Frédéric Dard – The Wicked go to Hell (translated by David Coward), Pushkin Vertigo, 06.08.2016. Original title Les salauds vont en enfer, 1956
A review by Eugen Kontschenko
“I hope the good Lord above will be with you… Either the good Lord… or the Devil, because hell is where you’re going!” (Page 14)
The novel The Wicked go to Hell by Frédéric Dard has had a long journey. First written as a play, it was later adapted as a movie and only after that became a novel. It tells a gritty story about an undercover cop who is sent to jail to gather information from a spy. In order to get closer to and befriend each other, they are forced to share a cell. Sensing an upcoming opportunity, the two inmates named Frank and Hal plan an escape. Even though each is suspicious of the other, they form a bizarre bond as they flee from prison in search of a suitable hideout. But who is the cop and who is the spy?
The Wicked go to Hell is an intense and thrilling read. It starts with a prologue in which the premise is set: the police chief talks to the unnamed cop about his undercover mission. After that, the novel immediately sets off with the two men being taken into custody in a tough, rat-infested prison in France. Not stating who the cop and who the spy is, the witty narration is able to spark the reader’s curiosity as it provides the reader with enough to question the authenticity of each Frank and Hal. With some fast-paced narration and several twists along the way, the story is able to engage until the very end.
Frank and Hal form an odd friendship; even though each is full of dislike and distrust, they still protect and provide for each other. Their relationship is a constant battle: even when they are not throwing fists at one another, they try to prove their dominance by outdoing the other in dialogue. Though the balance of power seems fairly equal at first, it drastically changes once one of them gets wounded during the escape, forcing the other to take care of him. This makes the further events more intense, as the fine line between loyalty and deception is carried to the extremes. The difference between cop and spy becomes blurred, until only the depiction of two men fighting for their lives remains.
Dard tries to explore what exactly makes people good or bad. Can a convicted felon be a good person, if he takes care of his friend? Admittedly, the novel fails to provide a fitting answer, as both Frank and Hal are shown in the worst way possible. Between reoccurring bloody fist fights, a highly violent prison escape and constant fantasies and attempts of rape, the two are rarely shown from a positive side. To maintain the playful mystery of who-is-who, the novel does not characterize the partners in crime very deeply. But since either of them could be a criminal, this does not undermine the story excessively, as the focus is more on their relationship than on the individuals. Still, the reader does not feel sympathy for either one. Instead of providing appealing characters that let people pick sides and cheer on either Frank or Hal, the story is driven by curiosity about identity and the atmosphere of existential angst thrives on a sense of deep moral ambiguity.
Nonetheless, The Wicked go to Hell is a fun and gripping book for any fan of dark and grimy stories. The prison is eerie, the action hard-hitting and the obscure friendship very compelling. Dard provides us with a fast-paced mystery thriller about two inmates who become adversaries, only to discover that beneath every rivalry lies a strange respect for the other.