Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday, December 14, 2012

Not exactly a forgotten book since C.J. Box's BLUE HEAVEN won the Edgar in 2009. But I have been meaning to read it and since I did, here is my review. This is a masterful book that manages to tell a fairly complex story in a completely lucid way. There is no fat in the story. It takes place over 48 hours and you can feel those hours ticking by at breakneck speed.
Two kids in northern Idaho watch the murder of a man, see that they've been spotted and are immediately on the run. They are lucky enough to find themselves in the barn of Jess Rawlins, a rancher who is one of the few good men left in his neck of the woods. He is also a hardluck guy who has lost almost everything. But Jess must hide the kids, figure out if their story is true, and determine just who the murderers are and why. Can he trust that what they think they saw really happened. And is it fair to keep the kids away from their worrying mother.
Blue Heaven is a term for the part of northern Idaho that is now a haven for ex-policeman. And some of those ex-policemen have taken over Jess's town for their own purposes. The is an exciting read and a nice introduction to this part of the country. Not a false step in the story and Box creates great villains and great heroes. Not an easy thing to do.

THE WIDOWER by Georges Simenon
(Review by Deb)
“He had just learned too much of the truth, all at once.”  --From THE WIDOWER
As much as I enjoy Simenon’s work, I occasionally find myself wishing he had spent more time developing the characters and expanding the action in some of his books.  He wrote at an incredibly fast pace and, as a result, sometimes his books seem abbreviated, ending abruptly without resolution.  THE WIDOWER (first published in 1959) is actually a case where the rapid-fire forward motion of the plot works in the book’s favor, because it gives the reader a sense of how reality is ceaselessly bombarding a man who has spent much of his life retreating from that very thing.  The book’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery, piling up of newly-uncovered facts upon facts, and the ambiguous ending perfectly reflect what is happening to the main character, a man who lacks the wherewithal to analyze or completely understand the devastating trauma that has taken place in his life.
At six in the evening on a busy Paris street, a commercial artist named Bernard Jeantet walks home in a very deliberate fashion (we later learn that one of his legs is shorter than the other and he walks with great care to hide it).  When he enters his apartment, he discovers that his wife, Jeanne, is not there.  His anxiety at her absence seems at first excessive—but, as he questions the concierge of his apartment building and an upstairs neighbor, we begin to understand that it was not only unusual for Jeanne not to be home when her husband returned from work, it has in fact never happened in the eight years of their marriage.  We also come to realize, as Bernard does not, that other people seem to know more about his wife’s movements than he does.
The very title of this book lets us know right away that Jeanne will not be walking back through the door to alleviate her husband’s growing panic.  Indeed, she is already dead—having committed suicide earlier in the day in a room at a luxe hotel known for its accommodation of trysting couples.  But neither Bernard nor the reader is aware of this and we follow Bernard’s efforts to locate his wife over the next few days (including reporting her missing to the police) while we learn in flashbacks of how the stolid Bernard and the pretty, decade-younger Jeanne came to meet and be married.
Eight years before, Jeanne was working as a prostitute in a run-down hotel across from Bernard’s apartment building.  From his window one evening, Bernard sees her being beaten and slashed by a pimp and comes to her rescue—literally picking her up from the gutter and bringing her to his tiny apartment to recuperate.  During Jeanne’s convalescence, the couple develops a (mostly non-sexual) relationship and eventually they marry.  A local police inspector, Gordes (possibly a Maigret stand-in, being described as rather large and a pipe smoker, with a somewhat cynical outlook), warns Bernard that marriage to a former prostitute will not be successful, but for eight years Bernard believes it has been.
After he marries Jeanne, not wanting to expose her to questions from others about her past life, Bernard cuts off most of the already limited contact he had with his family; and there is no indication that, apart from work colleagues, he ever had a close friend either before or after his marriage.  Jeanne does develop a friendship with the older woman who lives upstairs, but for the most part the couple lives in quiet solitude in the small apartment.  Gratitude on Jeanne’s part for Bernard’s kindness and concern on Bernard’s part that even the slightest disruption in their everyday routine would cause problems lead them to an extremely circumscribed existence.  Simenon carefully shows us what Bernard apparently can’t see—that he has effectively smothered and imprisoned his wife in a two-room apartment.
Bernard’s disabled legs are symbolic of his life:  Although he has learned to walk in a deliberate way that hides his disability, he still has damaged legs; much as while he navigates the elements of “normal” life, he is still a detached man whose only aspiration, beyond making sure that every day transpires just like every other day, is to create a new typeface that he will call the “Jeantet.”   Much of his spare time is spent on the development of this typeface and the apartment walls are covered with Bernard’s prototype letters—and not a single photograph of Jeanne.  Other than shopping for groceries, cooking meals, cleaning the apartment, and spending time with the upstairs neighbor, we do not know what Jeanne does with her time—and neither does Bernard.  It is enough for her incurious husband to know that Jeanne will be there, in the apartment, waiting for him, every evening when he returns from work.
When Jeanne’s body, clad in a white negligee upon a bed strewn with rose petals, is eventually discovered, Bernard feels compelled to understand what has happened—although he still does not see how any action on his part might have driven his wife back to her previous way of life, to a point where eventually she believed she had no other alternative than to kill herself.  As Bernard navigates the complex French bureaucracy for notifying the authorities of Jeanne’s death and arranging for her funeral (Simenon’s description of this overly-complicated procedure is incredibly detailed and feels utterly authentic), he encounters hostility from Jeanne’s money-hungry parents and almost everyone else he meets who is connected in any way to Jeanne.  Bernard doesn’t question the cause of their hostility any more than he responds to the kindhearted condolences offered by his boss.  Bernard’s desire to know what has caused Jeanne’s suicide is at odds with his inability to process information that forces him to look at life in a different way.  As Inspector Gorges notes, Bernard cannot cope with things that “failed to fit in with reality as he knew it.”
With some “unofficial” help from Gorges, Bernard eventually pieces together enough of Jeanne’s story to come to acceptance of her suicide—as to coming to an understanding of it…well, that’s another thing altogether.  (We discover on the book’s last page that no one, including the reader, will ever know Jeanne’s entire story.)  Oddly enough, through Jeanne’s death, Bernard is reunited with his brother and sister-in-law; there is also a hint that Bernard might try to see his mother and his sister again.  He even seriously considers the possibility of providing a home for a young orphan boy being fostered by the upstairs neighbor—although the neighbor has qualms, as does the reader.  Yes, Bernard has changed somewhat as the result of his wife’s suicide; but if he will ever be able to connect with anyone in a meaningful way—that is left for us to decide.

Sergio Angelini
Joe Barone
Les Blatt
Brian Busby
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Curt Evans
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
Nick Jones
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Gerard Saylor
Ron Scheer
Michael Slind
Kevin Tipple


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Sounds great Patti - I remember reading about it when ti won but havbe never owned a copy - hope to remedy that in 2013 ...

Joe Barone said...

Gosh. I used to love to read Simenon. There are so many authors I'd like to go back and read again.

Anonymous said...

Patti - You've mentioned two authors whose work I really like. Very different as writers but both very talented.

Ron Scheer said...

I'll have to give Box another try. I read his first novel and liked his game warden hero, but the story was too predictable. Thanks for the review.