Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Vertigo; 128 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by David Bellos.
Crime novellas don’t get more slick and out-and-out gripping than Frédéric Dard’s Bird in a Cage.
First published in 1961, this cleverly plotted tale has recently been reissued in English translation by Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint, which has two more of Dard’s novellas — The Wicked Go to Hell and Crush — on its list and a third one, The Executioner Weeps, on the way.
Apparently he was quite the prolific writer, having penned hundreds of thrillers, suspense stories, plays and screenplays during his career, before his death in 2000.
Dark and twisty turns
Bird in a Cage is one of those brilliant crime books that is full of so many dark and twisty turns and unexpected revelations that you begin to question your own sanity. The further I got drawn into this thrilling tale, the more my questioning mind went into overdrive. Did I miss a clue? Where *is* this story going? What’s going to happen next? Who do I trust here? This isn’t going to end well, is it? Someone’s going to slip up here, aren’t they? And so on, and so forth.
The story revolves around a 30-year-old man returning to his childhood home in Paris after a long absence. It’s Christmas Eve, a time when everyone is supposed to be enjoying themselves with family and friends, but Albert’s mother has died and he feels her loss keenly.
To distract himself, he heads out to a local brasserie for a quiet meal, and while there he catches the eye of a beautiful young woman eating out with her daughter. An unspoken connection is made and he follows her home — more by accident than design.
The woman is aware she’s being followed and issues an unexpected invitation: would he like to come up to her apartment for a Christmas drink?
Albert’s decision, of course, is a fatalistic one — but not in the way you might expect.
Who to trust?
The curious mystery that unfolds has Albert wondering if he might, in fact, be delusional, which is exactly the same kind of “trick” the author plays on his readers. For with each turn of the page you find yourself wondering what *exactly* is going on. Can you trust the narrator? Can you trust the beautiful woman? Why does she have two drops of blood on her sleeve? And why is she so keen to befriend a man when she’s a married woman?
Of course, I’m not going to spoil the plot here, but let’s just say I was kept guessing throughout and I would never in a million Sundays have solved the crime in question. The ending, when it comes, is genius.
There’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, which makes it thrilling to read. And the prose, eloquent and stripped back to the bare minimum, ensures minimal effort is required…yet it is not without important detail and it is those little details — two lonely people adrift in a Parisian Christmas — that give this book its special appeal.
But above all, A Bird in a Cage is a masterpiece of plotting and of narrative pacing and is so packed with suspense it’s a wonder the pages don’t explode out of their binding as soon as you open the book. This is definitely a must-read for those who like their crime on the tense and intelligent side. This was my first Frédéric Dard; it won’t be my last.