An ingenious thriller, set in Edinburgh, from the master of French noir
From the moment he first gazes at Marjorie across the roulette table in the Cote d’Azur Jean-Marie is entranced, and when their feverish holiday romance comes to an end he decides to take the biggest gamble of his life – to follow the beautiful Englishwoman back to rainy Edinburgh.
But Jean-Marie’s luck runs out as soon as he arrives. His infatuation with Marjorie draws him into an impenetrable mystery and soon he finds himself with blood on his hands, trapped in the grey-granite labyrinth of the city streets, and running out of time to save his sanity and his life. The King of Fools is a fiendish tale of passion, betrayal and murder.
What a delightful day it was when Pushkin Press and Virago teamed up to publish newly translated works of some of the greatest, most iconic crime fiction from around the world together with Pushkin Vertigo Originals which are exciting contemporary crime writing by some of today ’s most accomplished authors. Frédéric Dard is the master of French Noir and The King of Fools is a lovely read.
Originally published in 1952, The King of Fools begins in Juan-les-Pins, but most of the action takes place in Edinburgh which was a delightful surprise for me as I had not been expecting that at all.
Jean-Marie Valaise is an adding machine salesman (you can tell that Dard has not troubled to make him interesting or mysterious from this fact alone.)
He is in Nice on holiday following one of his sporadic break ups from his on- off long-term girlfriend, Denise. He muses to himself that his life is going nowhere “Like the water, my life bore the traces of rust in the pipework”.
Then, by chance he meets a young Englishwoman, herself on holiday and the two exchange a few words over a mistaken car.
Later, idling away his time in the local casino, he sees a rather beautiful woman and discovers, much to his surprise, that this is the same woman who earlier had mistaken his car for her own.
The two are drawn together and though nothing seriously untoward occurs, this is the start of a mutual infatuation that engulfs them both. But Marjorie is married and about to set off for a holiday in Scotland with her husband. It is clear to Jean-Marie that hers is not a happy marriage and when he asks if he might write to her, he is thrilled by her enthusiastic response.
Correspondence ensues and on impulse, driven by his passion and romantic feelings, he sets off for Edinburgh in the midst of a major travel strike to find Marjorie and try and persuade her to come away with him.
What follows is a nicely drawn portrait of a man who considers himself to be worldly, but who is in fact both naïve and hopelessly romantic. The tale has tension, duplicity, murder and a degree of mayhem as Jean-Marie and Marjory conspire to enable her to escape the clutches of her husband, Nevil.
The portrayal of 1950’s Edinburgh is fascinating in itself – Dard sees it as a bit of a granite grim place, full of badly dressed people, usually raining and with tourist coaches being met by tartan kilt wearing pipers. (I think he had visited). His description of the Learmonth Hotel is pitch perfect. I enjoyed too, the dour Scottish policeman, Brett who is charged with unravelling the heinous crime committed in Princes Street Gardens.
Not a lengthy read, The King of Fools is a beautifully told tale with a dark underside and a witty ending. I really enjoyed it.
The King of Fools was published by Pushkin Virago on 4th May 2017.
About Frédéric Dard
Frédéric Dard (1921-2000) was one of the best known and loved French crime writers of the twentieth century. Enormously prolific, he wrote hundreds of thrillers, suspense stories, plays and screenplays throughout his long and illustrious career.
As one of France’s most popular post-war thriller writers, it may come as no surprise that Dard’s own life was itself full of interesting facts and events.
As one of the most prolific French writers of the post-war era, Dard authored 284 thrillers over the course of his career and sold over 200 million copies of his work in France alone. The actual number of titles that can be attributed to him is somewhat under dispute as he adopted at least seventeen noms de plume, including the mysterious l’Ange Noir and the seemingly breakfast cereal inspired Cornel Milk.
One of Dard’s greatest influences was the renowned crime writer Georges Simenon. Over the course of Dard’s career, a mutual respect grew between the two writers and Simenon agreed to let Dard adapt one of his books for the stage.
Dard peppered his work with the numerous words and phrases that he loved to invent. Over the course of his career, he dreamt up so many new words and phrases that a San-Antonio Dictionary – named after his most famous protagonist – was created to catalogue them all.
Dard drew heavily on his own life’s experiences for inspiration to fuel his enormous output of three to five novels a year. In 1983, his daughter was kidnapped and held prisoner for 55 hours before being ransomed back to him for two million francs; he admitted that the experience traumatised him forever, but he used it as material for a later novel nonetheless. Toward the end of his life, he is reported to have remarked that his only regret was that he would not be able to write about his own death.