Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, July 20, 2012: Georges Simenon

There is a possibility I may be out most of the day, so if your post was not up at nine, it may not go up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was born in Liege, Belgium. As a young man he worked as a baker, journalist, and bookseller and published his first novel at seventeen. He went on to write more than two hundred novels, becoming one of the world's most prolific and bestselling authors. His books have sold more than 500 million copies and have been translated into fifty languages.

Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine.

As an indication of how long something can sit on my TBR pile, I bought this book in 1985 at the second Borders store to come into existence. The receipt was still inside. And I have many books purchased even earlier. Heck I have some I bought before my wedding.

This was actually Simenon's 10th or so book although he wrote it in 1932, the second year of publishing books. Apparently he wrote a book in about three weeks, roughly the time it takes me to write a story. Good thing I don't support this family.

I have read perhaps a dozen Simenons, but this is one of only a couple Maigrets. I found this an enigmatic book in many ways. (Incidentally this book has had many titles over the years).

It begins with a man's execution, a man who will not rat on his accomplices. To satisfy the policeman (Maigret), he gives him some information on another crime--a man that drowned in the Seine a few years earlier. White Maigret thinks this over, trying to find out who drowned and the circumstances of the crime, he goes to buy a hat and overhears a man mention the tavern near where this crime took place.

He follows the man and becomes enmeshed with a group of people that hang out there. A strange Linkgroup that initially is holding a mock wedding. Maigret, who is supposed to join his wife for a holiday (and this is a running joke in the novel), can't stay away from his new friends and their afternoon imbibing. It is only when one is murdered that the case begins.

The solving of the case is not particularly interesting but his fascination with this group carries the story. I would certainly not rank this Maigret with some of the excellent standalones I have read by him. But I wanted to try a Maigret...and I did.

Georges Simenon, The 13 Culprits (Crippen & Landru, 2002; original French edition, 1931).

Georges Simenon, The Little Doctor (Harcourt, 1981; original French edition, 1943).

Jeff Meyerson

As some of you may know I’ve read over 100 books by Simenon since my first Maigret (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) in January of 1972, including every Maigret that is available in English. I thought of doing the short stories - many of the Maigret stories have appeared in Maigret’s Christmas and Maigret’s Pipe, but I decided to do these two other short story collections instead, on the grounds that I doubt many of you have read them.

In the period of 1929-30 just before Maigret came forth, Simenon wrote three other series of short tales, originally published under his ‘Georges Sim’ pseudonym. They are Les 13 Mysteres (The 13 Mysteries), Les 13 Enigmes (The 13 Enigmas) and the current volume, Les 13 Coupables (translated by Peter Schulman and published in their entirety in English for the first time here).

The stories were originally published in two parts in the French magazine Detective, first the problem without the solution, which readers were invited to try and solve, and then two weeks later the author’s solution. The detective in this series was the shrewd examining magistrate Judge Froget, who questioned the thirteen “culprits” in the various stories. While I wouldn’t call these vintage Simenon they provide a look into his writing just before Maigret burst on the scene and give a picture of late 1920’s Paris at the lower end of society.

The Little Doctor, as country doctor Jean Dollent is affectionately called, is something very different, more your traditional Golden Age type stories set in the French countryside. These are classic “puzzle” stories and the doctor has a definite knack for solving them. I got my really nice first edition in dust jacket some years ago - I read the book 12 years ago - but I just checked ABE and there are paperback copies and ex-library hardbacks available for around $5.00. It’s well worth checking out.

ACROSS THE STREET by Georges Simenon

(Review by Deb)

About me: I was a technical writer for the better part of two decades, and then I became a stay-at-home mom for several years. Then I went back to work in the public school system. I currently work in a high school special education classroom with severely autistic students. It is challenging work, but very rewarding. I love to read across all genres, but mysteries are my favorite.

ACROSS THE STREET puts us firmly in REAR WINDOW territory, but with a definite Gallic flavor. Yes, a murder is committed (or, more accurately, a death that could have been prevented isn't) and, yes, it is observed by a neighbor from an opposite window; but just when we think we know where the story is going, Simenon upends our expectations in this non-Maigret novel first published in English in 1945 (but, based on a few references in the book, taking place some time in the 1930s).

In a Parisian neighborhood where facing buildings have floor-to-ceiling windows, we meet Dominique Sales, a poor spinster approaching forty. Although she comes from a large, extended family, Dominique chooses to live alone in the small apartment where she nursed her widowed father through his final illness several years before. Poverty has forced Dominique to rent her spare bedroom to a newlywed couple, Albert and Lina. Although the sound of their vibrant love-making upsets her, she is not above spying on them through the keyhole. Dominique does not confine her voyuerism to her tenants, however. Aside from repetitively darning her few items of clothing and remembering her childhood as the petted daughter of a military man and his delicate wife, Dominique's only pastime is watching the lives of her neighbors from the large open windows of her bedroom. In this manner, she becomes obsessed with the Rouets, a wealthy family who live in the building "across the street."

The Rouet family consists of an older couple who live in the third-floor apartment and their adult son and his wife, Antoinette, who live in the apartment on the second floor directly facing Dominique's own. Although she has no other interactions with any of them, Dominique constructs entire lives for the Rouet family based on what she observes through the open windows. Simenon so seamlessly weaves Dominique's fantasies into the action of the book that it is easy to forget that almost everything we read about the Rouets is complete conjecture on Dominique's part, the projections of her own imagination.

The Rouet son is frequently ill and requires regular medication, which Dominque sees Antoinette dispensing at regular intervals throughout the day. One afternoon, Dominique observes Antoinette deliberately withholding her husband's medication, and, unsurprisingly, he dies soon after. Everyone assumes the husband died as a result of his illness, only Dominique knows the truth. For several days the street is clogged with a steady stream of people coming to pay their respects. Joining the crowd of mourners, Dominique manages to get into the Rouet's apartment. Once there, she speaks to no member of the family, but examines more closely the rooms she has previously seen only from across the street. This visit helps Dominique formulate even more vivid fantasies of how the Rouets live their lives.

Not long after the husband's funeral, almost against her will (and with much the same compulsion as she feels to spy on Albert and Lina), Dominique sends Antoinette two anonymous letters of the "I know what you did" variety. At this point, we think we know what is going to happen--the women will meet, there will be attempted blackmail, perhaps another murder, and a twist ending. But this is Georges Simenon not Cornell Woolrich, and it is from here that the book becomes less one of psychological suspense and more one of domestic melodrama (in the best sense of the word) involving the crumbling psyches of both Dominique and Antoinette.

Although we're never sure if the anonymous letters have had any effect on Antoinette, her life is spiraling downward as she attempts to prevent her in-laws from discovering that she is frequently slipping out of the apartment to meet a man in a nearby hotel. Meanwhile Dominique doesn't just continue watching the Rouets from her window but starts following Antoinette to her trysts, keeping her distance but knowing exactly where Antoinette is at all times. She also begins following Antoinette's father-in-law to both his place of business and his furtive back-alley rendezvous with underaged prostitutes. Dominique never confronts the objects of her obsession--it is enough for her to observe them and then develop her own fantasies of what they are doing, saying, thinking, feeling.

As Dominique's hold on reality slips away, so does Antoinette's hold on the respectability and security represented by her wealthy in-laws. Neither woman seems capable of stopping the self-inflicted damage of her compulsive behaviors: Dominique can't stop spying on Antoinette, even while she loses connection with her family and her tenants; and Antoinette can't stop the reckless pursuit of her lover, even at the risk of exposure.

As the action accelerates, the writing becomes downright halloucinatory: Events from Dominique's past (did she ever love her father? why was her mother so sad? what happened between her parents the year she was seven?) begin to blend with her present life. She also believes she has been visited (perhaps even touched sexually) by the ghost of an old neighbor. Meanwhile, Antoinette loses her lover and desperately takes up with another man, brazenly bringing him back to her apartment at night even though it means certain discovery by the in-laws she has tried so hard to placate.

What will happen between the two women--the watcher and the watched? Will there ever be a confrontation between them? How will their two lives converge and resolve themselves? As the book speeds to its conclusion, we know only one thing--it cannot, will not, end well for either woman.

Ed Gorman is the author of the Dev Conrad series of political crime novels and the Sam McCain series of fifties-sixties crime novels. You can find him here.

The Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon

The early Maigret detective novels by Georges Simenon bear the stamp of the busy pulp writer he was before finding his voice and mission with the cranky even surly Commissaire.

In The Yellow Dog, a particularly well-plotted crime novel, Maigret travels to the small coastal town of Concarneau where a local wine merchant has been murdered under mysterious circumstances. According to a witness the man was strolling home on a windy night and paused to walk up steps leading to the narrow sheltered porch of a long empty house. Moments later the man fell backwards, dead from the shots.

Once there Maigret meets the four men and one waitress who seem to know much more than they're willing to share with him. He also sees a large yellow dog that keeps appearing at the crime scenes to come. Maigret feels a kinship with the animal which is more than he can say for anybody he meets in the town.

Where did the dog come from? Why does he keep showing up at such odd moments? Does he belong to the person who by book's end kills more people?

This is a serial killer novel. Simenon even casts the local newspaper as one of the villains. The editor has a history of exploiting bad news to the point of making each local tragedy worse. And the killings are no exception. Simenon suggests that it is sop for Frenchmen to a) have mistresses and b) go about armed. Both are factors in the investigation.

Most of the elements of classic Maigret are here. The weather is as vivid as the characters; Simenon buttresses his sociological look at French life with bleak humor; and his pity for decent people life has treated badly borders on the religious along with his contempt for pomposity and self-importance and cruelty.

There is always a claustrophobic feel to the Maigrets; this allows the reader to experience what the Inspector himself does. I enjoy Dame Agatha but as a forlorn chronicler of humankind Simenon is her superior.

Sergio Angelini
Bill Crider
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Steve Lewis
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Kerrie Smith
Prashant Trikannad
John Weagly

And other forgotten books

Joe Barone
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Curt Evans
Margot Kinberg
Rob Kitchin
Evan Lewis
Ron Scheer
Michael Slind
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang


Jerry House said...

In an old interview with 60 MINUTES, it was reported that Simenon would write a book in nine day.

Anonymous said...

Well this week worked out really well, I thought. It looks like only one book was reviewed twice. Of course with 200 or so available perhaps that is not so surprising....

For those who want to know more about Simenon or Maigret or just get a more complete list of titles, you should check out the site mentioned on Jerry's blog (which doesn't seem to want to let me link to it). It's got a wealth of information.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

try it now.

Jeff M.

J F Norris said...

I was convinced with over 200 books to his name there would be absolutely no duplicate reviews for Simenon. But... Two for The Yellow Dog! Must be one of those very easy to find books.

J F Norris said...

Deb's review is extremely interesting to me because I didn't think Simenon wrote a single book from a woman's point of view. Very intriguing. Have to track that one down.

Gerard said...

I never got to reading a Simenon. I had my weeks confused and was in the middle of another novel.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm not sure I've even heard of this writer, or the Maragit? If he wrote that fast it certainly doesn't make me want to get to know him better.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Many of his books were absolute classics in crime fiction.

Todd Mason said...

Simenon and John Creasey (read his Gideon books) were famously quick writers...and Robert Silverberg has been known to write good long work in a week, Isaac Asimov similarly, Barry Malzberg, under pressure, to write an impressive short novel in a day. Lingering over the work, particularly during the writing itself, is no measure of quality. Not every writer is as sloppy as Stephen King or Anne Rice, and they are no speed-demons.