Frédéric Dard – The Executioner Weeps (translated by David Coward, Pushkin Vertigo, 09.03.2017, original title Le bourreau pleure, 1956)
A BOOK REVIEW BY EUGEN KONTSCHENKO
“And then suddenly everything had changed. Yes, everything, and all on the account of that supine figure which had come out of the night and leapt into the bright lights of my car.” (Page 10)
Thus begins the highly popular French crime noir author Frédéric Dard’s prize-winning novel The Executioner Weeps. The book follows the story of Daniel Mermet, a famous French painter, who is on vacation in Francoist Spain when he accidentally hits a young and beautiful woman with his car. The woman survives, but Mermet soon discovers that she has lost her memory. Taking care of her, Daniel falls in love with the mysterious stranger and goes on a quest to France to gather information on her past – a past full of lies and vice and horror, which would be better forgotten.
The novel is a dark psychological thriller that hides under the blanket of a love story. Dard uses a blurring of genres to great effect to create a suspenseful story; a story that provides plenty of twists and surprises as it unfolds. Daniel is a likeable protagonist but his infatuation soon takes a dark and complex turn. While he seems to identify with the part he plays when taking good care of the amnesic woman and falling in love with her, there is also something sinister and obsessive in his attentions. Dard plays cruel games with the reader who finds it easy, initially, to identify with Mermet, whose actions seem comprehensible and motivated by altruism, however misguided and catastrophic they turn out to be. The novel’s sunny Spanish setting creates a strange contrast with the growing darkening of the character’s outlook, and the subsequent discoveries made in a gloomy mansion in a western suburb of Paris; beautiful landscapes, wide open beaches contrast with a gradual sense of threat and entrapment, and the presence of Franco’s police. The love story set in Spain soon evolves into something more terrifying and with elements of the gothic. The book is full of intriguing plot twists and suspenseful developments, and Dard is a master at showing things simultaneously, but from different sides, creating a sense of uncertainty and dread in even the most innocuous of circumstances. Giving the reader one clue after another, he moves the events forward very carefully, starting with minor details and becoming more and more intense and brutal towards the end. The fact that the novel takes its space to establish a setting and gives the reader enough time to get to know the characters, before, twist after twist, crushing their lives in a classical crime manner is one of the plot’s great strengths.
While Dard takes great pleasure in describing the situations in detail, some of the passages do feel a bit rushed from time to time. Sometimes Dard provides a solution which seems just a tad too easy for the problem, but this never actually takes from the interest of the story. Rather, it suggests that the focus of the author lies elsewhere, or that he relies on his formidable skill as a storyteller to take the reader just about anywhere he pleases. A more serious problem with the story is that not all aspects seem to stand the test of time. Certainly the pleasure one takes from reading it today is linked to the fact that the novel is typical of French crime novels of the 1950’s. The lost world they recreate comes complete with the worldview that inhabited it. But the depiction of women in Le Bourreau Pleure feels very dated and from today’s point of view over-sexualized. This begins immediately when Mermet after hitting the woman with his car, begins to admire her beauty before even thinking to get her to the doctor. The modern reader begins soon to worry, and to wonder why he constantly sees the unknown woman as his possession. She is driven and displaced, treasured and hidden as if she was a precious commodity; the narrator takes a suspicious delight in her dependence, which after a while looks like enslavement. His part as her guardian and protector does not leave her any room for agency or freedom. He gives away his troubled agenda when he states : “I was living the dream all men have: of loving a woman without a past.” From a 21st century perspective, one really would at the very least beg to differ. Luckily, these moments are rare and far apart which makes it easy to just look over them, but they do leave a bitter taste while reading.
Nonetheless, The Executioner Weeps is a fine, successful and compelling melodramatic crime noir. Despite the flaws already mentioned, it tells a great story full of suspense and intriguing twists. This novel provides newcomers with a good insight into the work of Frédéric Dard and his unsettling world of crime noir. Or, maybe a more apt generic description would be that of noir romance ?