Translated by Helen Weaver
Review by Annabel, 22 August 2019
I had never heard of Sébastien Japrisot before reading this book, and wasn’t surprised to discover that he has been nicknamed ‘The Graham Greene of France.’ Japrisot, who died in 2003, was an author, screenwriter and director, which didn’t surprise me, for from the start this book was a strongly cinematic read; I could imagine it up on the big screen. Indeed it has been filmed twice: in 1970 with Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed, directed by Anatole Litvak and a French 2015 remake. However, in my vision as I read, unaware of these adaptations, it could only be Alfred Hitchcock directing…
The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun was published in 1966, with Weaver’s English translation coming a couple of years later. The Introduction to this new Gallic Books edition by Christian House gives us a flavour of Japrisot’s life and career and certainly makes me want to read more. Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, from the late 1970s, is also available from Gallic Books who are responsible for bringing him back into print in translation.
The novel is mainly narrated by Dany Longo, a secretary in a Parisian advertising agency. She describes herself to us:
My name is Dany Longo. Marie Virginie Longo, to be exact. I made up Danielle when I was a child. I have lied all my life. Now, I wouldn’t mind Virginie, but it would be hard to explain.
My legal age is twenty-six, my mental age eleven or twelve. I am five feet six inches tall, I have dirty blond hair which I dye once a month with hydrogen peroxide, I am not ugly but I wear glasses – with tinted lenses, darling, so that no one will realise I am short-sighted – but everyone does, stupid – and the thing I am best at is keeping my mouth shut.
She is persuaded by her boss to work late into the small hours at his house, typing a manuscript for him to take to a meeting the next day. Having ascertained she has a driving licence, her boss asks her to take him and his wife to the airport in the morning too. She agrees to all this reluctantly; the extra money will be useful.
The next day after just a few hours sleep, Dany is confronted by a huge American classic car – a Thunderbird – she’s never driven the like before. What would be wrong with a taxi? Still, she soon gets the hang of driving it. Having dropped them off at Orly, she is set to return the car, but – decides to go for a little jaunt first, and then the idea of a little jaunt becomes a weekend in the South. She can still get the car back before he returns.
So far, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, but you know that as soon as Dany’s plans change that there will be consequences. The first level of suspense has now been set with her borrowing the car, and Japrisot increases it with every encounter on her journey. On her way to the autoroute, she stops for a coffee and the old crone who runs the café brings her a coat, which she left there the previous day while her car was being mended at the garage down the road.
Perplexed she goes to the garage to top up the tank, and is attacked in the garage’s bathroom, her hand is injured. She didn’t see her attacker at all. The chaps in the garage deny that they were involved or that they saw anyone. The owner produces a receipt from the repair the day before. Tired from her late night and confused by the attack and injury, Dany begins to get a little paranoid. She doesn’t turn back though; she is determined to reach the coast, however strange these events have been.
Eventually she has to stop for the night, and once again meets more people she supposedly encountered the day before. What is going on? I couldn’t possibly say more, but the psychological pressures on Dany mount and mount. I couldn’t help but recall scenes of Janet Leigh driving in the film Psycho as I read this section.
The book is written in four sections – each taking its lead from the novel’s title – ‘The Lady’, ‘The Car’, and so on. As we read, we discover Dany’s own life story, and how she reinvented herself, making her a morally ambiguous character which adds to the intrigue. If you decide to read the book, you’ll have to decide for yourself how reliable she is as a narrator. The other characters, who only have supporting roles – some of which happen twice as we’ve seen – are more one dimensional, leaving Dany to be star of the book.
This translation has a great period feel to it, often being slightly formal and clipped, or by contrast, with long rambling multi-claused sentences. If the visuals smack of Hitchcock, the words do have a sense of Greene, although they are not as honed. At under 250 pages, the suspense is well-sustained through the complexities of the plot, and the denouement, which inevitably comes at a pace towards the end, offers yet more twists.
This classic thriller was a very satisfying summer read. I’d highly recommend it.
Annabel is one of the editors or Shiny New Books, and also blogs at AnnaBookBel.
Sébastien Japrisot, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (Gallic, 2019). 978-1910477724, 240pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.