Bird in a Cage
By Frédéric Dard
Translated by David Bellos
Out 2 June from Pushkin Vertigo; £6.99 paperback
French speakers already know, but the rest of us monoglots might not, that Frédéric Dard (1921-2000) was a fantastically popular crime writer responsible for hundreds of thrillers, suspense stories, plays and screenplays, written under a portfolio of names. His books sold more than 200 million copies. (Pause to do those sums.)
New from Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint (launched last autumn and dedicated to publishing 20th century crime classics from around the world), is Dard’s 1961 novel Bird in a Cage, translated by David Bellos.
If you’re a fan of Film Noir, you’ll love Bird in a Cage. Set in Paris, and taking place almost entirely on Christmas Eve, it features a terse, hard-boiled narrator called Albert. He’s a man with a troubled past who returns to his old neighbourhood after many years’ absence. On his first night back, unwilling to sit alone in his late mother’s empty flat amid the memories and ghosts, he heads off for a wander.
Naturally he meets a dame — a beautiful young woman dining out with her daughter. After a bit of cat and mouse, and a trip to the cinema, he goes back to hers, and there the mystery gets truly tense. There is a body. There isn’t a body. A second man enters the picture. Rooms seem to re-arrange themselves. We discover that Albert has a distinctly dark past — but does his potential paramour have an entirely clean slate herself?
Taut, unadorned prose propels this short novel to a conclusion that only seems obvious once it’s unfolded. Until then, nobody and nothing is what it seems. The finale is a classic reversal, proving that no sucker gets an even break.
On the basis of this wee taster, Dard’s an author I’ll be investigating more thoroughly. And if all the novels in the Vertigo series are this good, I predict I’ll be needing more bookshelves.