one sitting, and laughed throughout.