The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

Earlier this year, I read and loved Bird in a Cage, a devilishly clever noir by the French writer Frédéric Dard. Originally published in 1956, The Executioner Weeps is my second Dard – and thankfully it’s just as intriguing as the first.

The novella is narrated by native Frenchman Daniel Mermet, a moderately successful artist who has travelled to a seaside town near Barcelona for a holiday. One night, as Daniel is driving alone in a remote part of the Spanish countryside, a beautiful young woman steps out of nowhere in front of his car – Daniel is travelling too fast to stop, so he hits the woman, crushing her violin case in the process. The incident marks a turning point in Daniel’s life, the full significance of which only becomes apparent much later in the story. Nevertheless, there is a sense of foreboding right from the start, particularly in the series of thoughts that flash through Daniel’s mind in the seconds before impact.

The instantaneousness of thought is remarkable. In less than a second I’d asked myself a whole lot of questions about my imminent victim. I found time to wonder who she was, what she was doing at that hour on that deserted road carrying a violin case, and especially why she’d deliberately thrown herself under the wheels of my car. But most particularly I’d asked myself another more secret, more human question: how many sins was I about to rack up with this disaster? At that time of night, there’d be no witnesses to testify that it was a case of suicide. (p. 10)

Believing the woman to be largely unharmed, Daniel decides to take her back to his motel where she can rest for the night – and besides, as he doesn’t speak the local language, involving the authorities at this stage might turn out to be problematic.

When the woman wakes up the next morning, it becomes clear that she is suffering from a case of amnesia – her knowledge of a past or present life is non-existent. In the absence of any formal papers, the only clues to her identity are a handkerchief embroidered with the letter ‘M’ and her clothes which carry the label of a dressmaker based in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris.

In an effort to help the woman uncover her background, Daniel contacts the French consul and the local police, but neither seems interested in pursuing the case. After all, there’s nothing to prove that she is definitely a French citizen or a missing person – and if her family are worried, surely they will initiate any necessary enquiries themselves?

Meanwhile, Daniel finds himself falling in love with this sweet-natured woman who by now has developed an affinity with the name ‘Marianne’. As their relationship blossoms, the couple spend long lazy days together in the idyllic surroundings of Castelldefels, enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company as they live their lives in the moment – so much so that Daniel begins to dread someone coming along in search of Marianne as this would almost certainly bring an end to his happiness. To Daniel, Marianne represents beauty and purity, qualities he hopes to capture in her portrait which he sets out to paint. Nevertheless, while the finished painting is a technical success, there is something rather unnerving about it. Albeit subconsciously, Daniel’s brushstrokes have revealed a curious look in Marianne’s eye, a sinister glint that seems to hint at some unknown element in her personality.

I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her; it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity. (p.48)

Much as Daniel would like to remain in a secluded dream world with Marianne, two things come together to force his hand. Firstly, he hears that his work is to be exhibited in the US, a development that will require him to travel to the country in question to support the event. If he is to attend, then Marianne must come too – but without a confirmed identity, how on earth will she be able to travel?

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, Daniel finds that he cannot separate himself from the mystery of Marianne’s past, especially once certain clues about this period start to emerge. In particular, he is haunted by some unanswered questions about his lover’s former life. Why did Marianne appear to throw herself at his car that night on the road? Who or what was she trying to escape from? With the fear of the unknown gnawing away his heart, Daniel decides to travel to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the hope of uncovering the truth for himself. What he finds there is truly devastating, both shocking and heartbreaking – so much so that he is forced to see Marianne in a completely different light.

She’d seemed so distant, so far away, in the white-painted Casa and on the wide beach lit by an infernal sun. I saw her, so to speak, through the wrong end of a telescope. She was tiny, out of my reach. There was a whole world between us. I’d just crossed the frontier to the land of her past and it was just as if I was now watching her from a point inside her old life. (p. 86)

The Executioner Weeps is both a dark mystery and an intriguing love story, the two strands coming together to form a highly compelling whole. Like Bird in a Cage, it is another of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, an unsettling noir with a distinct psychological edge – the pace really steps up a gear in the final third as the net starts to close in on Daniel’s world.

Stylistically this is a beautifully-written book, shot through with an undeniable sense of tragedy and loss, a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. In essence, Daniel is caught between his desire to cling on to his idealised vision of Marianne – an image typified by her apparent tenderness and beauty – and his fear of having to confront the emerging darkness in her past. I’ll finish with a final quote from a relatively early point in the novella, one that hints at some of the unsettling developments to come – Daniel is just about to paint Marianne’s picture for the first time.

There’s nothing more terrifying for a painter than a blank white canvas. It’s like a window that opens onto infinite possibilities. A window from which the most disturbing metamorphoses may emerge. (p. 42)

This is my contribution to Richard’s Literature of Doom event – now extended to cover French ‘Doom’ as well as the Argentinian and Russian varieties. Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Executioner Weeps is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

30 thoughts on “The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent news. I think you’d like this a lot. It’s more mysterious than Bird in a Cage but still very compelling. Dard is turning out to be a terrific find for Pushkin, such a vast body of work to explore.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s certainly worth trying for sure. That’s a great way of expressing his style. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about his books it’s to expect the unexpected – he’s the master of the surprise twist.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Super review Jacqui. I need to give some books like this a try.

    The plot of this one sounds so interesting. Amnesia can be such a good plot device.

    I love the quote about blank white canvas. The metaphor works so well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Great quote, isn’t it? An ominous sign of things to come…

      If you’d like to try something in this vein, I would recommend either Dard or Simenon (particularly his romans durs or ‘hard’/psychological novels as opposed to the Maigret series). Guy has reviewed a whole bunch of them, so it’s worth taking a look at his site if you’re interested.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. The tone is very effective in this one as the sense of tragedy/loss really draws the reader into the story. One cannot help but wonder what terrible secrets lie hidden in this woman’s past…

      Reply
  2. realthog

    A mouthwatering account as always, Jacqui! It looks as if our library system here in the stix of NJ has finally heard of Dard, so I’ve put in orders for the couple they now deign to own . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. Hooray for the library, that’s great to hear! I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with Dard. He’s definitely a writer I would recommend to you, especially given your interest in vintage noir. Kudos to Pushkin Press for unearthing him after all these years…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, while the first half of the book is very intriguing it tips into much darker territory towards the end. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something in a similar vein to Simenon.

      Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’m telling you, you will be turning me into a “noir” reader. I feel like I need to read this ASAP. Although I am wondering, why do people always think it’s a good idea to take a person they don’t know back to their hotel room? :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! The premise is very intriguing, I have to admit. :) And yes, I know what you mean about inviting strangers back to your room. There were times when I wanted to shout to Daniel “Don’t do it! Just walk away right now.” You know from the start that the situation is going to end in some serious trouble.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. It’s great to see Pushkin investing in him in this way. He was pretty prolific during his lifetime, so there must be plenty of scope for future releases.

      Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    I’ll echo others and say that it does sound fantastic. I loved Bird in a Cage but I already have copies of Crush and of The Wicked go to Hell so it’ll be a while before I get to this. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it when I do though.

    Go Pushkin Vertigo! As you say, they’ve made a definite find with Dard.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They sure have. He’s turned out to be a great ‘discovery’. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this one too whenever you have a chance to get to it. Guy likened it to Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo which is a great reference point. There’s a similar sense of wish fulfilment on the part of the protagonist especially once he starts to fall for Marianne…

      Reply
  5. bookbii

    I’m not a huge fan of noir, but this sounds really excellent and those quotes display writing which is suspenseful and clever, setting a dark and interesting tone. Pushkin are another press that seem to have a knack for unearthing great books. Lovely review as always, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. It’s a really intriguing novel as it combines the lightness of a love story (albeit a fairly mysterious one) with the darkness of a noir. The writing is excellent too, very compelling. Pushkin are great, uber-reliable – they always seem to bring something interesting to the table.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, that’s very interesting. I’ve looked at The Blue Room in the past – it might even be on an old wishlist somewhere. One for the future, I suspect…

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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