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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Thugs and Bottles

San Antonio

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To purchase Thugs and Bottles

Title: Thugs and Bottles
Author: San Antonio
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960 (Eng. 1969)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Thugs and Bottles - US
Thugs and Bottles - UK
Thugs and Bottles - Canada
Du brut pour les brutes - Canada
Du brut pour les brutes - France
Piccola siberia sulla Senna - Italia
  • French title: Du brut pour les brutes
  • Translated by Cyril Buhler
  • Volume 39 in the series

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Our Assessment:

B : zips along nicely with the exuberant wordplay, if ultimately falling short, plot-/satisfaction-wise, in this translation/edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Thugs and Bottles is one of the (many) novels Frédéric Dard wrote as, and in the voice of, San-Antonio, the police Superintendent with a literary bent. Also called 'San-An' or simply 'San-A', he's a sharp policeman who stands in contrast to his underlings, especially near polar opposite sidekick Detective Sergeant Bérurier:

     Bérurier !
     The unique, extraordinary, ubiquitous Berry. Berry with his cheeks, his greasy hat, his ill-shaven beard, his gaze dulled by rough red wine; Berry the beefer, Berry the beast, Berry the bully, Berry the Baron of B.O., as deaer to me as life and job rolled into one.
       San-Antonio is a pro, and while he's fairly serious on his job he shows a lighter (and self-deprecating) touch in his narration. But, above all, he loves his wordplay -- something that makes the San-Antonio novels difficult to translate, and explains why this French phenomenon -- these books sell millions in France -- never truly was able to make much of an impression abroad. As he warns in an aside only a few pages in here: "you may have noticed my liking for alliteration, you'll be getting more than you can stand".
       Translator Cyril Buhler gamely goes all-in in imitation of San-Antonio's style, and though it presumably strays from the French in many particulars, he captures the (often crude) sparkle and wit of the original well. If not exactly the French San-Antonio experience, readers nevertheless are in for a similar, and similarly wild, ride.
       Yes, one reads the San-Antonio books for the action -- which is good, hard, and fast -- and the plots -- contrived but certainly engaging -- but what sets them apart is the bubbling language, of which the narrator can't get -- or offer -- enough. San-Antonio/Dard has good fun with it, and the approach as a whole -- down to the self-aware parenthetical observation at one point:
How d'ye like that simile, eh ? I'm being particularly careful about style these days, pruning and repruning. That way, the day I get elected to the Academy of French Letters those spiteful, envious journalists will have nothing to protest about.
       It's not all overblown verbosity, either: San-Antonio knows how to dose it. Okay, not completely -- there's a steady flow throughout, an attempted pun or alliteration in seemingly every other odd sentence, but there's a definite (and welcome) pulling back to more straightforward narrative -- still peppered with wordplay -- and only the occasional pull-out-all-the-stops section, such as this description of Bérurier taking over an interrogation after San-Antonio's more traditional (and hands-off) approach didn't get anywhere:
     So Berry starts in with exercise B in the Muscling Manual. You can find it just after the introduction by Professor Mickey Finn of the Assault and Battery Faculty of the College of Clubberee. Berry gives him the whole chapter on Gilliganery, including his own personal comments on the graphs and colour illustrations.
     Igor's façade is flying right ... left ... and centre. The blows rain, the scorchers shower ... The Rusky reefs in his mainsail and waits for the cyclone to pass. After all, he's been spending some time in Siberia and has seen a storm or two ...
       Thugs and Bottles begins with San-Antonio assigned to follow a Russian, Boris Alliachev, whom Interpol has pointed out to the French authorities. The novel opens with San-Antonio having dinner at the Russian joint where Boris is eating. The policeman is eventually distracted by a damsel in distress and by the time he's chivalrously helped out, Boris has disappeared. He doesn't think it will be that hard to get back on the Russian's trail, but in fact it is, and San-Antonio won't come across him again until late in the story -- too late, at least for Boris. But meanwhile there's at least the grateful damsel, who lets San-Antonio bring her home and welcomes him in -- at least for a dalliance, if not the night.
       When San-Antonio's car won't start he knocks on her door again and she generously offers him the use of her fancy sports car (rather than letting him stay over). Soon enough San-Antonio finds himself being tailed, shot at, and the car blown to smithereens. The open question, once he wakes up in hospital, is whether he was the target, or the car (i.e. its owner).
       Returning to the previous night's scene -- even if unable to return the car, which is in bits -- San-Antonio discovers that the woman he met misled him, impressively, in a variety of ways. Not as to her identity, however -- and the car registration (about all that was left of the vehicle) leads him and as his assistants to her father's run-down estate, out in the country. The Count -- yes, she, and he, are of nobility -- unfortunately, can't be very helpful, as they find him an apparent suicide.
       Eventually making his way back to the restaurant, San-Antonio finds more things that weren't quite what they seem -- and then at the Count's funeral, where he also hopes to cross paths again with the mystery woman who seems to be tangled up in all this, he makes the disconcerting (re)discovery of the Count's corpse in a place other than where it should be (that casket).
       It's a decent mix of mystery and thriller, with some good action and clever turns. Alas, it is ultimately a bit unsatisfying because San-Antonio -- or rather the English publisher -- doesn't quite play fair here with the rules and expectations of the genre; to say things are left unresolved would be putting it mildly. (Apparently, there's more to the book -- suggested in the conclusion here, and in the fact that the French edition has more pages -- but UK publisher Sphere cut things off rather abruptly, without mention of there being a companion volume or sequel (and while they did publish several other titles in the series, the two I have don't continue the story, and it doesn't sound like the others do either).)
       As such, Thugs and Bottles is not really the ideal San-Antonio-in-English to start with, the conclusion (not really being a/the conclusion ...) simply not tidy enough, at least for conventional expectations. But then most of the pleasure of these novels is in the ride rather any actual resolution, and in this respect it certainly doesn't disappoint. It's a bit silly -- sounding even more so because the translation is also of course dated, but even that's part of its peculiar charm.
       The wordplay and San-Antonio's jaded but twinkling eye may not be for everyone, but it really is quite good fun. But you're better off starting off with another (of the few available in English) in the series.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 April 2019

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Thugs and Bottles: Frédéric Dard: Other books by Frédéric Dard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Frédéric Dard (1921-2000) is best known for his 'San-Antonio' novels.

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