Frédéric Dard – The King of Fools (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Pushkin Vertigo, 15.05.2017. Original title La pelouse, 1962
A review by Eugen Kontschenko
“What was better? To be a murderer or a gullible fool?” (Page 145)
The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard begins in the sunny Côte d’Azur, where the story’s protagonist Jean-Marie Valaise spends his vacation after another break-up from his ex-girlfriend Denise. Due to an apparent small mishap, he meets Marjorie, a married Englishwoman, to whom he feels immediately drawn. Despite only having met her briefly, he senses she is unhappy with her husband and foolishly decides to follow her to Edinburgh. But when Jean-Marie arrives in Edinburgh, he realizes that Marjorie has secrets which are as twisted as the dark streets of the city, and equally as liable to ensnare.
The novel does a great job establishing the main characters. Jean-Marie is a relatable and versatile protagonist who, although having good intentions, is constantly pushed to his limits by his failure to correctly understand the parameters of, and even less so to navigate, the puzzling, inscrutable situation he finds himself in, once he leaves the sunny Riviera for the Scottish capital in the North. Edinburgh is for him a maze. An exemplary fall guy and archetypal Crime Noir protagonist, Valaise falls foul of the inscrutable mysteries he is facing. Even though the reader does not always agree with his decisions, his drive and his motivation are always clearly apparent. His transparency and predictability are his downfall. By way of contrast, Marjorie, who in the beginning of the story appears to be an innocent, if unsubtle, seductive flirt, once in Edinburgh turns into a shadowy figure, a mysterious Femme Fatale surrounded by darkness.
The depiction of Edinburgh, dark and eerie, results in the whole city embodying a concealed threat. Like a fly on a white wall, Jean-Marie strongly stands out and is constantly observed by the suspicious locals. But not only do his unfamiliar surroundings hinder the search for Marjorie, they also physically trap him due to an ongoing traffic strike, leaving Jean-Marie with no other option but to stare blankly into the abyss. The sense of a latent malevolence of the place is heightened by the contrast between the British city and the French visitor, and Dard’s exploration of cultural differences.
As in other novels by Dard the story takes its time; once the stage is set, the reader is provided with ever more twists as it picks up the pace. The novel ends with a strong climax, twisting the previous events and making a fool out of the protagonist and the reader. This build up of suspense manages to balance out many weaker points of the narrative, such as several plot holes and inconsistencies. At heart, The King of Fools is another Dard Noir Romance, a book about a love story gone bad, which is charming and engaging far beyond the plot details.