The Gravedigger's Bread
PublisherPushkin Vertigo
Date Published28 June 2018
Price£ 8.99

The Gravediggers' Bread

by Frédéric Dard (translated by David Coward)

A man finds a wallet belonging to an attractive blonde woman who had made a telephone call from a kiosk shortly before he did. It contains her photograph and 8,000 francs, and he decides to look for her in order to return the wallet.


Blaise Delange has come to a provincial town in order to apply for a job – an application that fails – and it is whilst making a telephone call to Paris to arrange his journey home that he sees an attractive blonde woman who has just made a phone call in the kiosk before him. It contains her photograph and 8,000 francs. When he decides to return the wallet it is not because honesty prompts him but because he can't resist seeing her again.

Her name is Germaine Castain, she is 28 years old and is married to the local funeral director, Achille Castain, who is 52. There is a reason for such an age discrepancy, as Germaine explains to Blaise later. She had become pregnant by a young man when still a girl – a situation that had so horrified the two families that the boy was sent abroad, whilst she was persuaded to marry Castain, who immediately arranged for an abortion. The marriage, as she explains to Blaise, has been a disastrous one and she is frequently the victim of beatings at the hands of her husband – a revelation that makes Blaise very angry.

The plot involves almost inevitably the death of Germaine's husband, murdered by Blaise, who cannot bear to see her physically ill-treated, and his subsequent attempts to cover up the murder. Unlike Simenon's Maigret novels, Dard's crime noir work seems never to have been popular in the UK, and this novel goes a long way to explain why. Without giving away any details, Blaise's actions following the murder are almost entirely unbelievable. As he makes the necessary preparations for getting rid of the body he tells us how lucky he is that he finds himself with the time and the opportunity to do so – a conclusion the reader might have reached independently.

Unfortunately, just when the local police and the townsfolk are beginning to accept that Achille Castain will not be coming back and is probably dead, Blaise, acting in what appears to be rather an impulsive manner, decides that he needs to move the body. If the original plan to hide it was, to say the least, rather unconvincing, the subsequent description of its removal is much more so. All the difficulties that would have arisen are simply – and very disappointingly – glossed over.

The two main characters – Blaise and Germaine – also present a problem. Blaise is constantly saying how deeply he loves her – the novel is told in the first person – but somehow it doesn't ring true. The language in which he expresses this deep, undying love is all too predictable. Nor are any details given of how this love shows itself. The two go to bed together fairly frequently and both find it thrilling but that seems to be as far as it goes. Certainly, there is no indication that either – and particularly Blaise – would make a grand gesture of the kind with which the novel ends. They do not seem to have that degree of commitment to make it credible. Perhaps the reason for that is that this is essentially a crime novel which doesn't allow space for the development of a love story. In the end that aspect of the novel is just as unconvincing as the murder and its attempted cover-up.

Reviewed 12 January 2019 by Arnold Taylor