A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
Then I went and sold the butcher a stupendous coffin lined with silk, which would have made someone who loved comfort positively want to die! (P. 145)
Blaise Delange is down on his luck. Without a job or money, he finds himself in a small town in the French countryside far from his home in Paris. The only thing keeping him from leaving this miserable nest is a mysterious blonde woman, whose bulging purse he finds on the ground. Fascinated by this unknown beauty, he discovers that she is in fact the local undertaker’s wife, and proceeds to return her lost possessions. Impressed by his apparent honesty, the undertaker offers him a job as his assistant. Even though Delange has neither the interest for nor any experience in the gravedigger’s trade, his desperate financial situation and growing interest in the undertaker’s young wife mean he accepts.
What follows is a story of jealousy and passion, with a deadly sting at the end. Delange, whose surname is a misnomer and evokes a genealogy of titles and characters in Dard’s bibliography, establishes himself as a ruthless and pragmatic coffin salesman and wins the trust of his employer. But in secret he longs to be alone with the beautiful Germaine and starts to wonder if his trusting adversary must live forever…
Typical for Dard’s narrative style, the story unfolds slowly with a rounded establishing of the characters and the compelling setting in the French provincial town. As the narrative progresses, however, the novel picks up pace and thrills with a variety of plot twists and unsuspected turns in the story, that make up for the familiar formula of a tale, which, as Dominique Jeannerod noted in his Foreword to the Omnibus edition of Dard’s Novels of The Night (2014), is strongly reminiscent of James Cain’s The Postman always rings twice (1934).
Indeed, Dard’s novel is not a classic whodunit, but rather a noirish study of the psychology of the criminal and his efforts to escape justice in the tradition of Cain, but also of the likes of A.P Herbert´s House by the River (1920) or Anthony Berkleey’s The Second Shot (1930). Like Herbert or Berkeley, Dard offers a thrilling view into a criminal mind; one that cares little about others, and seems to lack even a shred of a conscience. In some cases, ranging from the cultured and sympathetic Tom Ripley (1955) from Patricia Highsmith’s series, to Walter White’s compelling downward spiral in Breaking Bad (2008) the perspective of the criminal can be presented so well that we as readers find it easy to identify with even the most horrible of criminals. In The Gravediggers’s Bread though, easy identification is not so forthcoming. Blaise Delange as the autodiegetic narrator establishes himself as a thoroughly unlikeable character, whose evident misogyny and social Darwinism make it hard for the modern reader to identify with his struggles to escape the consequences of his crimes.
But as a saving grace, Dard´s novel is still compelling if you don’t root for the protagonist, but rather hope that he finds his well-deserved downfall. If not for his crimes, then for his unbearable personality. If you can see through this flaw The Gravediggers’s Bread is a quick and enjoyable read for fans of the classic crime genre, with an interesting setting, a familiar but exciting theme and several well-placed plot twists.